Dopamine, Cravings, and Jhana

Daniel T, modified 9 Years ago.

Dopamine, Cravings, and Jhana

Posts: 69 Join Date: 5/3/11 Recent Posts
Heya. How is everyone?

This question has been on my mind for awhile, off another DhO thread. quick background:
I believe CCC or EiS wrote this originally, but I can't find the OP. I'm pretty sure it was CCC.

His reply to another question outlined this example of how when he eats a bag of chips, he'll be more mindful of the sensations of eating, and thus enjoy it more, but he has to exert some self control not to eat them quickly. These seemingly opposite goals (shovelling food into mouth vs enjoying food in mouth) are taken to point to how we have this desire to experience pleasure, but also urges to do things that we know are pleasurable.
I'm paraphrasing and re-interpreting, and probably mangling the whole thing, but the general idea was interesting to me when I read it. I think Nik comments on this difference as well. The point was that we often know about objectively superior modes of experience (CCC uses the rupa jhanas as an example), but aren't quite so naturally drawn to them. We have to discipline ourselves to get into jhana (from mctb, this is a type of renunciation).

(Tangentially related to another thread by Daniel where he describes a point in his actualist-inspired practice he decided to call his "peppermint phase". There was something in there about not feeling the same reward pathway activation when eating rich food. If you can find any of these threads, please let me know. I wouldn't mind reading them again but seem to be really bad with the search feature. specific keywords seem to give me a lot of unrelated posts)


Anyway, my question is:
-What are the current theories (by meditators and otherwise) about the neurochemical differences in these experiences?
I read "Buddha's Brain" by Rick Hansen, where he argues the sustained attention applied in shamantha trigger parts of the brain to temporarily up the dopamine saturation, and as a result feel really good (and in different ways depending on what parts are triggered; you could go on to say that they're triggered in progressively more complex combinations, which would make sense as the going deeper/adding of finer qualities is what happens as you get into higher jhanas).

Keeping the example simple: eating food:
In my head it's like paying attention to the food has a low level dopamine rush, with the taste, and applied attention to those sensations.

And running counter to that is the bare sensation of the craving. Seperate from the experience of the food.
I think of this as a reward mechanism for eating more food, and is a hard wired thing (evolved or what have you).
So when I ask about neurochemical differences, I mean "is the reward mechanism also dopamine based? If so why/how do they reconfigure so the experience feels different?"
And what misconceptions might I have about how the brain works based on the way I am writing about it?
Any references to old texts that speak to this would be great as well.

Thanks!
End in Sight, modified 9 Years ago.

RE: Dopamine, Cravings, and Jhana

Posts: 1251 Join Date: 7/6/11 Recent Posts
Don't recall saying anything about chips, but the rupa jhana thing sounds like I might have said it at some point.

I'm far from having any sort of definitive theory of what's going on, though I think the issue is fascinating. I don't think things are as simple as "dopamine causes X"; it's easy to take a dopamine-affecting drug (i.e. a stimulant) and recognize a variety of diverse mental effects. And it's easy to recognize that a drug that affects dopamine in a broad way (e.g. methylphenidate) has more diverse effects than a drug that affects it in a more circumscribed way (e.g. caffeine) with respect to the collection of phenomena under discussion (desire / pleasure / attention / etc.).

My guess as to how this works for jhana is that paying attention to a single sensory experience causes enhancement of dopamine activity in some part of the brain, which inhibits mind-wandering, and which allows the experience to be perceived more clearly; when this activity gets very high, there's a broader inhibition (resulting in the sensory experience transforming into a subtler nimitta), and eventually a more profound inhibition and shutdown of many brain processes (Visuddhimagga-style jhana). I have no theory about how jhanas 1-8 work, but the idea of a continuing gradual shutdown (and not an increase in complexity) seems plausible.

Certainly some things grab attention in a unique way, and there is a desire for those things, and theoretically one can reason that those things are linked to dopamine somehow, but despite the theory, they don't seem to lend themselves to deep concentration, and so there's some kind of difference between how they work and how paying attention to a neutral sensory experience works. For example, having a sexual experience might put you in a good place to do dry vipassana (perhaps the energy and stimulation will sharpen your mind in some way), but I can't see that it would be beneficial for developing the kind of concentration that leads to (Visuddhimagga-style) jhana. The suttas say that jhana 1 depends on seclusion from sensuality; picking an experience to pay attention to that exacerbates sensual desire (perhaps due to some other dopamine effect) seems counterproductive.

I have found that specifically cultivating pleasure helps concentration, perhaps because of the dopamine connection, but more specifically, perhaps because it involves dopamine activity that's less likely to spill over into whatever brain pathways are involved in sensual desire in a significant way. (According to my experience and analysis, sensual desire is not a desire for pleasure, but a desire for the world to be or to become a certain way; a desire for certain things to happen, including a desire based around the idea of [but not the fact of] experiencing pleasure...in other words, a highly cognitive sort of thing...whereas pleasure in itself lacks the relevant cognitive dimension.)

As for eating food, I recall reading about animal studies where dopamine is involved in behavior related to exerting effort to get and eat food, whereas endorphins are involved in getting some sort of pleasure out of it, and the two are quite separable. If you want the full details, google (or an appropriate textbook) will surely help. (This seems to contradict my speculations about pleasure above, but as I understand it, dopamine and endorphins are tied together in various ways normally, outside of peculiar studies that find ways to isolate the contributions of each.)

Not sure how much credence you should accord to my speculations. I'm not a neuroscientist. I have some vague neuroscience knowledge, and I've taken various dopamine-influencing medications in context of meditation and tried to examine what the effects were. (As to the latter point, I suggest not taking any medication unless it's prescribed to you and unless you expect it to be beneficial to your life and meditation practice; LocoAustriaco on KFD wrote about experimenting with some medications in order to understand "enlightenment" better but indicated that he was significantly worse off for having done the experiment; presumably he had a prescription, but his experiment didn't satisfy the "expectation of benefit" criterion. Curiosity about these sorts of things generally doesn't help one's life or meditation practice...)
Daniel T, modified 9 Years ago.

RE: Dopamine, Cravings, and Jhana

Posts: 69 Join Date: 5/3/11 Recent Posts
been meaning to read this:
http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2756052/?tool=pubmed

Responding in point form:
drugs:
-If you have taken MPH, I'd be interested in reading any comments you had on its effects, especially in relation to meditation.
attention:
-I remember reading somewhere (likely that hansen book) that it's something of a positive feedback loop, which matches up with qualities of 2nd Jhana. Ie, apply effort, get piti/sukha, decide to continue to apply effort, that effort is less effortful in 2nd. As I understand it, the reason why this works is the behavior of attention itself is a function of levels (maybe not just levels but kinds) of dopamine saturation in different parts of the brain. So if the research was done, this would suggest people in different nanas would have different configurations (roughly) that create those effects(and those areas would match up with parts of theory...like how the A&P is commonly associated with vivid sexual/emotional/dream/etc content.
Agree about the jhanas being a shutdown, at least with conscious parts of the brain we're accustomed to using in daily life (other parts not so sure).


sex:
-This bit surprised me as I've never really thought about it, but my intuition is that sex and meditation hold so many similar qualities you should be able to combine aspects of both. I'll note that I think the key is getting a handle on the sensual *desire* part. If you're not (in your words) desiring for the world (ie, the sexual experience) to become a certain way, the energy+sensations experienced while sexually aroused seem to me like they'd be quite powerful meditative objects. This is a whole new object its own challenges, and there are just more resources for more mainstream ones like breath/navel movement, so i imagine instances where one would not be better off with breath would be exceedingly rare. You know how some people just don't like/can't seem to get the breath to work, but really like other practices? I think it's just a difference of object. I know nothing about tantra, but I imagine it would develop along these lines of thought...(iirc, that's after mastering all the other stuff first) It honestly doesn't occur to me that I could have sex without jhanic qualities arising these days. I think some of the married folks on here would agree. At the very least, arousal->alertness does something beneficial there.


I'll touch base when I've read that pubmed article I linked, and a few others I've had my eye on. I suspect I'll have some things to say after relating that stuff to my practice.

I think the difference between the effects/systems relating dopamine, endorphins, etc, is at the heart of my question. To clarify: I think being informed about these things helps practice (especially on the sila side of things, or at least that's how I feel right now), as on a conscious level there's some sense of the underlying factors that go into sensations. Consciously, I believe this helps me identify less with many sensations, see them with more clarity, and expend less time/effort doign so (see the 3Cs faster as the tone of "i feel like this partially because of this..." is less sticky than "this feels good/bad!!!")
End in Sight, modified 9 Years ago.

RE: Dopamine, Cravings, and Jhana

Posts: 1251 Join Date: 7/6/11 Recent Posts
Daniel T:

-If you have taken MPH, I'd be interested in reading any comments you had on its effects, especially in relation to meditation.


With MPH: More pleasure, more mindfulness, more agitation / craving. Concentration can overall be quite high, but despite that, I'm not sure I ever achieved anything like Visuddhimagga-type jhana this way, due to the extra agitation.

With caffeine: more mindfulness, more variability compared to MPH in how much concentration is attained, no impedient to Visuddhimagga-type jhana (though it's far from easy for me to attain).

Presumably MPH stimulates some brain circuits that need to go off for jhana, whereas caffeine is more selective.

attention:
-I remember reading somewhere (likely that hansen book) that it's something of a positive feedback loop, which matches up with qualities of 2nd Jhana. Ie, apply effort, get piti/sukha, decide to continue to apply effort, that effort is less effortful in 2nd. As I understand it, the reason why this works is the behavior of attention itself is a function of levels (maybe not just levels but kinds) of dopamine saturation in different parts of the brain. So if the research was done, this would suggest people in different nanas would have different configurations (roughly) that create those effects(and those areas would match up with parts of theory...like how the A&P is commonly associated with vivid sexual/emotional/dream/etc content.


Could you explain what the part in bold means in relation to the part before it?

Agree about the jhanas being a shutdown, at least with conscious parts of the brain we're accustomed to using in daily life (other parts not so sure).


Some of the brain is obviously still functioning, I didn't mean to imply otherwise. Surely the brainstrem or autonomic regions. Surely whatever parts are involved with the relevant jhanic factors.

sex:
-This bit surprised me as I've never really thought about it, but my intuition is that sex and meditation hold so many similar qualities you should be able to combine aspects of both. I'll note that I think the key is getting a handle on the sensual *desire* part. If you're not (in your words) desiring for the world (ie, the sexual experience) to become a certain way, the energy+sensations experienced while sexually aroused seem to me like they'd be quite powerful meditative objects.


I would say that the energy+sensations you're talking about are most likely tied in with sensuality (desire for the world) in unexpected ways. That's one thing I've found surprising and deep about this path...lots of very innocuous-looking stuff is linked to desire and craving in unexpected ways. (cf Jill's "rat poop" story.)

I agree that the energy+sensations can do interesting things as objects for meditation, but to the extent that they're linked to sensuality, I would say they're not suitable for (Visuddhimagga-style) jhana. It's probably analogous to MPH: they stimulate brain circuits that need to be inhibited, even if they also stimulate brain circuits that would otherwise help the practice.

About the nature of the energy+sensations...

It honestly doesn't occur to me that I could have sex without jhanic qualities arising these days. I think some of the married folks on here would agree. At the very least, arousal->alertness does something beneficial there.


I would be surprised if most people didn't report that typical sex is like A&P in some ways, or like 1st or 2nd jhana (as described in MCTB ) in some ways...but, I would say that A&P/etc. aren't like Visuddhimagga-style jhana at all. And the difference, as I see it, is that Visuddhimagga-style jhana has no sensuality, and so has no real resemblance to things that involve sensuality. And that's why I think sex is an ineffective way to develop concentration for that style of jhana.

Not an airtight argument, but something to consider.

If you're interested in PCEs or have practiced in a way that's moved your experience in that direction, it might be interesting to see what kinds of experiences are present during sex typically, and what has to drop away to move more in the direction of a PCE. (Maybe this is what tantric sex is about; I dunno.) I think the result would be sex that's increasing less sexual in the "normal" way. No idea what value it would have as a practice.

I think the difference between the effects/systems relating dopamine, endorphins, etc, is at the heart of my question. To clarify: I think being informed about these things helps practice (especially on the sila side of things, or at least that's how I feel right now), as on a conscious level there's some sense of the underlying factors that go into sensations. Consciously, I believe this helps me identify less with many sensations, see them with more clarity, and expend less time/effort doign so (see the 3Cs faster as the tone of "i feel like this partially because of this..." is less sticky than "this feels good/bad!!!")


If you accept the liking vs. wanting distinction in the article you linked, one way to approach it through the neuroscience lens might be by repeatedly asking yourself "do I like this, or do I merely want this?", where "this" is whatever apparently-positive experience you're having. If the brain system was completely transparent (if you could easily distinguish between what you like and what you want without liking), it probably wouldn't work so well, so the assumption should probably be that distinguishing the two is difficult (that wanting is often mistaken for liking, or wanting is seen as a kind of liking) but, like any skill, is something that you could get better at with practice. (Also, probably worth keeping in mind that 99% of experiences will be mixes of liking and wanting; in that case you can ask "what part of this is liking, and what part of this is wanting?")

I wouldn't think that liking vs. wanting in neuroscience is exactly analogous to pleasure vs. desire in Buddhism (as part of neuroscience "wanting" is merely behavioral), but it would be interesting to see how far one could take the analogy in practice.

Not sure if it's exactly what you had in mind. I don't think I can provide any detailed information regarding neurotransmitters / etc.

On a different note, if "I feel like this partially because of this..." helps phenomena become less sticky, do you think "I feel like this because of numerous causes and conditions" would equally help?
Crazy Wisdom, modified 9 Years ago.

RE: Dopamine, Cravings, and Jhana

Posts: 45 Join Date: 7/5/10 Recent Posts
These two sites have very interesting theories about dopamine, and dopamine and sex that I think hold largely true:

reuniting.info

yourbrainonporn.com

I don`t have time to present their theories properly and don`t really know them precisely enough anyway but I`ll just add this point to guide your understanding in reading those sites. When they are talking about not having orgasms and non orgasmic sex what they are actually talking about is having sex without conventional explosive external orgasms but with implosive internal valley orgasms and spending a lot of time surfing in the preorgasmic bliss. I highly, highly recommend both reading up on their theories and reading up on the experiences of the people on their forum as the experience of the people on the forum so clearly back up their theories. Their community is a lot like thedharmaoverground in its highly empirical approach although their focus is sex and relationships.
Max Nanasy, modified 6 Years ago.

RE: Dopamine, Cravings, and Jhana

Posts: 2 Join Date: 6/7/14 Recent Posts
I don't know a specific answer to your questions, but http://dhammawheel.com/viewtopic.php?t=18584 links to a study involving MRI and EEG that goes into some detail about dopamine and its relation to jhana.
Sean Lindsay, modified 6 Years ago.

RE: Dopamine, Cravings, and Jhana

Posts: 46 Join Date: 11/3/09 Recent Posts
A response from a slightly different angle:    Though I began a relatively steady and consistent and "productive" (if such a word can be applied to meditation) meditation practice in 2003 (5-7x/week, 45-55 minutes per session), by the middle of 2013, the entire practice had become dry, shallow, and difficult.  I replaced that practice for about 18 months with intense physical training, and found a few of the benefits that I'd previously associated with meditation, though with few-to-fewer of the insights that I'd associated with the practice.

When I had to give up the physical training work last fall to get a shoulder repaired, I began to have a number of physical symptoms that resulted, a few months ago, in a diagnosis of Parkinson's Disease, which manifests in a variety of ways, most of which result from decreased dopamine levels in the brain.  I was put on the standard treatment regimen for newly diagnosed PD -- which consists of a drug that raises blood levels of dopamine precursors a fraction of which convert to dopamine in the brain, and a second drug (a dopamine agonist) that replicates in brain tissues some of the functions of dopamine.

With the medicine regimen, many of the PD symptoms declined in severity, but two unexpected things also arose.  First, I began sleeping more soundly with much more vivid dreams than I'd had in years.  And second, more pertinent to this thread, I found the "juice" of my meditation practice fully restored.  In part, the latter effect may be either a cause or an effect of my decision to resume my meditation practice consistently, and to engage in a 15-week program that has me meditating between 2 and 3 hours per day.  Either way, I've found that after I started the dopamine medication program, very significant meditative changes and improvements have arisen.  In connection with that practice, I've found that, as in years past, the meditation will sometimes spontaneously induce jhanas 1-3, though my current practice has not involved attempting to cultivate or deepen those states.
C P M, modified 6 Years ago.

