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Neural Plasticity
Volume 2013 (2013), Article ID 653572, 12 pages
Research Article

Case Study of Ecstatic Meditation: fMRI and EEG Evidence of Self-Stimulating a Reward System

1University of California, Davis and Wellspring Institute, Davis, CA 95616, USA
2Wellspring Institute, San Rafael, CA 94903, USA
3Barre Center for Buddhist Studies, Barre, MA 01005, USA
4University of Washington, Seattle, WA 98195, USA
5Physiology & Biophysics, University of Washington, Seattle, WA 98195, USA
6Department of Neurology and Anatomy & Neurobiology, University of California, Irvine, CA 92697, USA

Received 26 February 2013; Accepted 3 April 2013

Academic Editor: Alessandro Sale

Copyright © 2013 Michael R. Hagerty et al. This is an open access article distributed under the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.


We report the first neural recording during ecstatic meditations called jhanas and test whether a brain reward system plays a role in the joy reported. Jhanas are Altered States of Consciousness (ASC) that imply major brain changes based on subjective reports: (1) external awareness dims, (2) internal verbalizations fade, (3) the sense of personal boundaries is altered, (4) attention is highly focused on the object of meditation, and (5) joy increases to high levels. The fMRI and EEG results from an experienced meditator show changes in brain activity in 11 regions shown to be associated with the subjective reports, and these changes 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.