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Biofeedback Affects Mindfulness Meditation

Publication date: 14 March 2012

This week I did a small experiment with myself using infra-red temperature neurofeedback (commonly known as HEG or hemoencephalography neurofeedback). I've been using biofeedback in support of my personal meditation practice for quite some time. One evening this week I connected myself to the sensor as usual, then simply recorded over a short period of mindfulness of breathing practice but without any feedback turned on (and the software not visible). The next evening I meditated again with the IR sensor connected, but this time with feedback.

You can see the results in the following two graphs.

The first one shows the no-feedback session. The IR temperature rises for a few minutes, then generally drops away. In contrast, the IR temperature rose consistently throughout the whole feedback-assisted session.

HEG during meditation without feedback HEG during mindfulness meditation with biofeedback

Let me clarify what I was actually doing in the feedback assisted session. I set up the software for threshold based audio feedback, meaning that a bell rang every time that the IR temperature started falling (strictly speaking it had to be falling for 3 seconds continuously before the bell rang.) I could also see the graph if I chose to open my eyes, which I occasionally did but mostly my eyes were closed.

The software also monitored my breathing rate, which was pretty consistent at around 6 breaths per minute throughout. I also set audio feedback to tell me if my breath sped up, as I know it tends to when I spin out into a more energetic train of thought. As it happens my breathing wasn't significantly different between the two practices.

I focused on my breath, but in a sense the breath was only a background focus – my real concern was to experience a clear and vivid awareness as continuously as possible. My aim was to maintain a sense of alertness, awakeness, as though something important were about to happen. I had clear motivation, a desire, even a drive to build and maintain a sense of mental energy, and yet at the same time it was a calm steady state rather than a frenetic or teeth-gritting intent.

In the no-feedback session my intent was the same, but I experienced much more distraction, in the form of drifting into a kind of dull day-dream or train of thought, which is very much my personal tendency. However I can say I made a genuine effort to meditate.

But what does the result actually prove?

Well it is certainly a long way from rigorous scientific experiment. In fact it's only one trial. However I would expect it could be repeated – I know I can in general maintain an upward trend when I'm practising with IR temperature feedback. (What's new is the no-feedback recording, and that's because I've only just upgraded the software to allow me to generate the whole session graphs.)

Does it mean that the feedback session was in some sense a “good” meditation while the no-feedback session was “bad”? Not really. Increasing the metabolic activation of the prefrontal cortex (which I assume is what I'm doing) is not my aim in meditation, and I don't suppose it is anyone else's either. As any student of mindfulness will know, we are trying to let go of the judging mind, so calling a meditation good or bad is really beside the point.

Can I say that undistracted concentration correlates with increasing IR temperature from the forehead? Not in any general sense. In the meditation I applied my mind in quite an intense, even forceful way. Not all meditations are like that. Commonly the aim in meditation is to calm the mind. I can easily imagine that it is possible to calm the mind and lower the brain's energy, at the same time as concentrating the mind.

What I can say is that I believe that this form of biofeedback helped me considerably in meeting my purpose in this particular practice, which was to hold my focus steady and energise my mind. When I looked at the graphs after the sessions I was happy to see they agreed with my subjective sense, that the feedback made a difference.

Whilst some people might be tempted to say it doesn't really matter if the mind wanders off a lot so long as you keep bringing it back, personally I'd far rather be concentrated than distracted.

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