The fMRI and EEG results from an experienced meditator show changes in brain activity… occur promptly after jhana is entered. In particular, the extreme joy is associated not only with activation of cortical processes but also with activation of the nucleus accumbens (NAc) in the dopamine/opioid reward system. We test three mechanisms by which the subject might stimulate his own reward system by external means and reject all three. Taken together, these results demonstrate an apparently novel method of self-stimulating a brain reward system using only internal mental processes in a highly trained subject.
A scientific study on the relationship between various jhana and the brain’s reward system, and how it is activated by them.
What I wish we could have seen is these reward activity patterns in comparison to the bliss that a Noble One experiences. I think I remember seeing a study somewhat along the lines of studying the brains of enlightened individuals, but that the results were inconclusive?
Okay, first thing, I have zero confidence that what they are calling “jhanas” are in fact jhanas. Unless I have personally spoken with the meditators on their practice in detail, I would never accept anyone’s claims as to jhana or any other superhuman states. Not to say that they don’t have good meditation, and hey, maybe they do have jhanas. But I would never take it on face value.
Yeah, agreed. There are some problems here with this because there is such variety subjectivity with what is described as “jhanas”, and also assumptions about how such a process would/does work neurologically. I’m not sure it could be pinned down scientifically at all actually. I will say though, that the research done on the brains of meditators vs. non-meditators are quite intruiging.
Yes, Bhante, I agree that the nature of jhana is subtle, and by its very nature prohibits intellectual analysis.
In my opinion, though, science about meditation, for meditators, is actually useless. That being the case, I think we should think about them and their utility in a different way. Rather than using it for ourselves, we can see them as a means to communicating with a broader audience: one that does not understand the dharma, but understands science (or has faith in it).
That’s how I feel, at least. If we can somehow reach a happy medium with them, to match our language with theirs, then we can standardize and expose our own vocabulary, lowering the barrier of entry for many would-be practitioners.
I asked one insignificant Thai monk about these “buzz words” and he gave me this teaching:
Nimitta’s are small toys, Jhana’s are big toys
He wasn’t even a Forest monk, but I found his teaching to be accurate, for me off course …
The high flying flashing monks passing by here like nimittas, but this monk just won’t go, guess I’ll stay here too
Soon there is summer all over the place, and now it’s about time for some serious calming down before huge gangs of tough sinewy monks roaming the valley’s , terrifiying people with their close harmony chanting …
What a great post and really good to see some research being done into higher states of consciousness rather than the plethora of studies just focusing on mindfulness.
There needs to be more scientific research into meditation and the physical and mental effects that result from such practice. I would never have become interested in meditation in a million years if I had not discovered the research conducted into meditation and neuroplasticity. Reading about the scientifically proven physical effects of meditation upon the human brain and affective behaviour convinced me that meditation and (eventually after further investigation), Buddhism was something far more worthwhile persuing than I had ever realised.
Reading that hard data convinced me in a much more concrete way than any previous attempt at persuading me to become interested in meditation or religion ever had. Indeed what I had learned about religion and meditation previously had completely turned me off ever turning to that sort of thing for help, I saw it as something for people with weak minds who had difficulty coping with reality.
Religion to me was nothing more than a superstitious holdover from primitive times and peoples, mystical mumbo jumbo full of prostrations and prayer wheels, deva’s, gods and demons with human supplicants appealing to these imaginary beings in a selfish desire to save ourselves from our own stupidity and excess.
Imagine my surprise when I started reading these studies and realised there was far more to it in reality and that shock horror - it actually works! That it is even of great benefit even when practiced improperly or by beginners. That the effects are even stronger for those who have practiced for longer, indicating a cumulative and lasting effect. That different forms of meditation can effect different areas of the brain. That meditation may have a neuroprotective effect. The results continue to be made and while any one paper by itself can be put to question, the cumulative body of work that is being compiled by researchers is pointing to some very interesting things.
So I can honestly say that if I had not read the 95 or so papers on meditation I have saved to my hard drive, I would never have even learned to meditate, let alone subscribe to Therevada Buddhism. I hope to see much, much more research done about the positive effects of meditation in the future, it can only induce more and more people to become interested in trying it out for themselves.
I must admit I started meditation with a completely wrong headed approach and did my absolute best to ignore concepts like kamma and rebirth, but it’s true what the Buddha said that you should try things out for yourself and see what the results are.
I have now practiced enough to have gained some little bit of skill in meditating and have had some real insights and through that have come to understanding about some experiences (that although personal in meaning - to do with a repetitive dream I experienced a number of times as a young child of 3/4) I now accept that rebirth is true and as a result, I have no reason to believe that the Buddha would have lied about anything else either.
