A version of this essay was submitted to Open Philanthropy's Cause Exploration Prizes contest

tl;dr 

Jhana are meditation states reported to be extremely blissful as well as conducive to lasting, substantial increases in wellbeing. 

There is preliminary neuroimaging evidence that subjective reports of jhana correlate with changes in brain activity. 

We present five researchers pursuing shovel-ready projects about jhana with room for more funding. These projects would substantially contribute to our understanding of jhanic states and the role they might play in transforming our conception of human flourishing. 

 

Definitions

By “meditative approaches”, we’re referring to a variety of contemplative practices that wisdom traditions claim to be supportive of human wellbeing and flourishing, usually by inducing states of increased concentration, inner stillness, sensory clarity, insight, and/or joy. 

“Jhana meditation” is a particular meditative approach that involves developing one’s ability to concentrate on a single object. It is reported to induce profoundly altered states, as described in this post by Scott Alexander:[1]

The Buddha discussed states of extreme bliss attainable through meditation:

"Secluded from sensual pleasures, secluded from unwholesome states, a bhikkhu enters and dwells in the first jhāna, which is accompanied by thought and examination, with rapture and happiness born of seclusion (Samyutta Nikaya)"

… 

The meditator cuts themselves from all sensory stimuli, eg by meditating really hard on a single object like the breath and ignoring everything else, and as a result gets "rapture and happiness born of seclusion".

The serious meditators I know say this is real, meaningful, and you can experience it after a few months of careful practice.

Jhanic states are described more formally in Hagerty et al. 2013

Jhanas are Altered States of Consciousness (ASC) that imply major brain changes based on subjective reports: (1) external awareness dims, (2) internal verbalizations fade, (3) the sense of personal boundaries is altered, (4) attention is highly focused on the object of meditation, and (5) joy increases to high levels.

 

Investigating jhana meditation is important, tractable, and neglected

There is a long tradition of encouraging meditation and contemplative practice as a road to increased wellbeing. This perspective arises across cultures and religions, and until recently has received little empirical investigation. 

We're now in a particularly high-leverage time to investigate meditative practices. As described by Dr. Matthew Sacchet, Director of the Meditation Research Program at Mass General and Harvard Medical School: 

Throughout history, many contemplative, philosophical, religious and spiritual traditions have included meditative approaches to lessen psychological suffering toward “awakening”, “enlightenment”, “salvation”, or other endpoints. 

Meditation is now more medically and scientifically mainstream than ever before. Recent advances in scientific methods including in brain mapping and computation, coupled with internet technologies that have enabled unprecedented communication and networking among meditators, have set the stage for new possibilities for meditation research. 

Given the potential for meditation to improve mental health and general wellbeing, now is the time to advance the study of meditation through deeper scientific investigation of meditative practices. 

 

Meditation research is important

In a 2019 estimate by Founders Pledge, mental health disorders accounted for 10.5% of the global disease burden (Halstead 2019). A 2012 analysis estimated the annual economic cost of mental disorders to be $2.5 trillion (Halstead 2019). These figures likely underestimate the present burden of mental disorders, as the analyses were carried out prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. They also do not account for the burden of several other factors, including self-harm and suicide, which have been estimated to increase the DALY count of mental disorders by 30% (Vigo et al. 2016). Chronic pain, for example, is believed to be psychosomatic in origin and has an estimated prevalence of 27.5% across data from 52 countries (Zimmer et al. 2021).[2] 

The Happier Lives Institute estimates that current firstline psychotherapies (e.g. cognitive-behavioral therapy) are approximately nine times as cost-effective as direct cash transfers (McGuire and Plant 2021). Unfortunately, the costs of these modalities scale linearly – each marginal dose of treatment requires an additional hour of therapist time to administer. 

Meditative approaches stand out as especially scalable and transportable methods of addressing mental disorders – they require minimal external infrastructure and capital investment to deploy (i.e. they scale with low marginal cost), and intervene on factors common to all people (i.e. neural circuitry). 

Systematic reviews of the academic literature on meditation find moderate effects on reducing depression, reducing anxiety, and improving one's ability to live with chronic pain (see Bohlmeijer et al. 2010, Goyal et al. 2014, Goldberg et al. 2018, and Ball et al. 2017). 

However, the current meditation literature suffers from methodological issues such as researcher bias, roll-up of outcomes from different meditative approaches into single summary statistics, and lack of reliable metrics of meditator expertise. Further high-quality research is required to improve our understanding of the effect sizes of meditative approaches on mental health.

