A phenomenology of meditation-induced light experiences: traditional Buddhist and neurobiological perspectives
The scientific study of Buddhist meditation has proceeded without much attention to Buddhist literature that details the range of psychological and physiological changes thought to occur during meditation. This paper presents reports of various meditation-induced light experiences derived from American Buddhist practitioners. The reports of light experiences are classified into two main types: discrete lightforms and patterned or diffuse lights. Similar phenomena are well documented in traditional Buddhist texts but are virtually undocumented in scientific literature on meditation. Within Buddhist traditions, these phenomena are attributed a range of interpretations. However, because it is insufficient and problematic to rely solely upon the textual sources as a means of investigating the cause or significance of these phenomena, these qualitative reports are also considered in relation to scientific research on light-related experiences in the context of sensory deprivation, perceptual isolation, and clinical disorders of the visual system. The typologies derived from these studies also rely upon reports of experiences and closely match typologies derived from the qualitative study of contemporary practitioners and typologies found in Buddhist literary traditions. Taken together, these studies also provide evidence in support of the hypothesis that certain meditative practices – especially those that deliberately decrease social, kinesthetic, and sensory stimulation and emphasize focused attention – have perceptual and cognitive outcomes similar to sensory deprivation. Given that sensory deprivation increases neuroplasticity, meditation may also have an enhanced neuroplastic potential beyond ordinary experience-dependent changes. By providing and contextualizing these reports of meditation-induced light experiences, scientists, clinicians, and meditators gain a more informed view of the range of experiences that can be elicited by contemplative practices.