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A Neuroscience of Enlightenment?

enlightened brainThe field of contemplative science is rapidly growing and integrating into the basic neurosciences, psychology, clinical sciences and society-at-large. Yet the majority of current research in the contemplative sciences has been divorced from the soteriological context from which these meditative practices originate and has focused instead on clinical applications with goals of stress reduction and psycho-therapeutic health.

In the existing research on health outcomes of mindfulness-based clinical interventions, for example, there have been almost no attempts to scientifically investigate the goal of enlightenment. This is a serious oversight, given that such profound transformation across ethical, perceptual, emotional, and cognitive domains are taken to be the natural outcome and principle aim of mindfulness practice in the traditional Buddhist contexts from which these practices are derived.

If short-term interventions as short as a few sessions are now beginning to produce neuroplastic changes (Zeidan et al.; Tang et al., 2010; Xue et al., 2011), it may be that even in secular contexts, practitioners are already developing states and traits that are associated with progress towards enlightenment. In order to carefully assess the potential effects of meditative interventions it is of singular importance to ask whether enlightenment can be traced to specific neural correlates, cognition, or behavior.

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