More ambitiously, contemplative traditions have frequently held up meditation as a path to wellbeing improvements far above what a typical person considers to be baseline. This claim challenges our culture’s current paradigm of mental wellness. However, if true, meditation could yield enormous benefits from a utilitarian perspective, especially if the valence of subjective experience follows a logarithmic function (see Gómez Emilsson 2019). Furthermore, wellbeing improvements above baseline could lead to a multitude of beneficial flowthrough effects via e.g. better decision-making and improved prosocial coordination across institutions and individuals. 

Given the enormous benefits claimed by proponents of meditation and the current state of the literature (promising early results alongside methodological concerns), we propose that meditation research be prioritized as per a hits-based approach to philanthropy. 

Investigating jhana meditation stands out as an especially important research focus, as in addition to their beneficial acute qualities, access to jhanic states is traditionally considered to be prerequisite to the insights that lead to lasting improvements far above baseline.[3] Jhana meditation is anecdotally reported to be very pleasant in the moment, as well as more generally supportive of flourishing and adult development. 

 

Researching jhana meditation is tractable

Unlike some other meditative approaches (e.g. mindfulness meditation), jhanic states are reported to be discrete, profound, and holistically beneficial, with similar subjective experiences reported across many practitioners. There exist manualized procedures for the practices that lead to eight distinct jhanic states (Catherine 2008, Brasington 2015). These qualities imply that jhanic states are helpful, straightforward to recognize, and replicable across subjects. 

Preliminary neuroimaging studies have found evidence of discrete neural correlates to the subjective experience of each jhanic state in experienced practitioners (Hagerty et al. 2013, Dennison 2019) and these preliminary results have been independently replicated in a different subject pool (Devaney et al., in prep). 

For example, early fMRI data has shown changes in brain activity each time a meditator reported moving from one jhanic state to another, as well as stable, discrete, distinct patterns of activity when the meditator reported resting in each jhanic state (Hagerty et al. 2013). 

The practices that lead to jhanic states are ripe for optimization. There is currently huge variance in the time it takes for a practitioner to achieve a jhanic state, and the causality of this process is poorly understood. 

Some practitioners achieve jhanic states with a few hours of practice, or by accident. This suggests that it’s possible to learn jhana meditation quickly and with minimal cost, but we currently lack the understanding to replicate this rapidity across practitioners. Further research into the causal mechanisms underlying jhana could generate insights that allow rapid scaling of these states and their beneficial effects, e.g. via improved pedagogical methods and/or neurotech-enabled practices.

As discussed below, several high-quality academic groups are pursuing research agendas relevant to improving our understanding of jhana meditation. These groups have room for more funding. 

 

Researching jhana meditation is neglected

According to a 2021 estimate, mental health receives less than 1% of global philanthropic funding, disproportionately less than the magnitude of its burden (Müller 2021). 

Despite the growing popularity of meditative approaches, meditation research receives less funding than research into other novel mental health treatments, such as invasive and non-invasive neurostimulation and psychedelic-assisted therapy (both of which require more regulatory overhead and sophisticated external infrastructure to be scaled).

Jhana meditation has received much less attention than other meditative approaches, such as mindfulness meditation and insight meditation, despite making bolder claims about its power and utility. Few prior studies have investigated EEG correlates of these states (Dennison 2019), and to date there has been only one publication of fMRI data acquired during jhana meditation (Hagerty et al. 2013).

Jhana meditation’s affiliation with religious traditions may generate stigma, as well as contribute to a large inferential distance between the median jhana practitioner and the median academic researcher. 

Further, the large variance in time and effort currently required to achieve jhanic states may discourage investigators who have difficulty verifying the existence of these states for themselves. 

Finally, academic study of jhana suffers from a “threshold problem” – there are few academic papers to cite in order to build a case for the importance of jhana, and thus it’s difficult to get funding through conventional channels, which is the mechanism that would produce more papers to cite! A well-targeted influx of funding from outside the academy could bridge this gap, helping to bring a new field of research into existence. 

 

Shovel-ready grant opportunities for investigating jhana meditation 

Strong academic groups are currently investigating relevant topics including:

  • whether altered meditative states exist, and whether they can be objectively measured.
  • whether meditation interventions affect key neural circuits, such as memory and attentional circuits.
  • the causal relationship between meditative approaches and outcomes including fear extinction, stress reduction, enhanced cognition, moral reasoning, empathy, self-efficacy, and subjective experiences of wellbeing.
  • factors relevant to scalability, e.g. how to motivate people to sustain a meditation practice, how to best match a person and their context with the right style and dose of meditation, and how to minimize the risk of adverse effects. 
     

Concretely, the following researchers are pursuing research agendas relevant to understanding jhana meditation and have room for more funding: 
 

Dr. Matthew Sacchet: Director and Assistant Professor, Meditation Research Program at Mass General and Harvard Medical School

Key results to date: 

  • Conducted a comprehensive review of the key neural signatures of mindfulness related to attention control, self-awareness, emotion regulation, and pain relief (Sezer et al. 2022).
  • Provided the first evidence that mindfulness-based therapy can regulate brain connectivity in major depression (Lifshitz et al. 2019).
  • In May 2022, launched the Center for Meditation Science at Massachusetts General Hospital in affiliation with Harvard Medical School.

