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“Meditation and Sleep”, Dr. L. Schanzer, Encyclopedia of Sleep and Dreaming

Meditation and Sleep

For thousands of years practitioners of meditation have asserted therapeutic effects.  Within the past few decades technology has evolved and scientific interest has moved towards objectifying the effects of meditation practices.  Some of these effects, such as inducing the relaxation response or as aiding the reversal of coronary artery disease, have been documented in well controlled studies.

Serious students and researchers find that there are many techniques, including physical practices such as hatha yoga (postures, relaxation training, and breathing techniques), which lead to the condition called meditation.  Most research on meditation has been on techniques of mental training, and within this class of practices there is significant variation (Shapiro,1982).  An unresolved question is whether or not all of the various meditation practices produce the same condition or even the same pattern in the shift towards that condition.  Additionally there are few studies which compare differences in the effects by degree of skillfulness (novice vs. long term meditator) or eliminate self selection as a factor in subjects.

Most researchers agree that at least some of the patterns in physiological measures of meditation are very similar to those in relaxation training, hypnosis, and stage 1 sleep.  Numerous studies have shown similarities between the physiological patterns of meditation and sleep.  While some meditators spend almost 60% of their meditation time in stage 1, 2, and delta sleep (Pagano, 1976), the bulk of the research suggests that the meditation state is most similar to stage 1 sleep (Delmonte, 1984).  Most meditating subjects have increased and slowed alpha activity, a forward spread of alpha, theta trains, and slow eye movements.  These features are all consistent with stage 1 sleep.

In spite of these similarities to sleep, it appears simplistic to regard meditation as a kind of trained sleepiness.  Some meditation studies have shown that meditators differed from resting or untrained subjects in:  ability to differentiate visual stimuli (Brown, 1984)), habituation to auditory stimuli (Leherer P. M.,1980), and reaction time to coded visual and auditory stimuli (Ikemi, 1988).

Research has also shown that meditation gives a great variety of psychological benefits including:  reduced anxiety and depression, increased self regulation of chronic pain, improved psychotherapy, decreased neuroticism, catharsis/emotional release, increased self actualization, and increased hypnagogic reverie which has been associated with creative problem solving.  Thus, meditation may be regarded as a consciously held (and hypnotic) state of consciousness which appears to have psychological (if not physiological) characteristics which distinguish it from ordinary ‘unconscious’ stage 1 drowsiness.

Given these similarities and differences between meditation and sleep, how does practicing meditation effect sleep?  One would expect:  (1) that the effects of regularly and consciously induced periods of lowered physiological arousal might impact amount of sleep; and (2) that decreased anxiety and depression would impact sleep stages which may be affected by anxiety and/or depression.

While some findings support that meditators require less total sleep, most of the findings show effects on dream (REM) sleep.  In one study (Cartwright et al 1977), meditators spent significantly less total time asleep than controls who had listened to music before bed.   Also in this study, the subjects who had listened to music had significantly higher percent of sleep time in dream (REM) sleep.  In another study, meditators and resting subjects were compared for effects of 40 hours of sleep deprivation (Miskiman 1974). The meditators required less compensatory dream (REM) sleep than the ‘napping’ controls, and returned sooner to their predeprivation levels of dream sleep.  These findings suggest that meditation may generate more effective REM sleep.

Anxiety and/or depression may also be factors of insomnia.  Research on the effects of meditation on insomnia has mixed, but supportive findings. Meditation has been shown to be equivalent to progressive relaxation training in significantly reducing wake time after sleep onset (WASO) (Woolfolk, 1976).  However there seems to be an effect of subjects’ expectations that learning a technique would help their insomnia.  In one study (Carr-Kaffashan & Woolfolk, 1979) subjects were taught meditation-relaxation and controls were given a supposed placebo.  All were told not to expect any improvements for four weeks.  The subjects given meditation-relaxation began to improve during the first three weeks.  However by the fourth week allsubjects showed the same significant improvement.  In another study receiving sleep hygiene information, was compared with two other techniques: stimulus control therapy and meditation for sleep-maintenance insomnia.  Even though all three subject groups reported comparable improvements in:  (1) wake time after sleep onset, (2) number of arousals, (3) duration of arousals, significantly more of the subjects given the sleep hygiene treatment rated their treatment less favorably and considered themselves still insomniac (Schoicket et al, 1988).  One way of explaining these findings is that if depression can be related to learned helplessness (Seligman 1975), perhaps techniques like meditation and stimulus control therapy provide a sense of empowerment.  That is, if the insomnia may be related to depression, meditation or stimulus control may be more helpful than sleep hygiene information because having the ability to take effective action is more helpful than having only information or understanding.

In conclusion, while research continues to explore whether or not meditation is a unique state of consciousness, the majority of the present physiological evidence supports that meditation and stage 1 sleep are physiologically more similar than different.  However, while meditation practice may resemble early stages of sleep it does not substitute for sleep.  Present research suggests that meditation may enhance REM effectiveness and may help with insomnia.


Brown D., Forte M., & Dysart M.  Visual Sensitivity And Mindfulness Meditation.  Perceptual Motor Skills1984; 59: 775-784

Cartwright, R., Butters, E., Weinstein, M., & Kroeker, L.  The Effects of presleep stimuli of different sources and types on REM sleep.  Psychophysiology, 1977; 35: 571-577

Carr-Kaffashan, L. & Woolfolk, R.  Active and placebo effects in treatment of moderate and severe insomnia.  Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 1979; 46: 1072-1080

Delmonte, M. M.  Electrocortical Activity and Related Phenomena Associated with Meditation Practice: A Literature Review.  Intern. J. Neuroscience, 1984  24: 217-231

Ikemi A.  Psychophysiological Effects of Self-Regulation Method:  EEG Frequency Analysis and Contingent Negative Variations.  Psychother Psychsom 1988; 49: 230-239

Leherer P. M., Schoicket S., Carrington P., & Woolfolk R.  Psychophysiological And cognitive responses to stressful stimuli in subjects practicing progressive relaxation and clinically standardized meditation.  Behavior Research and Therapy1980; 18: 293-303

Miskiman, D.E.  Long-term effects of Transcendental Meditation program on compensatory paradoxical sleep.  Orme-Johnson, D.W., L. Domash and J. Farrow, eds.  In: Scientific Research on Transcendental Meditation: Collected Papers.  Vol 1 Los Angeles, MIU Press, 1974

Murphy, M., and Donovan, S.,  The Physical and Psychological Effects of Meditation. Esalen Institute, San Rafael, CA, 1988

Pagano, R., Rose, R., Stivers, R., and Warrenburg, S. Sleep during Transcendental Meditation.  Science1976; 191: 308-310

Seligman, M.E.P.  Helplessness: on Depression, Development, and Death. Freeman & Co. 1975

Schoicket S, Bertelson, A., & Lacks, P.  Is Sleep Hygiene a Sufficient Treatment for Sleep-Maintainance Insomnia?  Behavior Therapy1988; 19:  183-90

Shapiro, D.H. Overview:  Clinical and physiological comparisons of meditation with other self-control strategies.  American Journal of Psychiatry, 1982; 139: 267-274.

Woolfolk, R. L., Carr-Kaffashan, L., McNulty, T.  Meditation as a treatment for insomnia.  Behavior Therapy, 1976; 7: 359-365

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