Admit it, sometimes when you’re meditating you think to yourself, “Why don’t I just go to sleep instead?” There’s no shame in that! In fact, that’s part of the point of meditation—to rest and relax the mind—but sleep and meditation don’t affect the mind in the same way.
Here’s a more in-depth look at what happens to the brain during sleep vs a meditative state.
The Difference Between Meditation and Sleep
The key difference between meditation and sleep is the mind’s alertness. When meditating, we focus our mind on any number of things: our breathing, compassion, stress-reduction, critical thinking, or visualizing our goals. Focused meditation is active and alert.(1)
During sleep our conscious mind takes a break, but that doesn’t mean the brain isn’t at work. On the contrary, many neurophysical changes occur while you sleep. Studies suggest that while you are dozing off, the brain is hard at work re-sculpting our synaptic landscape—organizing our memories and influencing our behaviour. Needless to say, sleep is a complex system that we continue to research. (2)
How Are Meditation and Sleep Similar?
We’ve all had an experience of trying to ‘force’ ourselves to sleep, but it just doesn’t work— we ‘fall’ asleep, we don’t ‘jump’ asleep.
Meditation can help reduce stress and can reduce the effects of memory loss. It can even help you sleep: in some studies, meditation practices have shown to increase melatonin levels – a hormone made in the brain that controls our sleep cycles. Melatonin production is mostly affected by the amount of natural light your body absorbs, but also certain foods. (3)(4)(5)
The neurons in your brain create electrical pulses that are visualized in EEG form as repetitive waves. These wave cycles, also called frequencies, are measured as Hz, or hertz. “Brainwaves” exist at 6 different frequencies. (6) (7)
Slow Wave Activity: 0.5 – 2 Hz in frontal regions of the brain
Delta Waves: 0-4 Hz
Theta Waves: 4-8 Hz
Alpha Waves: 8-13 Hz
Beta Waves: 13-32 Hz
Gamma Waves: 32-100 Hz
Different waves represent different types of brain activity, but what we’re most interested in are alpha and theta waves.
- Alpha waves occur when the eyes are closed and the mind is relaxed. Sound familiar? Yes, just like when we’re meditating, but also when we’re about to fall asleep.
- Theta waves fire when we’re dreaming—but they also occur when we’re in a state of deep meditation, or when we have relaxed attention. (6) (8)
No amount of meditating can completely replace our body’s need for sleep— it’s a tool, not an alternative. Sleep is like a scrub for your brain— sleep helps the brain clean out many toxic by-products, and a chemical called beta-amyloid which can cause Alzheimer’s if allowed to build-up. (9)
Understanding The 4 Stages Of Sleep
Mathew Walker, author of “Why We Sleep” explains that we travel through 5 different and distinct stages of sleep. It takes about 90 minutes to complete one full sleep cycle (consisting of these five stages) and we usually have several cycles a night.
A common practice to measure sleep is through EEG (electroencephalogram) where researchers can detect electrical impulses in the brain. These impulses show patterns of frequency that relate to our sleep stages and can be defined as N1, N2, N3 & N4, and REM. (10)
Sleep stages are separated into two categories:
- REM sleep: REM stands for Rapid Eye Movement and is the time when we experience most of our dreams.
- Non-REM: Does not have rapid eye movement and is primarily slower wave activity.