Future work that marginal funding would support: 

  • Support the development of the Center for Meditation Research to research meditative approaches including jhana. This research will inform the development of meditation training and meditation-based interventions that are more effective, efficient, and targeted. ($1,000,000 - $25,000,000 USD)
  • Fund ongoing studies organized by Dr. Sacchet to better understand the course of meditative development related to advanced meditative states, including jhana. ($50,000 - $2,500,000 USD)
  • Conduct multimodal neuroimaging data collection for the Neurophenomenology Project Dr. Sacchet is leading. Jhanic states are a focus area of this project. ($700,000 USD)
     

Dr. Kathryn Devaney: Executive Director, The Berkeley Alembic Foundation

Key results to date: 

  • Conducted a first in-human clinical trial of a novel type of electrical brain stimulation at Harvard Medical School (Devaney et al. 2020).
  • Demonstrated (with both task- and rest-based fMRI data) increased stability in sustained attention processes in meditators compared to control (Devaney et al. 2021).
  • Developed new fMRI application to study the Ventral Attention Network (VAN), a transient attention circuit responsible mainly for involuntary attention reorienting, enabling investigation in individuals rather than the former field standard of large group averages (Devaney et al. 2015).

Future work that marginal funding would support: 

  • Fund research at the Neuroimaging of Meditation Center within the Center for the Science of Psychedelics at UC Berkeley devoted to studying the neuroscience of meditation. Two studies require funding:
    • The jhana and attention neuroimaging study ($350,000 - $750,000 USD)
    • The jhana correlates and feedback project ($500,000 - $2,000,000 USD)
  • Support the development of The Alembic, a nonprofit meditation center and neuroscience laboratory. Funding is needed for an EEG system and a functional near-infrared spectroscopy (fNIRS) system as well as staff salaries to support the study of advanced meditation practitioners. (~$1,000,000 USD over 3 years)
     

Dr. Sara Lazar: Lazar Lab at Mass General and Harvard Medical School 

Key results to date: 

  • Published the first evidence of regular meditation practice altering the structure and function of the brain (Lazar et al. 2005), and that these changes could be detected after as little as eight weeks of practice (Hölzel et al. 2011).
  • Investigated a neural mechanism through which meditation-based interventions might enhance fear extinction and foster stress resilience (Sevinc et al. 2019) and  decrease anxiety (Sevinc et al. 2020, Holzel et al. 2013).
  • Proposed an experimental framework for the investigation of the relationship between mindfulness and ethical behavior (Sevinc et al. 2019).

Future work that marginal funding would support: 

  • Support two follow-up studies that investigate the relationship between jhana meditation and altruism, cooperation & empathy in experienced jhanna practitioners.
    • Investigate the neural mechanisms of altruism, cooperation, and empathy. (~$1,000,000 USD over 2 years)
    • Assess changes in altruism, cooperation and empathy related to jhana practice and the added benefit of jhana practices compared to an eight-week mindfulness-based intervention. ($4,000,000 USD over 5 years)
  • Enable the completion of an in-progress study at the MIT Sloan School of Management that aims to evaluate the impact of adding a variety of meditative practices to a new MIT new leadership course. ($670,000 USD)
     

Dr. Jay Sanguinetti: SEMA Lab at the University of Arizona 

Key results to date: 

  • Evidence that transcranial ultrasound stimulation (TUS) technology is associated with positive mood enhancement and emotional regulation (Sanguinetti et al. 2021) as well as noninvasive modulation of activity in the central nervous system (Gibson et al. 2018).
  • Conducted a pilot study that inhibited a region of the brain that may interfere with mindfulness practice following ten minutes of TUS (manuscript in preparation).

Future work that marginal funding would support: 

  • Support a study currently in progress that aims to assess the risk profile of using brain-modulating technologies and validate if this is a promising direction for increasing the accessibility of meditation-based positive outcomes. ($742,000 USD) 
     

Dr. Daniel Ingram: The Emergent Phenomenology Research Consortium (EPRC)

Key results to date: 

Future work that marginal funding would support: 

  • Secure $500,000 USD for 2023 to continue the EPRC’s work at current capacity and add some professional grant management, budgeting, and CRM software for about $60,000 USD.
  • The medium-term fundraising goal is to secure $5,000,000 - $10,000,000 USD for regranting to vetted research in the cause area over the next three years.

 

What would we have done if we had put further work into this submission? 

