In 1992, neuroscientist Richard Davidson and the Dalai Lama teamed up to venture into territory never chartered by science or spirituality – to use cutting-edge tools in neuroscience to study the brain of Buddhist monks. What was it about a monk’s brain that made them so calm, compassionate, and happy compared to the rest of us?
Electrodes were fitted onto scalps, bodies placed into MRI machines, and a series of tests were run in an attempt to crack their mysterious meditation code. The result was nothing short of groundbreaking. They found a number of clear-cut differences in the brains of these meditation masters compared to mere mortals like you and me.
In the years to come, a tidal wave of research poured into meditation research, learning that this simple practice positively impacts things like stress, focus, mood, compassion, aggression, immune response, and more. Today meditation has gone mainstream and is looked at as a staple in upkeeping one’s health – like getting a proper nights rest, eating healthy, and exercising. Yet if most of us realize just how important it is, why are so few of us benefiting from the practice?
One reason this may be true is that of the arduous process required to glimpse a shred of benefit you read about. We drool at the idea of calming our minds like a monk, but when we sit down and attempt to reign the wild bull of our minds, we find it nearly impossible. We look at the thousands of hours meditators like the monks in the Davidson study had to put in, and we quickly get put off by the practice.
One of the core motivations for creating this site is to uncover and spread tactics, tools, and emerging technology that can help shorten this initial meditation learning curve. If more people can see the benefits of meditation faster and more reliably, I believe a massive amount of human suffering around the world would be reduced.
I’ve come across a method that I believe is one of the most effective ways to help in this aim: e-meditation. The technique, pioneered by Bashar Badran of the Medical University of South Carolina, combines transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS) alongside meditation. I’ve been experimenting with it the last few weeks, and can 100% vouch that it can speed up the meditation results. It’s one of the best hacks I’ve used to quickly quiet my mind, enter advanced meditative states, and generally feel awesome (literally at the push of a button).
In this article you’ll learn:
- How e-meditation can reduce feelings of restlessness during meditation by 2x
- What is tDCS and how it relates to meditation
- Evidence backed benefits e-meditation has shown
- How to e-meditate (what device you should get, how to use it, etc)
- 1 The Science Behind e-Meditation
- 2 Benefits of e-Meditation
- 3 How to e-Meditate
- 4 Conclusion
- 5 Resources
- 6 References
The Science Behind e-Meditation
What does an experienced meditators brain look like?
Before we dive into the science of e-meditation, let’s first talk about what an advanced meditator’s brain looks like. e-Meditation will make a lot more sense when you understand these foundational ideas.
There’s a number of findings researchers have discovered by hooking up meditation experts to things like fMRI scanners to see which areas of the brain are activated during their practice. Of these findings, there are two related to e-meditation:
#1. Default Mode Network (DMN) Ramps Down – The areas of the brain don’t work in a silo, but rather work together in networks to carry out various tasks. Studies have found that a particular set of nodes in the brain called the “Default Mode Network” is lit up when we’re a.) not focused on a particular task and b.) mind wandering. If you’ve ever found yourself ruminating about the past, thinking about the future, or generally chatting to yourself, you can bet the default mode network is powering all of this. Experienced meditators are able to knock this network offline on command through practice over time. Steven Kotler writes:
“Responsible for mind-wandering and daydreaming, this network is active when we’re awake but not focused on a task. It’s the source of a lot of our mind chatter, and with it, a lot of our unhappiness. But, like many of the brain’s systems, the default mode network is fragile. A little trouble in a couple of nodes is all it takes to knock it offline. “Early psychologists used terms like ‘ego disintegration’ to describe the effects of an altered state,” says Carhart-Harris. “They were more correct than they knew. The ego is really just a network, and things like psychedelics, flow, and meditation compromise those connections.” 1
#2. Right Inferior Frontal Gyrus (IFG) Ramps Up – A common side effect of meditation is feelings of connection, empathy, love, and nurturing. Studies have shown that an area of the brain called the right inferior frontal gyrus (IFG) is associated with these feelings and is activated in expert mediators during their practice.
I recently interviewed Dr. Bashar Badran and Dr. Baron Short (the team behind e-meditation). Here’s Badran talking about the meditator’s brain:
Now that you know what an experienced meditators brain looks like, keep a mental note of this, as we’ll eventually connect the dots and explain how this all relates to e-meditation.
But first, let’s talk about tDCS…
What is transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS)?
I’ve covered the science of transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS) in a few other posts (which you can find here and here). But here’s a quick primer on what it is, how it works, and why it matters. tDCS devices send weak electrical currents (typically to the scalp) by means of a low voltage power source (typically a nine-volt battery).
Electricity from the battery is sent through two electrodes (one positive and one negative), which are attached to specific areas of the head. The brain essentially acts as a conductor to complete the circuit between these two electrodes.
The positive electrode is called an anode, where the electrical current is sent from. Anodes are known to having an excitatory effect, ramping up areas of the brain it’s attached to. The negative electrode is called a cathode, which receives the current and closes the circuit. Cathodes are known to have an inhibitory effect, ramping down areas of the brain it’s attached to.