Evidently they did according to the paper the subject was a Sri Lankan Therevada monk of some 17 years experience in meditation who underwent a fMRI and EEG recording while meditating. From the results part of the paper quoted below they found results consistent with activation of certain brain regions they had hypothesised would show activation during jhana along with the confirmed result on which of the 3 hypothesised mechanisms of pleasure or piti result from:
"The fMRI and EEG recordings provide mutually consistent
evidence on the neural correlates of ecstatic meditations
called jhanas. In the cortical regions associated with external
awareness, verbalization, and orientation (H1, H2, and H3),
Table 1 shows a lower fMRI BOLD signal during jhana
contrasted with rest. In addition, Table 2 shows that the
EEG signal shifted to the lower-power bands of theta and alpha1, although it is acknowledged that spatial localizationof
cortical function with scalp EEG has some limitations. In the
region associated with executive control (H4) and the region
associated with subjective happiness (H5), the fMRI in Table 1
showed higher BOLD signal during jhana contrasted with
rest, while the EEG in Table 2 showed a shift to higher power
in the beta and gamma bands. In addition, the subcortical
imaging from the fMRI was able to distinguish whether the
subjective happiness (H5) was associated with activation of
the dopamine/opioid reward system or due to purely cortical
expectation effects. Table 1 (in the rowH5) shows very strong
activation of the NAc in the ventral striatum indicating
that the full pathway was activated in at least one of the
I’m pretty sure that as long as one is not brain dead, the brain is “moving.” At the very least, the brainstem is regulating processes that are essential for moment-to-moment survival like beating your heart and breathing.
Actually it may not be a monk, I misstated that and the number of hours seems a bit light for 17 yrs worth of practice:
“The subject is a long-term Buddhist practitioner (53-year-old
male, left-handed). At the time of recording, he had 17 years
of training consisting of about 6,000 hours of practice and
was trained in the Sri Lankan tradition of jhanas by Khema
I know it sounds peculiar - I remember seeing some frogs in a documentary that are suspended in ice and become inanimate. These frogs use sugar as an antifreeze that stops them going completely solid. When the ice melts they reanimate.
The wood frog’s heart stops beating and they are 70% frozen completely encased in ice so I doubt if there is any breathing going on. Deep jhana may be a kind of suspended animation?
These seem to be different states from those taught by Ajahn Brahm; for example in the paper they write of physical pleasure in the first jhana; also, the meditator was a student of A Khema who I think understood jhanas differently from Ajahn Brahm (if I recall correctly I saw a video in which she said you can get into a jhana whilst you are going about your daily business and you are e.g. waiting in a line). Anyway it seems to me that different teachers generally understand the jhanas differently - I also saw a video of Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi who if I remember correctly, said that Sariputta might have got very quickly into a jhana whilst fanning the Buddha (not sure whether he was joking).
Pleasure isn’t the sole domain of the first or second jhana. It can occur before jhana as well, in lower degrees of samadhi, especially if the five hindrances are suppressed. So there is a problem with what they are measuring- most research has some issues with them- more important is what we can then deduce from the research project. I think it goes too far to say that this research validates jhanic experience and I would agree with Ajhan Sujato on that. However it does show that 1. concentration type meditations are a distinct entity compared to waking consciousness. 2. there is a corresponding part in the brain, suggesting a sort of physical validation of the experience of the meditator.
They should however take many jhana meditators from different traditions and see if there is a variety of identifiable patterns perhaps mapping onto their tradition’s descriptions of a jhana experience.
To be sure “different teachers … understand the jhanas differently”. In some cases it’s even questionable as to whether what they experience and teach is actually traditional jhana. Even those who’ve trained, attained in the traditional form will experience and describe it in different terms, shaped by their conditioning.
One difference that stands out, IMO, is the emphasis on excessive rapture and bliss vs on the utter stillness possible in absorption. Leigh Brasington teaches the former, and has said that absorption does not pertain, is an invention of the Visuddhimagga’s erroneous understanding of jhana (I heard him say this in person during a retreat). His teacher, Ayya Khema, on the other hand, in recorded talks, clearly states that no absorption, no jhana. Brasington and Khema agree, however, on the primacy of rapture as entry point to jhana. That’s a difference with other teachings. In the tradition I was trained in (Burmese, Visuddhimagga based) one doesn’t feed the rapture as much as steadily fixate on the object until it “it swallows the mind; the mind falls into it”. Rapture and bliss accompany that, but wallowing there leads astray; the main experience is the stark qualitative change, a cessation of mental reactivity to impinging phenomena (“seclusion”).
Brasington claims to have discussed his method with Thanissaro Bhikkhu and found agreement. To be sure, Thanissaro teaches approaching concentration by suffusing the body and mind with pleasure (but not of the raga sort), but he has also stated that shifting the focus to the pleasure and away from the object (which Brasington teaches) results in only access concentration, not full absorption, and is highly prone to delusion.