The Assumption about Meditation and Sleep
If you enter the words “meditation” and “sleep” into the search bar of your browser you’ll get a really big response.
Many of these items lead to articles which claim to show that meditation can lead to better sleep. Many of them are ads for either CDs or DVDs of meditation exercises that are supposed to help you sleep better.
It seems that the public assumes that the practice of meditation leads to better sleep.
In this post I’m basically asking the question “Is this assumption correct?”
I’ll begin by looking at the nature of meditation and the nature of sleep as states of being.
The Similarities between Meditation and Sleep
Meditation and sleep both give us deep rest. In both cases brain waves are at the Alpha Frequency, i.e. 7-13 Hz.
Both meditation and sleep reduce metabolic activity. Metabolic activity is a term which includes all the chemical processes which take place in a living organism in order to maintain life. Digestion is an example.
Both meditation and sleep ultimately refresh us.
The Differences between Meditation and Sleep
You can choose to practice meditation or not to practice it. You have a certain amount of choice in the matter of when you sleep.But you can’t choose not to sleep, because tiredness will eventually overwhelm you.
After sleep you feel lethargic. After meditation you don’t.
Meditation can actually free us from troublesome thoughts. At best sleep may help us to forget such thoughts for a bit. At worst sleep can encourage and exaggerate such thoughts in the form of nightmares.
Meditation heightens awareness. The practice of candle meditation is a good example of this. During sleep there is no awareness.
Does the Practice of Meditation actually improve Sleep?
The best research on this subject was conducted by Dr Willoughby Britton, Assistant Professor of Psychiatry at Brown University Medical School.
Unlike some of the previous research, which used only subjects who practised meditation, Dr Willoughby’s research was what is called a randomized control trial. This means that half of the subjects were randomly allocated to the meditation group and the other half were told not to meditate.
A lot of the previous research relied on self-reported sleep experiences. With this sort of data it’s possible that a subject will report what s/he thinks ought to have happened, rather than what actually did happen. For example, if a subject believes that meditation improves sleep, s/he will report that is what happened.
Dr Willoughby’s research was conducted overnight in a sleep laboratory, where she and her team could actually observe the subjects’ behaviour.
In addition to this Dr Willoughby’s research was what is called a polysomnographic sleep study. For those of you who, like me, find this description a bit of a jaw breaker, it means that brain waves, eye movements and muscle tone were all measured.
The conclusion that Dr Willoughby came to was that the practice of meditation neither improves nor deepens sleep.
In fact she made the following discoveries.
- Meditation increased wakefulness. Subjects who meditated were less likely to fall asleep.
- Subjects who meditated were more likely to wake up from sleep.
- Subjects who meditated experienced more light sleep and less deep sleep.
Meditation and Sleep: Conclusion
An internet search will reveal that the public believes the practice of meditation leads to better sleep.
Evidence of the strength of this belief can be seen in the fact that members of the public are willing to spend quite large amounts of money on putting it into practice.
It’s probably come about because meditation and sleep are two similar(but not identical) states of being.
Unfortunately research by Dr Willoughby Britton of Brown University shows that this belief is misguided. She found that meditation leads to increased wakefulness and less deep sleep.
But there’s no reason for despondency.
Both meditation and sleep are beneficial in their separate ways
And hopefully Dr Britton’s research will further undermine the dangerous belief that meditation can be a substitute for sleep.