By Ashna Mukhi
Practitioners of Buddhist meditation have reported seeing globes, jewels and little stars during meditation-induced light experiences. The neurobiological explanation for these visions was the subject of a recent study led by Willoughby Britton, assistant professor of psychiatry and human behavior, and Jared Lindahl, professor of religious studies at Warren Wilson College in North Carolina.
The study, published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology Jan. 3, connects first-hand accounts of these light experiences and reports of them from Buddhist texts to scientific literature on similar light visions that occur during sensory deprivation, perceptual isolation and visual impairment.
Sensory deprivation, or the lack of input to one’s senses, and perceptual isolation, a monotonous form of input, bear similarities to certain meditation practices and can therefore be used to investigate the biology behind these light experiences, Britton said.
Buddhist meditation, said Noah Elbot ’14, a leader of the Brown Meditation Community, includes practices such as breath awareness, repetition of a particular phrase, or concentration on an image in order to bring the mind to the present.
Because the blocking of sensory input is seen in both sensory deprivation and Buddhist meditation, the authors hypothesized that the light experiences may be caused by a spontaneous firing of neurons in response to a lack of input, a phenomenon referred to as homeostatic neuroplasticity, Britton said.
“Neurons have a point of activity that they fire at,” Britton said. “If there is no input, the neurons don’t like that, and they start to fire on their own, causing hallucinations.”
These visual hallucinations induced by meditation practice suggest that meditation may lead to increased neuroplasticity, which has been linked to cognitive improvements in learning, memory and attention, according to the study. If this hypothesis proves true, meditation could have significant cognitive benefits.
This study is one of the first that attempts to connect data from historical texts and first-hand reports from current meditation practitioners with scientific research.
“While science has been studying meditation as a way of better understanding the brain, it often overlooks the rich information that religious texts have,” Lindahl said. If people examine meditation only from a scientific perspective, their understanding will be limited, he added.
“This is a paper that respects what the humanities have to offer to science,” Britton said. While meditation is being used increasingly as a clinical practice, the tremendous amount of knowledge on meditation is not being communicated to the scientists and clinicians using it, she added.
This sort of interdisciplinary research aligns with Brown’s values, Britton said. “Really bridging humanities (and) science is necessary in order for rich new dialogues to happen.”