My name is Fred Travis.  I am Director of the Center for Brain Consciousness and Cognition.  I was asked to speak about Brain Functioning and States of Consciousness Explored by Meditation.


States of consciousness are differentiated by mutually exclusive subjective experiences and defining brain patterns.


States of consciousness can be distributed across two dimensions—presence and absence of sense of self and mental content.


What is this, No sense of self and No mental content …. sleeping.  A good night’s sleep we sleep like a log—we place our head on the pillow, then loose awareness for 8 hours and wake up.


These images show decreasing activation of frontal areas of the brain during sleep. 


Frontal areas are the boss of the brain.  The CEO of the brain is here.

 All other brain areas send outputs  to the front of the brain.  Frontal areas put all these inputs together and decide our next step.



Sleep is a time of active repair of the brain.  While frontal areas overall are less active, other areas of the brain are more active.  The purpose of sleep is to repair the brain


Now what state of consciousness is here—no sense of self with mental content?...dreaming.

Dreams are characterized by vivid dream images, and the sense of self is usually completely identified with the experiences.


Dreaming is a  very active state.  The brain is as active as during waking.  As seen here, the frontal areas and the back parietal areas are less active—these are both part of the attention system by which we navigate the world.  During dreaming, we are cut off from the outside world

The visual areas and the limbic system are more active.  This underlies the bizarre, strong emotional images during dreaming.


Now what state of consciousness is here—a sense of self with mental content?...waking.


In waking there is a sense-of-self, an agent who is experiencing the world.  You are experiencing this webcast from your seat.  You are aware of the spatial area you are in, who is to the side and in front, and that pictures and sound are coming from this point of the room



In waking, different brain areas are active to support different experiences.

Top left is seeing words; the top right is hearing words, the bottom left is speaking words.  These areas receive input from sensory areas.

Notice this in the bottom right, generating words. This is a verb- noun task—you are given a verb and asked to generate a noun.  Notice generating mental output—thoughts--also uses a specific part of the brain


These are the brain areas used in a creative task.  Again it is the frontal areas. 

The front of the brain places concrete experiences into a larger symbolic space of time, of values, of memories, of goals.







A key point I’d like to bring out is that while experience creates a wave of electrical activity that moves across of the brain, at the same time it strengthens the connections between the neurons involved in that experience.

Everything we experience is imprinted on the structure and functioning of the brain. 

Let’s look at this.  It is important for understanding some dysfunctional behavior, such as dyslexia, and also understanding how meditation practice affects the brain and behavior.


This is a new idea in neuroscience.  It was thought that experienced changed the brain only in infancy.  Now it is know that experience changes the brain throughout life.

This is the hand of a gorilla.  There are known body maps of the hand in the brain.  Here was how the brain was activated before the experiment.

They researchers had a vibrator that touched these finger tips for 20 min a day for 3 months. 

Now see how the brain is activated. 

Do you see?  Now more of  the brain responds to touch through the fingers. 

The brain is a river and not a rock.  It continually changes to each experience


Experience changes the brain explains some clinical groups, such as dyslexia.


Dyslexia can be seen as a developmental disease.  If you learn to read by focusing on syllables rather than phonemes, then brain areas responsible for sounding out words would not be developed.

Meditation and SoC.jpg

ADHD, while not being an experiential disorder, is a developmental disorder—it is a lag in development of circuits between the boss of the brain, frontal areas, and motor areas.  So ADHD children can not regulate their behavior.



This brings us to the 4th box. 

Is this possible?  Sense of self without mental content?


Modern psychology says no.  How is it possible to be conscious without being conscious of something?  Consciousness always has an object.  Even William James said this.  Notice this is an objection from waking state of consciousness.  By definition, waking state has a state of awareness plus an object.


However,  some meditation practices lead to the experience of pure self-awareness, or pure consciousness.  The word “pure” is used here to denote consciousness without content.


To understand  this concept, we need to visualize the mind as having a vertical dimension.

Switch to Slide

Mind can be seen to have an vertical dimension, similar to a body of water.

These bubbles starting from the bottom represent a thought beginning as a faint feeling or hunch, and then as it rises in the mind it is affected by emotions, memories and expectations, until it reaches the surface of the mind and is appreciated as a thought on the surface.

 The surface of the water with the moving waves is where thoughts are picked up.  This is the focus of most education – time management, memory pneumonics, direction of attention.


Meditations that involve focus, attentional control, monitoring of experience are activities within waking state—they involve sense of self and control of or monitoring of mental content.

Meditations that transcend their own activity—the mental content of waking state—experience this state of pure self-awareness of pure consciousness.


These three categories are discussed in this recent paper along with their characteristic EEG signatures. 


Let’s look at the Transcendental Meditation technique, a technique that is designed to transcend it’s own activity.  We’ll look at TM because it is predicted to lead to this 4th state of self awareness without content.


Conceptually, we can understand TM as starting on the surface level of the mind,  and then learning how to appreciate a specific thought at earlier levels of development, until the mind settles down to pure self-awareness or pure consciousness —evaluation, thinking, planning has ceased but self-awareness is maintained.



We explored the subjective experience of pure self-awareness or pure consciousness  by asking 24 people to write a description of the “deepest experiences to TM practice.”  We asked them to describe this in their own words, and not use terms they have used.

Content analysis of their descriptions yielded three themes that describe this state:  absence of time, space and body sense.


Time, space and body sense are the framework that gives meaning to waking experience.  You are processing this lecture in terms of the time—it follows the talk by Dr Rosenthal; you are in this hall; and you are seating in your specific seat.  All experiences uses this framework to give the experience meaning. 

Notice this experience of a 4th state of consciousness, is not an altered state of waking—it is not in terms of bizrre content—rather they very framework that give smeaning to waking experiences has been transcended



This is what the body is doing.

Top tracings are EEG—frontal, center and back.  This line is breathing, this is heart rate, this is skin resistance.

Notice the breath going in and out, in and out,…out, and in and out.

The experience of pure self-awareness is associated with this time of suspension of normal respiration.  The reason this person is able to not breath fro 16 seconds, is because there is actually a slow inhale throughout this period—called apneustic breathing.


Coherence maps:

Each dot is  a location where EEG was recorded.  A line between dots indicates that those areas are working together 80% or more.

Notice localized areas are connected or coherent during a task.  The three frequency bands are: alpha—inner wakefulness (8-12Hz), beta—general task processing (13-20 Hz), and gamma—focused activity (20-50 Hz)


Coherence Maps during first 30 sec of TM

Notice there is no gamma coherence.  TM is not a process of concentration or control.  Note the high level of alpha coherence during TM


TM also results in higher frontal and parietal cerebral metabolic rate—the attention system, while the thalamus—the switchboard of sensory information—is more quiet


These three panels represent changes in brain integration –frontal coherence, global alpha, and brain preparatory response) in a random assignment study of college students.  Notice at pre test the two groups are the same  (blue—later learned TM; plum—they did not meditate over the semester)


Post test was 10 weeks later, just before finals week.


Note that brain integration increased in the TM group and went down in the control group.  This decrease in brain integration is the known effect of stress and fatigue on the brain


Negative psychological measures also significantly decreased; and positive psychological measures significantly increased in the TM subjects.


Bottom Line;