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Buddhist meditation practices have become a topic of widespread interest in both science and medicine. Traditional Buddhist formulations describe meditation as a state of relaxed alertness that must guard against both excessive hyperarousal (restlessness) and excessive hypoarousal (drowsiness, sleep). Modern applications of meditation have emphasized the hypoarousing and relaxing effects without as much emphasis on the arousing or alertness-promoting effects. In an attempt to counterbalance the plethora of data demonstrating the relaxing and hypoarousing effects of Buddhist meditation, this interdisciplinary review aims to provide evidence of meditation's arousing or wake-promoting effects by drawing both from Buddhist textual sources and from scientific studies, including subjective, behavioral, and neuroimaging studies during wakefulness, meditation, and sleep. Factors that may influence whether meditation increases or decreases arousal are discussed, with particular emphasis on dose, expertise, and contemplative trajectory. The course of meditative progress suggests a nonlinear multiphasic trajectory, such that early phases that are more effortful may produce more fatigue and sleep propensity, while later stages produce greater wakefulness as a result of neuroplastic changes and more efficient processing.
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Asymmetry of waking electroencephalography (EEG) alpha power in frontal regions has been correlated with waking emotional reactivity and the emotional content of dream reports. Little is known regarding alpha asymmetry during sleep. The present study was performed to compare alpha power and alpha power asymmetry in various brain regions across states of sleep and wakefulness. Waking and sleep EEG were recorded in a group of patients undergoing polysomnographic evaluation for possible sleep disorders. Alpha EEG asymmetry in frontal and temporal regions was significantly correlated in waking versus sleep, particularly during rapid eye movement (REM) sleep. These results suggest that patterns of frontal alpha asymmetry are stable across sleep and waking and may be related to emotional reactivity during dreaming. During sleep, alpha power was highest during slow-wave sleep and lowest during REM sleep. Implications of these data for understanding the functional significance of alpha power during waking and sleeping are considered.
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