At the Source: Finding Bliss in the Brain

Buddhists call it Nirvana. Literally translated to “blowing out,” it refers to the extinction of desire, aversion and delusion. Characterized by blissful egolessness 1, this particular state of mind (or rather, without-mind) has been obscure ever since a certain Siddhārtha Gautama attained it 2,500 years ago. Thankfully, there are people who experience this state effortlessly when misfiring in their brain gives rise to ecstatic seizures. Facilitated by neuroscience we can finally glimpse what being enlightened might look like.

A report in Cortex investigated two patients’ brains that suffer from ecstatic seizures – which consist of

 A feeling of bliss, associated with a sense of high self-awareness and physical sensation of global wellbeing (without a sexual feeling)

 The first patient is a 17-year-old Swiss apprentice farmer who has been suffering from seizures for 2 years.  His seizures were all triggered by a pleasant context, such as an interesting discussion or a nice landscape. When he experienced his seizures he felt as though “he clearly understood everything, especially if he was in the midst of a discussion with several people. He grasped it all simultaneously.” He also described time stopping.  This patient, as shown in the pictures below, had a tumor in the right temporal pole.

 The second patient is a 39 year old American philosopher who has been epileptic since he was 18.  The seizures stopped around 23 and his MRI looked normal. He described his ecstatic seizures as such:

“Everything would be joined together into one whole, as if every single thing in my surroundings were deliberately placed by an artist with the vividness which derived, not from any dramatic hallucination or visual “trick”, but from the fact that each object in my visual field was emphasized, so to speak, by everything else. When these boundaries are erased, a second phenomenon begins – all the ordinary facts about the environment seem suddenly to become infused with certainty and a sense of inevitability.”

 Both patients had an enormous feeling of confidence and well-being, no rush and a feeling of time moving very slowly.  So what exactly is happening in their brains?

In order for the mind to function clearly, the brain scans the environment and makes inferences about future states with “the greatest possible precision of certainty.”  The brain in essence, predicts the future based on several variables to remain at optimal homeostasis.  It dislikes uncertainty because the unavailability of information is negative and manifests as worry. Both patients’ main cognitive phenomenon was a sense of “clarification/certainty.” In other words, the brain was functioning at its peak.

 Deep inside the brain, a region called the insula works to predict the future and allows for error-based learning. Activation in this area can generate

 Emotional negative arousal or anxiety in case of anticipation of negative outcome, anticipation of uncertain outcome, or in case of mismatch between anticipated and actual state.

 It has also been suggested that your “gut feeling” actually arises in your brain, in the insula. It is used when the brain doesn’t have enough information from the environment to make a decision. So the role of the insula is to “fill in” the gaps, in order to help make a decision. The info graphic below shows that after receiving the experienced outcome, the brain compares it with a prediction and generates prediction errors.  It should be noted these mechanisms serve a valid purpose for adaptation – fire is hot, don’t touch. In the case of ecstatic seizures, the insula can no longer generate an error, which leads to --> unchanged prediction --> unchanged behavior – possibly leading to a long lasting blissful state. This implies adaptation is unnecessary for an enlightened state, or perhaps – the final step in adaptation.

Patients with ecstatic seizures can no longer compare the predicted future with what actually happens. This manifests as emotional confidence (egolessness) and a sort of clairvoyance.  In addition, by blocking the negative emotions that arise from uncertainty, a sense of serenity (bliss) is reached akin to deep meditation. In other words – Nirvana.  

Perhaps the Buddha inherently understood the plasticity of the brain when he asserted anyone can reach this elusive state through devoted meditation. 

Picture source. Picard, F. (2013). State of belief, subjective certainty and bliss as a product of cortical dysfunction Cortex, 49 (9), 2494-2500 DOI: 10.1016/j.cortex.2013.01.006
Picard F. (2013). State of belief, subjective certainty and bliss as a product of cortical dysfunction, Cortex, 49 (9) 2494-2500. DOI: