Vipassana Meditation and the Brain: A Scientific Experiment

vipassana and the brain



Over the years, my yogi friends have consistently urged me to explore Vipassana meditation, claiming that I, as a self-proclaimed meditation nerd, would find it profoundly transformative. These recommendations often came from individuals who had ventured into the depths of consciousness through various practices, including Ayahuasca ceremonies. So, I would inquire about their experiences and often heard responses like, “It’s on par with the spiritual growth from Ayahuasca,” or even, “It delves even deeper than Ayahuasca.”

Such endorsements left an indelible mark on my curiosity. After all, I’m no stranger to exploring the far reaches of the mind. In the past, I ventured into the Brazilian jungle to measure the effects of Ayahuasca on the human brain.

Now, here was another modality of inner exploration touted to be even more profound. I was intrigued, to say the least. So, I embarked on a journey to Nepal, equipped with my trusty Muse2 Brain-sensing headband, to experience this ancient meditation technique for myself.

The ancient, mystical and beautiful city of Kathmandu, Nepal

What is Vipassana?

Vipassana is an ancient meditation technique introduced by the OG (original guru/gangster) of consciousness, Gautama Buddha, some 2500 years ago. Its history is intriguing, as it was lost to most of the world for centuries but preserved in Burma. In the 1960s, it made its way back to India and subsequently spread worldwide, primarily due to the efforts of Goenka-ji.

Today, hundreds of Vipassana centers exist globally, offering this technique through 10-day silent retreats. During these retreats, participants maintain silence, surrendering their computers, phones, and even books at the outset, resulting in a complete detox from distractions. The retreat unfolds with approximately 10 hours of daily meditation over nine consecutive days, culminating in a half-day of silence on the 10th day, followed by the joyous return to speech.

Vipassana was introduced by the OG meditator - Gautama Buddha

The technique’s instructions are dispensed incrementally each day. It begins with refining awareness on a small part of the body, typically the upper lip. By day 4, this heightened awareness is used to perform a body scan, a process that becomes progressively deeper and subtler. There are only two meals daily and a light evening snack. Days commence at 4:30 AM and lights-out at 9 PM.

The results of this mind-altering experience, as reported by participants, are often profound and transformational. On the 10th day, when the silence finally breaks, there’s a distinct buzz, akin to a shared psychedelic experience.

Many participants return to the Vipassana ashram year after year, often volunteering or extending their meditation for longer periods. For some, Vipassana becomes the path to enlightenment.

My Experience with Vipassana

Entering the retreat, I assumed that my daily meditation practice of 2-3 hours would grant me an advantage. However, meditating for 10 hours daily proved an entirely different challenge. It pushed me to the limits of my consciousness, particularly during adithan, or strong determination sits, where participants are expected to meditate without any movement for 2-3 hours daily.

Around day 5, I began to experientially grasp the essence of Vipassana, and it was nothing short of mind-blowing. One of its central concepts is the impermanence of mind. During the body scan, we identify aches, pains, and sensations, both obvious and subtle. Through extended observation, we witness firsthand the transient nature of these sensations—how they come and go. They are not real; they are illusory.

This realization extends to mental sensations, including thoughts, images, and emotions. They are no different from physical sensations—equally illusory and fleeting.

impermanence picasso
The moment the realisation of impermanence hits

By day 5, a monumental realization struck me: if all sensations are impermanent, in constant flux, and yet there exists a permanent observer of these sensations, then, essentially, there is no “me” beyond this observer. The pain, the emotions, the ego, and the memories, often associated with the “self,” are, in reality, illusions. I am an illusion—an egoic hologram. Yet, something remains permanent—the observer, the witness. Everything else is ephemeral.

You may read these words and find them logical, and I had heard similar concepts in the past. However, there’s a world of difference between intellectual knowledge and experiential realization. On that day, standing outside the meditation hall, the realization hit me like a ton of bricks. “Holy shit,” I thought to myself and smiled. “Holy fucking shit.”

The subsequent five days delved even deeper into this understanding, and I emerged profoundly transformed.

The Effect of a 10-day Vipassana Retreat on the Brain

However, this article isn’t about my subjective experience alone. I was keen on understanding whether practicing Vipassana in silence for 10 days would have a measurable impact on my brain waves. The answer, resoundingly, is YES.

Experimental Design, Hardware & Software

To assess the impact on my brain, I employed the same hardware and software I typically use—the Muse2 Brain-Sensing Headband paired with the MindMonitor software. The unique conditions within the ashram, regulating every aspect from diet to sleep, created an ideal environment for collecting pristine brain data.

The design was straightforward: I collected a baseline snapshot of my brain activity just before entering the Vipassana ashram and another snapshot immediately after the retreat.

Results & Conclusion

The contrast between my brain waves before and after the retreat is astonishing.

– The Power Spectral Density (PSD) of Gamma Waves, often associated with expanded consciousness and heightened awareness, increased by over 800%. Tibetan monks have demonstrated the ability to activate their gamma waves at will, sometimes increasing them by over 800%. In my Ayahuasca experiment, I observed that consuming Ayahuasca also led to a surge in the PSD of gamma brain waves.

– Brain hemispheric coherence, a measure of the synchronization between the brain hemispheres, increased dramatically. Before the retreat, my brain waves were slightly negatively correlated (-16%). After the retreat, they were more than 50% correlated. This level of coherence is significant. To put it in context, after 30 days of Ayahuasca, my brain waves were only 15% correlated, which was already a noteworthy result.

The data suggests that Vipassana has a profound impact on the brain, specifically on gamma waves and brain coherence. While it appears that Vipassana might go deeper than Ayahuasca, more data is needed for conclusive confirmation.

In conclusion, Vipassana stands as an incredibly potent meditation practice, known for its ability to expand consciousness and lead individuals to profound realizations. As Buddha taught, Vipassana is not bound by dogma; it offers a direct path to truth, non-duality, and oneness.

Raw Data

The data collected during this case study is freely available here. If you have any questions, or better yet new discoveries shoot us a message on Instagram here