Meditations that are Arousal-Driven Increase Attentiveness and Strengthen Top-Down Control

Meditations that are Arousal-Driven Increase Attentiveness and Strengthen Top-Down Control

Contrary to common opinion, not all situations are best served by mindfulness-based meditation or breathing techniques that cause the autonomic nervous system (ANS) to go into a relaxation response.

Peak performance isn’t usually achieved by calming the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) with a deep diaphragmatic breath followed by a long, slow exhale (which activates the vagus nerve). Some high-stakes challenges, such as being a Top Gun and flying fighter jets, require SNS-driven “inner fire” and bursts of laser-focused attention, also known as “phasic alertness.”

Increased parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) dominance after a stressful experience is one way mindfulness-based techniques can successfully reduce fight-or-flight stress. However, mindfulness can unfavorably affect arousal and attentional control during demanding situations that call for phasic alertness and peak performance.

Arousal-Based Meditation Practices Can Ignite an “Inner Fire”

A new study from the National University of Singapore (NUS) highlights the benefits of arousal-based meditative practices such as Tummo (inner-fire breathing) that trigger PNS withdrawal as indexed by lower heart rate variability (HRV).

Lower HRV is associated with decreased vagal tone and increased phasic alertness. These findings (Kozhevnikov et al., 2022) were published on October 7 in the peer-reviewed journal Current Research in Neurobiology.

Sometimes being hyper-alert is preferable to being relaxed. Practices of Vajrayana meditation, such as “forceful breath,” which some Tibetan Buddhists engage in during Tummo, are referred to be “thunderbolt vehicles” because they deliberately activate the SNS’s fight-or-flight processes in an effort to counteract the relaxation response.

“Arousal-based meditation practices push practitioners to their limits, so they can stay focused on the task, being free from any distracting thoughts, even in the most threatening situations,” first author Maria Kozhevnikov said in a news release.

“This form of arousal-based meditation would be useful for individuals in situations that do not allow for mindfulness-related meditation for stress reduction, such as a pilot flying a plane in a battlefield,” she added.

According to the most recent NUS study, arousal-based meditations can aid individuals in remaining “super alert” by enhancing their attentional capacities on demand.

How Does Forceful Breath During Tummo Meditation Create “Inner Fire”?

In Tibetan Buddhism, Tummo is the goddess of fire and passion. Tummo is another term used by tantric Buddhists to describe the “inner fire” produced by meditation techniques including “forceful breath” and the visualization of a god.

For this study, Tummo practitioners used a forceful breath method, an arousal-based meditation approach that involves extended inhalations and rapid, forceful exhalations. This “inner fire” breathing technique hacks the autonomic nervous system by decreasing vagal tone and parasympathetic activity, which increases SNS arousal and phasic alertness.

“Different Tummo-type practices exist, varying in the intensity of their breathing techniques, goals, and visualization content,” the authors explain. “The type of Tummo practice performed by the practitioners in this study was Forceful Breath, the goal of which is to raise the ‘inner fire.’”

Arousal-based meditative activities enhance top-down control of executive functions and thought processes in addition to phasic alertness enhancement and inhibition of the PNS relaxation response.

“During the years of practice, Tummo experts become highly proficient in reaching and controlling states of heightened arousal and related neural activity. Thus, they can develop these states quickly and efficiently and flexibly regulate their top-down control processes,” Kozhevnikov et al. write.

Relaxation-Inducing Mindfulness and Arousal-Based Meditation Produce Very Different Effects

During arousal-based meditation practices, the ongoing monitoring of one’s thoughts as it is during mindfulness-related practices doesn’t modulate attentional control. Therefore, Kozhevnikov and co-authors propose that arousal-based meditative practices and mindfulness-based meditative practices “cannot be grouped into a single category of meditation in terms of their physiology and neurocognitive processes.”

Although arousal-based practices and mindfulness-related meditation can both be described as “attention-based, regulatory training regimes,” they are quite different.

The most recent research (2022) demonstrates that arousal-based meditation improves PNS withdrawal within the autonomic nervous system as indicated by reduced HRV, stronger top-down control, and intense attentiveness.

On the other hand, mindfulness-based activities encourage a calming reaction and mellowness that is supported by PNS dominance, increased HRV, and activation of the vagus nerve.