The ability to crank up (or crank down) the activity of areas of the brain gives us the ability to do some interesting things. For example, the left dorsolateral prefrontal cortex of depressed people tend to be less active compared to those that are healthy. Placing a positive anode over this area can ramp up this area, allowing the brain to perform like a happy person. I can vouch for this as I’ve used tDCS to manage my own depression and anxiety in the past.
The very thought of zapping your brain might be scary, as you conjure up images of shock therapy you’d see from One Flew Over The Cuckoos Nest.
But fear not. As mentioned, the power coming out of a nine-volt battery is extremely weak, delivering around 2 milliamps of electricity. To put it in perspective, that’s around 1/500th the power of a standard 100 watt light bulb. One of the worst complaints with tDCS is feely an itchy, tingly feeling at the site of the electrode (which normally goes away after a minute or two).
tDCS + meditation = e-meditation
Since tDCS gives us the ability to excite (and inhibit) specific areas the brain, perhaps the technology could be used to allow anyone to mimic the brain of meditation experts.
That’s exactly what Dr. Bashar Badran explored at the University of Southern Carolina, which house one of the leading brain stimulation labs in the world. Badran began diving into the current neuroimaging studies done on expert meditators and combined what he learned with his lab’s own expertise on brain stimulation.
As mentioned, research has discovered two interesting findings in the brain’s of experienced meditators deep in practice: #1 their default mode network ramps down and #2. their right inferior frontal gyrus ramps up. Could a positive anode over the right temple (to excite the right IFG), and a negative cathode over the left eye (to inhibit the DMN) allow a novice meditator to experience results that would normally take weeks (or months) of hard work to achieve? Here’s Badran explaining how he came up with this meditation montage:
Badran just happened to work down the hall from Dr. Baron Short, a 25-year meditator and fellow brain stimulation expert. Within minutes of trying out Bashar’s new e-meditation montage, he reached a meditative state that would normally take him a few days in a meditation retreat to tap into. They realized they were on to something worth exploring further.
The two shared their e-meditation technique with a number of colleagues who experienced similar effects. Their side hobby eventually morphed into a legitimate double-blind, placebo-controlled pilot study published by their lab.
In the study, 15 participants (with little to no meditation experience) were given either a sham of 0 milliamps, 1 milliamp or 2 milliamps of current using e-meditation montage. Participants also listened to a twenty minute guided meditation, while the tDCS was being delivered. In the next section we discuss some of the results participants in the study (as well as e-meditators outside the study) experienced with the practice:
Benefits of e-Meditation
Reduction of Restlessness + Mind Wandering
As I mentioned at the start of this article, as incredible as the benefits of meditation sound, only a fraction of people actually stick with meditation long enough to experience these benefits. One of the reasons this is true is the practice can be downright difficult. In fact, it can feel nearly impossible for beginners to sit still and attempt to cage their monkey mind.
Frustration ensues, and you quit well before you’ve seen any of the tantalizing benefits you hear about.
The published e-Meditation study found that feelings of restlessness declined almost 2x in participants. Those who were fidgety and couldn’t sit still during the session suddenly found themselves deeply relaxed when their tDCS was active, as their mind and body eased into the practice.
An upcoming study on e-Meditation administered tDCS to 34 participants, scoring them on the Mind Excessively Wandering Scale (MEWS), showed a 33% reduction in the rating after e-Meditation 2.
Deep Relaxation Within Minutes
Participants have told Bashar and Baron that typically within 10 – 13 minutes of hitting the start button, a noticeable shift takes place. Baron describes it as the body dropping – muscles begin to relax, the mind quiets down, and it becomes noticeably easier to simply sit and be. Once the meditation is over, it’s not uncommon for participants to need 10 – 30 minutes to ramp back up and essentially let their mind come back online.
I can vouch for these results. In my experience, it’s taken me about 10 minutes for the effects to start kicking in. The first 1o minutes feels like any other guided meditation I’d get into, but somewhere around the 10-minute mark or so, something happens where it gets really easy to still my mind (more than usual). From there, I continue diving deeper and deeper into a meditative state. Getting to this place would normally take a number of consecutive meditation sessions, but with tDCS I can get to this state within minutes.
Getting Into Flow (and Staying In It For Hours)
Since publishing their study on e-meditation, Bashar and Baron have facilitated a number of e-meditation events, hooking up groups of people to bliss out on tDCS – from white coat scientists at research conferences to chemically altered seekers at Burning Man. They’ve been able to gather feedback from these practitioners. One common experience they’ve regularly heard of is getting into flow states.
If you’ve ever been in the zone while in the midst of skiing down a mountain, or in a hyper creative state at work, chances are you were in what Mihai Czhenckstenmioay calls a “flow state” where inner dialogue shuts down, time perception alters, and you enter into the deep now. It’s a similar feeling you get when you’re in a deep meditative state.
