The Neuroscience of Chakras

The Neuroscience of Chakras


Meditation, Sleep Deprivation and Self-Induction of Ecstatic Visionary Seizures

© 2017 Article by Philip T. Nicholson


The author, a healthy, left-handed, male medical writer with no epileptic disorder, was 37 years old when he inadvertently triggered an elaborate sequence of phosphene light-visions while he was trying to use his meditation skills to relax enough to fall asleep during early morning hours. He’d previously acquired a substantial sleep deficit, a condition associated with hyperexcitable cortical neurons. A reverse-engineering analysis of the phosphene characteristics—shapes, colors, movements, timing intervals and serial order—suggests new and otherwise unavailable insights about events taking place inside complex structures located deep in the brain which are difficult to monitor using the imaging technologies currently available. The analysis suggests several hypotheses: (1) that the altered state of consciousness called “empty mind” meditation, a state called turiya in Hindu mysticism and dhyana in Buddhist mysticism, is induced by the meditator’s activation of synchronous sleep rhythms that would normally be associated with stage 2 and stage 3 non-rapid-eye-movement sleep; (2) that the author’s pre-existing condition of sleep deprivation and hyperexcitable cortical neurons triggered a destabilization of sleep rhythm oscillators, generating spike-wave complexes and cortical fast-runs; (3) that the hypersynchrony in thalamocortical circuits drove a slow build-up of rhythmical discharges in the hippocampi which eventually triggered paroxysmal discharges in the left hippocampus; and, (4) that the hippocampal seizure evolved into a bilateral temporolimbic seizure with an ecstatic aura. These images may help neuroscientists design new experiments related to sleep, mental imagery, meditation, dissociation, hypnotic analgesia and psychogenic nonepileptic seizures.


Phosphenes, Meditation, Slow Wave Sleep Rhythms, Thalamocortical Seizures, Hippocampal Seizures, Psychogenic Nonepileptic Seizures


All of the meditation-induced phosphene images that appeared in this episode are depicted by the author’s schematic drawings in Figure 1. Video animations of these light visions are also available [1]. Similar sequences of meditation-induced light visions can be found in many of the meditation traditions in the Hindu, Buddhist and Daoist religions. Table 1 compares descriptions of light visions in the Hindu Upanishads and in a Tibetan Buddhist text, Naropa’s Epitome of the Six Yogas [2]. This paper presents a reverse-engineering analysis of the characteristics of these light visions—their shapes, sizes, colors, movements, timing intervals and serial order— and proposes that a specific set of neural mechanisms would have to be activated in a specific progression in order for light sensations with the specified characteristics to appear in a meditator’s visual field.

Figure 1 Drawings of meditation-induced light images observed by the author.

Row 1: Ring images generated by activation of synchronous spindle bursts (stage 2 NREMS). Row 2: Amorphous images generated by cortical slow waves (stage 3 NREMS). Row 3: “Eye-like” images generated by prolonged stimulation of vision-relay neurons in the dorsal LGN that subserve foveal vision. Eventually one of these “eye” images contracts and condenses into a tiny, star-like cluster. Row 4: Images of dark rings forming a “tunnel” image generated by the eruption of hypersynchronous spike-wave complexes and also images of a radiating spray generated by cortical fast-runs. Row 5: Images depicting a uniform brightening and bluing of the entire visual field caused by a gradual build-up of hypersynchronous activity in the hippocampi plus images of a small, white, thimble-shaped protrusion that seemed to alternate between pushing forward and pulling back. Row 6: Images depicting the sudden disappearance of the thimble-shaped and the bright blue background, the reinstatement of the normal eigengrau color of the visual field, and the appearance of thin white rays generated by the propagation of paroxysmal discharges inside the left hippocampus. Row 7: Images generated by a bilateral mesotemporal seizure.

Table 1 Descriptions of Light Vision Sequences in Indian and Tibetan Texts.
Excerpts from the Hindu Upanishads are from the Brhadaranyaka U. (BrU); Chandogya U. (CU); Katha U. (KU); Svetasvatara U. (SU); and the Maitri U. (MU). Excerpts from the Tibetan Buddhist texts are from Naropa’s The Epitome of the Six Yogas (TSY) which includes a chapter entitled “The Yoga of Psychic Heat” (YPH), and from Karma Lingpa’s The Natural Liberation of Seeing (NLS). See References [2].

The night these visions of light appeared the author was experiencing some “jet lag” circadian disturbances that kept him awake until 4 o’clock in the morning. Moreover, he’d already accumulated a substantial sleep deficit from having slept only four of the preceding forty-eight hours. And he was also feeling mildly depressed, a symptom that had recurred intermittently since the time, several years earlier, that he’d received a diagnosis of atypical depression secondary to complex post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). He got in bed and tried to use his familiar meditation technique to relax enough to fall asleep. Since there are many ways to induce different kinds of meditative trances, it’s relevant to specify that the technique used here included closing the eyes, directing the gaze down toward the tip of the nose, and keeping the mind focused on the coming and going of the breath, a combination of behaviors practiced by many meditators that can induce a dissociative trance state known as an “empty-mind state of consciousness.” Having induced this trance state, the author began to see phosphene light visions flow into the dark visual field, the same kinds of light visions he’d seen on many occasions—and also the same kinds of light visions that are often described in meditation texts. But on this occasion the familiar progression of phosphene imagery was suddenly eclipsed by the eruption of tumultuous phosphene images that evolved through many stages and culminated in a paroxysmal episode: lightning-like flashes, loud buzzing sounds, muscle tremors and “ecstatic” emotions. A neurological work-up performed after the paroxysmal episode did not uncover any evidence of an epileptic disorder or of occult epileptiform activity, and the author has never experienced a recurrence.

The findings of this reverse-engineering analysis of the phosphene images have the potential to help neuroscientists studying the neural correlates of consciousness associated with meditation, dissociation, slow wave sleep, sleep-onset seizures and vision-related symptoms of near-death experiences. First, the findings suggest that the trance state called empty-mind meditation is generated by behaviors that activate the slow wave sleep rhythms that normally govern a transition from waking to sleep. Second, the findings show some of what happens in complex structures located deep in the brain—in the thalamus, the hippocampus and the septum—when sleep rhythm oscillators destabilize, triggering onset of hypersynchronous spike-wave complexes and cortical fast-runs in thalamocortical circuits that then drive the emergence of a hippocampal seizure. Finally, these findings help researchers who perform studies using expert meditators to recognize when the brainwave patterns that appear in scalp EEGs or in subtemporal electrodes match brainwave patterns known to be associated with the kinds of partial seizures that might not produce any outward changes that would be easily observable by onlookers. This subject is addressed in more detail in the discussion.