Seeing The Light Inside

by Jessie Roberts

Rose Eveleth explores why people sometimes hallucinate during meditation:

Buddhist literature refers to lights and visions in myriad ways. The Theravada tradition refers to nimitta, an vision of a series of lights seen during meditation dish_lights that can be taken to represent everything from the meditator’s pure mind to a visual symbol of a real object. In one Buddhist text, called The Path of Purification, the nimitta is described this way:

It appears to some as a star or cluster of gems or a cluster of pearls, […] to others like a long braid string or a wreath of flowers or a puff of smoke, to others like a stretched-out cobweb or a film of cloud or a lotus flower or a chariot wheel or the moon’s disk or the sun’s disk. …

What is it about meditation that opens the brain up to these kinds of hallucinations?

To answer that question, [researcher Jared] Lindahl and his team looked for occasions where the descriptions he gathered from meditators intersected with descriptions of neurophysiological disorders. They found that both the first-person accounts and the Buddhist literary descriptions of these lights intersected pretty well with the experiences of people undergoing the intentional practice of sensory deprivation.

Hallucinations are relatively well-documented in the world of sensory deprivation, and they dovetail with the lights seen by meditators. Where meditators describe jewel lights, white spots and little stars, those under sensory deprivation sometimes describe dots and points of light. Where meditators see shimmering ropes, electrical sparks, and rays of light that go through everything, the sensory deprived might see visual snow, bright sunsets, and shimmering, luminous fog. Neuroscientists think that when the eyes and ears are deprived of input, the brain becomes hypersensitive and neurons may fire with little provocation, creating these kinds of light shows. Lindahl suspects that the lights that meditators see are the result of the same phenomenon—that meditating is itself a mild form of sensory deprivation.

Read more about the research of Lindahl and his colleagues here.

(Image via Alan Levine)