Many of us, if not all, have heard of the term “enlightenment”. While trying to understand the science of meditation and yoga, this becomes a very important subject to explore. Yet, this is a difficult subject to discuss. It is as if the term is indescribable. No single phrase or wording is capable of fully encapsulating the magnitude and grandeur of the experience or perspective. The term likely has slightly different meanings and interpretations, depending on the context of one’s personal life or spiritual background. At the same time, the mentioning of the word permeates an understanding that we all share.
Regardless of the difficulties, scientists must attempt to define the term, so that we may begin researching what enlightenment is from a physiologic point of view. A prominent scientist, who has devoted much of his career to studying the neuroscience of enlightenment, is Dr. Andrew B. Newberg. Much of the research mentioned here is from his work. In his research, he has defined enlightenment, or spiritual awakening, as “a form of awareness in which the person feels that he or she has found a new way of understanding the world”(Newberg & Waldman, 2019). This is of course a very broad definition, but within the testimonies of people who claim to have experienced such moments, lies underlying themes more adequately describing the experience. Not only that, but they allow researchers to identify the brain areas involved with said experiences.
For example, a common experience found within times of enlightenment is a feeling of unity and oneness with all beings (Newberg & Waldman, 2019). Additionally, individuals often experience a sense of selflessness, or loss of the self (Johnstone et al., 2016; Yaden et al., 2017). These two experiences are often related because the experience of unity with all of life transcends the experience of being an individual. The question then becomes: what is happening in the brain to generate this experience? Well, one of the roles of the right parietal lobe of the brain is to generate the general self-orientation processes (Johnstone et al., 2016). For example, a famous study of people who had anesthesia to the right side of the brain were less capable of identifying pictures of their own face (Haiqian et al., 2001). Research has also shown that the temporo-parietal junction is involved in the feelings of body ownership (Serino et al., 2013). Additionally, this self-orientation is also involved in understanding where our body is spatially (Newberg & Iversen, 2003). The parietal lobe receives a lot of sensory information to determine where our body is situated in space (Newberg & Iversen, 2003; Newberg & Waldman, 2019). So, not only does this brain area help us understand who we are as individuals, but helps us understand where we are. To bring this all home, meditation, which is a method of working towards enlightenment, has been shown to decrease activation in the parietal lobe (Newberg & Iversen, 2003). This suggests that during times of enlightenment, you lose both the sense of where you are, as well as who you are as a specific individual, culminating in an experience that you are not just your body, but are united with everything that surrounds you.
Another common thread amongst these types of experiences, as indicated by the definition above, is a dramatic change in one’s perception of life. Due to this observation, it is important to ask where does this dramatic shift in perception occur within the brain? Dr. Newberg has the theory that the thalamus of the brain is the culprit (Newberg & Waldman, 2019). The thalamus is a more ancient part of our brain evolutionarily speaking and is largely associated with processing the sensory information that comes from our organs, and then are relayed to higher areas of our brain (Newberg & Waldman, 2019). Given its importance, as a sensory relay station, some have argued that it is the location of our consciousness (Min, 2010). Newberg has observed thalamus activation changes following Kirtan Kriya meditation, however, his findings were not statistically significant due to small sample size (Newberg et al., 2010). Regardless, it is his theory that because this brain area is involved in processing much of the sensory information we receive from our body, that changes in this area are responsible for the drastic change in perspectives we have after moments of enlightenment (Newberg & Waldman, 2019).
There are many paths to enlightenment. Of course, meditation and alike are an ancient method that has been a successful method for ages. A meditation style that is often related to experiences of enlightenment is found amongst the kundalini traditions. One of its derivatives, Kirtan Kriya or Satanama meditation is often recommended for the pursuit of spiritual transcendence (Ladd & Ladd, 2010) and is of interest to Dr. Newberg and his research. This discussion will end with a lesson on how to perform Kirtan Kriya meditation:
Kirtan Kriya is a mantra style meditation. While practicing this form of meditation, please recite the sounds “sa ta na ma” repeatedly. First, one recites this mantra aloud. Second, one does so in a whisper voice. Lastly, do so silently in the mind. Each rendition should be recited for 2 minutes (Marciniak et al., 2014). You can do this for as long as you wish. This means you can meditate for 6 minutes (each style once), or do so for 30 minutes (each style five times), or anything in between as long as each style is performed equally.
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Johnstone, B., Cohen, D., Konopacki, K., & Ghan, C. (2016). Selflessness as a Foundation of Spiritual Transcendence: Perspectives From the Neurosciences and Religious Studies. International Journal for the Psychology of Religion, 26(4), 287–303. https://doi.org/10.1080/10508619.2015.1118328
Ladd, K. L., & Ladd, M. L. (2010). How God Changes Your Brain: Breakthrough Findings From a Leading Neuroscientist. By Andrew Newberg and Mark Robert Waldman. International Journal for the Psychology of Religion, 20(3), 219–222. https://doi.org/10.1080/10508619.2010.481231
Marciniak, R., Sheardova, K., Čermáková, P., Hudeček, D., Šumec, R., & Hort, J. (2014). Effect of meditation on cognitive functions in context of aging and neurodegenerative diseases. Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience, 8(JAN), 1–9. https://doi.org/10.3389/fnbeh.2014.00017
Min, B. K. (2010). A thalamic reticular networking model of consciousness. Theoretical Biology and Medical Modelling, 7(1), 1–18. https://doi.org/10.1186/1742-4682-7-10
Newberg, A. B., & Iversen, J. (2003). The neural basis of the complex mental task of meditation: Neurotransmitter and neurochemical considerations. Medical Hypotheses, 61(2), 282–291. https://doi.org/10.1016/S0306-9877(03)00175-0
Newberg, A. B., & Waldman, M. R. (2019). A neurotheological approach to spiritual awakening. International Journal of Transpersonal Studies, 37(2), 119–130. https://doi.org/10.24972/ijts.2018.37.2.119
Newberg, A. B., Wintering, N., Khalsa, D. S., Roggenkamp, H., & Waldman, M. R. (2010). Meditation effects on cognitive function and cerebral blood flow in subjects with memory loss: A preliminary study. Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease, 20(2), 517–526. https://doi.org/10.3233/JAD-2010-1391
Serino, A., Alsmith, A., Costantini, M., Mandrigin, A., Tajadura-Jimenez, A., & Lopez, C. (2013). Bodily ownership and self-location: Components of bodily self-consciousness. Consciousness and Cognition, 22(4), 1239–1252. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.concog.2013.08.013
Yaden, D. B., Haidt, J., Hood, R. W., Vago, D. R., & Newberg, A. B. (2017). The varieties of self-transcendent experience. Review of General Psychology, 21(2), 143–160. https://doi.org/10.1037/gpr0000102