Sleep vs. meditation
During the state of wakefulness, the humans exhibit brainwave activity of two types – Beta and Alpha. Beta waves are associated with day to day activities and they have high frequency and low amplitude. Beta waves are non-synchronous since they are irregular and non-consistent. Alpha waves are generated when we are in a relaxed state. These waves are synchronous and have low frequency and high amplitude. The activities that generate alpha brain waves impart health benefits to the people.
Many people think that meditation can be a substitute for sleep, which is also advocated by some spiritualists. The following elucidation will explain differently but meditation does have some of the benefits that are provided by the sleep.
NREM sleep, consisting of four stages, first two of which have light sleep and the next two have deep sleep, is characterized by theta waves which are slower having lower frequency and higher amplitude than alpha waves. NREM sleep approximately contributes 70% to 75% to the sleep cycle. Deeper stages of the NREM sleep are responsible for the repair and rejuvenation of the body. Our immune system is also strengthened during the stages of deep sleep: growth hormones are also produced during these stages and that is why NREM sleep is important for physical and mental development of growing children and adolescents.
If the sleep is not deep, these benefits are not derived. We go into NREM sleep as soon as we fall asleep. When we are deprived of NREM sleep, the body tries to make up for it whenever it gets the chance. The body also tries to make up for REM, although not as much as it does for NREM.
The benefits of NREM sleep are as follows –
- Wounds are healed
- White blood cells are formed to aid our physical defenses
- The muscles are restored
- The growth hormone is released
REM sleep is characterized by the production of alpha waves. It is also called paradoxical sleep because alpha waves, operating at 8 to 13 cycles per second, occur during REM sleep as well as when we are awake. It is characterized by quick random movements of eyes and paralysis of muscles. It normally makes up around 20% to 25% of the total time spent in sleep by an adult, which averages from 90 to 120 minutes.
The benefits derived from the REM sleep are as follows –
- The mental processing of the mental inputs from the surroundings during the day time is believed to help process memories and form new skills. The brain is awake but the body isn’t, so it’s the perfect time for the brain to reorganize the vast amount of thoughts gained during the day.
- Dreams, which make up a lot of REM sleep, are believed to help with this too.
During meditation, the brain of an individual exhibits mainly alpha and theta waves with little delta wave activity. In advanced meditators, theta waves are most abundant in the frontal and middle parts of the brain, which originate from a deep relaxation. In deep meditation, a person experiences profound muscle relaxation but at the same time, there is full mental awareness. Contrary to this, in REM sleep, there is mental awareness but body is asleep. This characteristic of meditation provides a meditator to find solutions to the problems if construed correctly. It also increases one’s ability to take proper decisions.
The above characteristics of both indicate that the meditation is comparable to the first and second stages of sleep. As thought by few that meditation is a substitute for sleep, it can be concluded safely that it is not so. It only relaxes the body and mind and its beneficial effects are due to this fact. The persons who are adept in meditation are able to create profound relaxation even in adverse situations. They are, therefore, more capable of handling adverse situations better. It is believed that by a regular practice of meditation one can increase the quantity of REM sleep. Its regular practice is believed to produce growth hormone in the body which declines with age. Meditation also produces endorphins in the body, which is a feel good hormone and increases pain threshold.
By the above explanations, it can be clearly concluded that sleep and meditation are not the same. Because the meditation produces some of the beneficial effects of the sleep, they cannot substitute each other. They can only compliment each other as the meditation can improve sleep in more than one way.