RE: Dopamine, Cravings, and Jhana

Posts: 219 Join Date: 5/23/13 Recent Posts
Hi Sean
Gary Weber has a blog post that relates to your findings:
http://happinessbeyondthought.blogspot.ca/2013/11/do-drugs-sex-competition-and-meditation.html

A quote from the blog:  So what about our meditation???  Well, studies done on dopamine levels during meditation (Kjaer, et al., "Increased dopamine tone during meditation-induced change in consciousness", 2002) demonstrated that "advanced practitioners experience a large increase (65%) in dopamine levels in the nucleus accumbens during meditative states."

He references this study:
http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/2153599X.2013.826717#.VRyerY6GOPV

A quote from the Abstract: "Buddhism provides strong advice against the pursuit of worldly pleasures to attain the “good life.” In contrast, many forms of meditation give rise to an immense and abiding joy. Most of these practices involve “stilling the mind,” whereby all content-laden thought (e.g., fantasies, daydreams, plans) ceases, and the mind enters a state of openness, formlessness, clarity, and bliss. This can be explained by the Buddhist suggestion that almost all of our everyday thoughts are a form of addiction. It follows that if we turn off this internal “gossip of ego,” we will find relief from the biochemical dopamine/opiate down-regulation, which is, perhaps, the perpetual concomitant of our daily rumination.
Sean Lindsay, modified 6 Years ago.

RE: Dopamine, Cravings, and Jhana

Posts: 46 Join Date: 11/3/09 Recent Posts
C P M, thanks for the reference.  Interesting materials.  One of my working hypotheses is that I switched from meditation to more intensive cardio training because subconsciously I wasn't getting the dopamine-related effects from meditation any longer, and I was (and am still, even this far into PD) able to get the endorphin blend from cardio.

I suspect the experienced-meditators-with-PD cohort is small and scattered enough that it might be hard to persuade a researcher to congregate us into some experiments with varying ranges of dopamine medication and meditative practices.

So I'll have to fool around with my n=1 cohort. ;-)
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Not Tao, modified 6 Years ago.

RE: Dopamine, Cravings, and Jhana

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I don't think jhana is related to a reward system.  It think a better way to look at it is that it shuts down self-reflection.  Because of this, there are no longer any judgements applied to things.  The experience isn't pleasant in a sexual or stimulating way - it's not like "getting what you want" as afeeling.  It seems to come from somewhere else in my experience.

As an example, negative experiences like body pain will change form in jhana.  They still feel the same, objectively, but they no longer carry a negative judgement with them.  Piti isn't bliss, it's rapture - the mind is locked in.  I think this registers as pleasant because the lack of self reflection keeps the mind from trying to do anything with what it's experiencing.

Like, consider how you feel when you lose track of yourself - you aren't applying any self judgement or thinking about yourself at all.  It's all about the experience, so you are happy.  There's nothing you feel required to do.  All concept of struggle or effort is forgotten.  This isn't the same as being rewarded or feeling rewarded, it's much more passive, I think.
Alin Mathews, modified 6 Years ago.

RE: Dopamine, Cravings, and Jhana

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Not Tao:

Like, consider how you feel when you lose track of yourself - you aren't applying any self judgement or thinking about yourself at all.  It's all about the experience, so you are happy.  There's nothing you feel required to do.  All concept of struggle or effort is forgotten.  This isn't the same as being rewarded or feeling rewarded, it's much more passive, I think.

I think so too.

self-reflective neurons are mirror neurons and they keep functioning even when cognition is not interpreting the effects of dopamine, seratonin, endorphins etc as my moods. 

mirror neurons may be a recent neural development, an important learning tool eg apperception (consciousness perceiving its own consciousness) what a blast!

and psychological pain (without a physical illness) maybe neural pain memories firing inappropriately. haven't researched.  just my 2 bucks

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