The Sleep Stages:
- Brainwaves in the waking state are almost like a chaotic and asynchronous drum beat. Compared to all other stages of sleeping, being awake shows the highest frequency of brainwave patters. Eye movements include blinks if they’re open and slow movement if they’re closed. (10)
- N1 is a brief period where we are just beginning to fall asleep. It is easy to be woken up in stage 1 and your brain is still pretty active. The EEG shows reduced electrical activity in the brain during stage 1 – about 4 – 7 Hz. (11)
- N2 lasts longer than stage 1 but is still considered ‘light sleep‘. Stage 2 consists of 2 very important function: Sleep Spindles and K-Complexes. Sleep spindles are visualized in EEG as sudden bursts of brain activity, and are believed to mediate memory consolidation and cortical development. K complexes are sharp, high amplitude waves that are associated with extensive signals in primary sensory cortices and are believed to be triggered by external sensory stimuli. Stage 2 is the beginning of NREM sleep. (12)(13)(14)
- N3 is the first stage that can be considered ‘deep sleep.’ You are difficult to wake up, and EEG results show your brain is producing slowed brainwave frequency and an increase in delta waves. Stage 3 sleep introduces slow, rhythmic breathing— snoring. (15)
- REM: While all prior stages have activity in the lower frequency ranges, in REM the EEG shows brain activity ramp way up, similar to readings when the brain is awake. The eyes move rapidly, hence the acronym, and the brain’s neurotransmitters “switch off” the cells that allow muscles to move, effectively paralyzing the dreamer. (16)(17)
In 2002, a Tibetan monk named Mingyur Rinpoche visited the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds in Wisconsin. There, researchers placed dozens of sensors on the monk’s shaved scalp and used an EEG (electroencephalogram) machine to record his brain waves while he meditated. (18)
Mingyur was given meditation instructions while the researchers monitored his brain waves. As the monk began to meditate, the EEG registered massive spikes in brain waves, consistent with the patient physically moving. But the monk hadn’t moved— the spikes were the result of his meditations.
Remember when we talked about alpha and theta waves? Mingyur’s EEG scans revealed long, sustained gamma waves, the kind of brainwave that fire when you have a spark of creativity, or imagine something particularly visceral. For most people, gamma wave bursts last less than a second, but Minguyr’s lasted a minute or more.
Tips To Improve Each Sleep Stage
What can the EEG readings of the meditating monk teach us about how to improve our sleep? The readings show that the same brain waves that spike during sleep can be induced to spike during meditation.
Now, obviously, a Tibetan monk has considerable experience in meditation, but there are things the average meditator can do to improve their sleep:
N1 might be one the easiest stages to influence. During N1, melatonin is released naturally before bed, making you feel drowsy and less alert. It is also highly influenced by light exposure which is why reducing your exposure to artificial light, like computer and phone screens can encourage sleep. Surprisingly, meditation has shown to have a significant impact on the regulation of cortisol (stress hormone) and melatonin levels by way of reducing cortisol secretion and increasing levels of melatonin.(19)(20)(21)(22)
N2 is distinctly known for its characteristic of sleep spindles and k complexes which are theorized to keep your brain from engaging in active thought or waking up by external stimuli. Making sure your sleeping environment is optimized can help keep you asleep:
- Make sure your room isn’t too warm or too cold, around 20°C seems to be about right for most people, but adjust according to your needs. (23)
- If you only want to take a midday nap, try to wake up before you leave N2.
- Poor sleep can also be caused by external noise, like noise from the street outside or noisy neighbours. Do your best to eliminate these noises, or get yourself a white noise machine or sleeping aid app. Muse has just released a “Go-to-sleep” addition to the Muse app that includes journeys, soundscapes, and guidances to help you sleep. (24)
N3 As you get older, the amount of time you spend in N3, or deep sleep, decreases. Improving your diet and exercise can help keep you under for longer, as well as adjusting your bedtime to earlier, or even later, in the evening. Try to avoid sleep aids, medication, and alcohol, as these have wide-ranging effects on the quality of your sleep. Furthermore, meditation has shown to decrease EMG (Electromyography) results during deep sleep. In other words, the muscles in the body remain calmer. (25) (26)
REM sleep pretty much takes care of itself once you get into it. The most important thing you can do to protect your REM sleep is to make sure it isn’t interrupted, so following your body’s natural rhythms is important. Make sure you get 8 hours of uninterrupted sleep a night, and consider purchasing an alarm clock or app that wakes you up gradually, and with a soothing tone, within a set time period.
General Sleep Tips:
Mathew Walker, the author of “Why We Sleep” (10) suggests these four general tips to incorporate in your day:
- Develop a sleep schedule. Going to bed and waking up should be habitual.
- Avoid exercise 3 hours before bed.
- Avoid stimulants; coffee and nicotine.
- Avoid big meals before bed as digestion can interfere with your sleep.
Use critical thinking to find out what works for you.
Meditation can be a powerful tool to help you get better sleep, but it isn’t a replacement for sleep, nor is it the only thing that can improve your sleep. Proper diet & exercise; a calm, cool, and quiet sleeping environment; set meal and bedtimes; reducing the amount of alcohol and caffeine consumed at night— all of these things can have big impacts on your sleep.
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