Researchers have found that the experience of flow and meditation have a large overlap in the brain, one of which being the offlining of the default mode network. Scientists actually have a name for this event called “transient hypfrontality”. Steven Kotler talks about in his book Stealing Fire:
“…altered states can silence the nag. They act as an off switch. In these states, we’re no longer trapped by our neurotic selves because the prefrontal cortex, the very part of the brain generating that self, is no longer open for business.
Scientists call this shutdown “transient hypofrontality.” Transient means temporary. “Hypo,” the opposite of “hyper,” means “less than normal.” And frontality refers to the prefrontal cortex, the part of our brain that generates our sense of self. During transient hypofrontality, because large swatches of the prefrontal cortex turn off, that inner critic comes offline. Woody goes quiet.”
What’s exciting with e-meditation is in addition to getting into a deeply meditative state, participants have described also being in flow states for 3-5 hours after their session – the mind stays quiet, sensory perceptions are more vivid, thinking is clearer, and they feel more connected with those around them.
Now that you know the science and benefits of e-meditation, let’s dive into the ins-and-outs of actually e-meditating…
How to e-Meditate
What Device Should You Use?
tDCS is safe, but at the end of the day you still are zapping yourself in the brain with electricity, and there are a handful of things that could go wrong with a low-end or DIY device. Fom the countless tDCS clinicians and researchers I’ve interviewed, across the board they’ve told me that choosing the wrong device is one of the biggest mistake beginners make when entering the world of brain stimulation.
I personally use the Activa Dose II, which is the cheapest FDA approved tDCS device on the market (and what most of the tDCS experts I’ve talked with recommended to me). I couldn’t be happier with the results I’ve seen with it and couldn’t recommend it enough. Caputron.com has been awesome enough to give readers of Warrior.do a $20 discount off the device (just use the code warrior at checkout).
Bashar and Badran are going to be releasing an e-meditation device called the Zendo, which I’m excited about. Why? One of the downsides of tDCS is the setup. It takes me about 10 minutes (or more) preparing my electrodes with saline solution, hooking up all the wires, positioning the applicators on my head, etc. Bashar + Badran’s Zendo will be the first tDCS device that uses dry electrodes, which will shave off most of this annoying setup time (they’ve claimed you can be up and running within seconds). This is particularly exciting for group e-meditation workshops, as this will effectively remove the logistical hurdles you’d face with hooking up groups of people to tDCS devices.
What Montage Should You Use?
One term you’ll hear in the world of tDCS is that of a “montage”, which describes the positioning of the cathode and anode electrodes on your scalp, using the internationally accepted 10/20 system. With e-Meditation, the anode is placed over F8 (near the right temple), and the cathode on the left supraorbital above the left eye).
Here’s a great manual how to position the electrodes on your head.
What’s The Dosage You Should Use?
Now that you have your device, you’ve placed the electrodes on the scalp, how much current should you be using, for how long, and how many days per week?
tDCS clinicians and researchers are more than confident at this point that 2 milliamps is a safe range to stick with. I highly discourage going beyond this number, as there’s little research on the safety going beyond this limit.
Check out Tim Ferriss’ principle of the Minimum Effective Dose (which is the minimum amount of dosage you’d need to achieve a desired effect). My suggestion is to start at 1.5 milliamps. If you’re not feeling any effects, then bump down a ½ milliamp to 1 milliamp in your next session. If again, you’re not feeling that’s enough, bump it up to 1/2 milliamps to 2.0 in the following session.
Participants in the e-meditation study found that 1 milliamp was most effective, but when it comes to dosage, you should determine it based on your own personal preference. What works for one person, may not show the same results for another. Here’s Bashar talking about this idea:
What Type Of Meditation Should You Practice with tDCS?
The study had practitioners listen to a 20 minute recorded mindfulness meditation track. My preferred track to listen to is 25-minute basic breath awareness meditation from Tara Brach. I hit the start button on my tDCS device, hit the play button on my phone, and let the Zen commence.
How often should you do it?
There’s a few different approaches people have taken. I personally use tDCS every other day. Here’s Dr. Baron Short’s take on frequency of use:
e-Meditation is any exciting meditation hack that can place you in advanced meditative states within minutes of hitting the start button of your tDCS device. The pilot study done on the new method is starting to verify its effectiveness, as participants (with little to no meditation experience) showed a 2x decrease in restlessness. Over the past few weeks experimenting with e-Meditation, I can vouch for the method. I find it much easier to quiet my mind with e-meditation than without it and suspect that as I continue working with it in the coming months, I’ll see cumulative effects.
- Is e-meditation the wave of the future? (MUSC)
- How to buzz your brain out of depression (My Body + Soul)
- Supercharge Your Zen (New Scientist)
- Kotler, Steven, and Jamie Wheal. Stealing Fire: How Silicon Valley, the Navy SEALS, and Maverick Scientists Are Revolutionizing the Way We Live and Work. Dey St., an Imprint of William Morrow, 2017.
- Badran, Bashar W., et al. “A Double-Blind Study Exploring the Use of Transcranial Direct Current Stimulation (tDCS) to Potentially Enhance Mindfulness Meditation (E-Meditation).” Brain Stimulation: Basic, Translational, and Clinical Research in Neuromodulation 10.1 (2017): 152-154.