If we had put more time into this essay, we would have further developed the argument that increases to individual's wellbeing, mental clarity, and compassion (as jhanic states may facilitate) would translate to more prosocial behavior and lead to better decision-making and social outcomes. 

We would have spent more time meeting with the researchers discussed above to better understand their research agendas and use-of-funds in detail. We also would have further investigated the work of other academic labs pursuing potentially relevant agendas. 

And we would have worked to get better resolution on the following questions and uncertainties: 

  • What are the potential side effects of trying to scale access to jhanic states as a means of rapidly increasing wellbeing? Intensive meditation practices can have adverse effects (Britton et al. 2021). Experienced practitioners often emphasize the need for a teacher and community to support meditative progress, especially as difficult emotions arise.
  • How compatible is cultivating jhanic states with leading an active, engaged life? (Jhana meditation has traditionally been associated with seclusion from the secular world.)
  • Given that jhanic states have been shown to stimulate the brain’s reward system, what is the addictive potential of jhana? Why do experienced practitioners report that jhanic states are not addictive?
  • Is facility with accessing jhanic states largely driven by genetic factors?
  • We’re not sure whether a format that includes Buddhist jargon and philosophy is the best packaging for discussing jhana.
  • We’re also not sure what effects jhanic states would have if isolated from their traditional spiritual context, which usually includes a community of fellow practitioners and oversight by an experienced teacher. 
     

Conclusion 

Jhana meditation is reported to induce blissful states that lead to dramatic, lasting improvements in wellbeing.

Validating this claim is important, tractable, and neglected. 

Small neuroimaging studies have demonstrated that subjective reports of achieving jhanic states correspond to changes in brain activity. 

Further research is needed to validate this preliminary work and assess the utility and scalability of practicing jhana meditation. 

We presented the research agendas of five academics in the area with shovel-ready projects that have room for more funding: Dr. Matthew Sacchet of Mass General and Harvard, Dr. Kathryn Devaney of the Berkeley Alembic, Dr. Sara Lazar of Mass General and Harvard, Dr. Jay Sanguinetti of the University of Arizona, and Dr. Daniel Ingram of the Emergent Phenomenology Research Consortium. 

A better understanding of jhana meditation could transform our conception of wellbeing and what it means to flourish. In addition to its standalone benefits, such a transformation would have massive positive flowthrough effects, leading to a much brighter future for humanity! 


Acknowledgements

Thanks to Dr. Kathryn Devaney, Dr. Daniel Ingram, Dr. Sara Lazar, Dr. Matthew Sacchet, Dr. Jay Sanguinetti, Phil Chu, Milan Cvitkovic, Sjir Hoeijmakers, Marcin Kowrygo, Jasen Murray, Aaron Nesmith-Beck, Alice Ravenscroft, John Salvatier, Romeo Stevens, and Stephen Zerfas for helpful context, thoughts, and feedback!  
 

  1. ^

    See also Scott's more colorful description of jhanic states in this post

    Jhanas are unusual mental states you can get into with enough concentration. Some of them are super blissful. Others are super tranquil. They’re not particularly meaningful in and of themselves, but they can give you heroin-level euphoria without having to worry about sticking needles in your veins [or the substantial downsides of heroin use].

  2. ^

    Other forms of mental suffering not captured by current diagnostic criteria include cognitive biases, lack of emotional resilience, self-doubt, and imposter syndrome.

  3. ^

     From this Slate Star Codex post

    But the main point of samatha [concentration] meditation is to improve your concentration ability so you can direct it to ordinary experience. Become so good at concentrating that you can attain various jhanas – but then, instead of focusing on infinite bliss or whatever other cool things you can do with your new talent, look at a wall or listen to the breeze or just try to understand the experience of existing in time.

    This is vipassana (“insight”, “wisdom”) meditation. It’s a deep focus on the tiniest details of your mental experience, details so fleeting and subtle that without a samatha-trained mind you’ll miss them entirely…

    With enough of this work, you gain direct insight into what Buddhists call “the three characteristics”. The first is impermanence, and is related to all the stuff above about how sensations flicker and disappear. The second is called “unsatisfactoriness”, and involves the inability of any sensation to be fulfilling in some fundamental way. And the last is “no-self”, an awareness that these sensations don’t really cohere into the classic image of a single unified person thinking and perceiving them.


     

33

3 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 5:42 AM
New Comment

I've gotten a lot from Rob Burbea's 2019 jhana retreat talks (a).

Only read the TL;DR and the conclusion, but I was wondering why the link between jhana meditation and brain activity matters? Even if we assume materialism, the Path in its various forms (I am intimately familiar with the Buddhist one) always includes other steps, and only taken together do they lead to increased happiness and mental health. My thinking is that we should go in one of two direction: direct manipulation of the brain, or a holistic spiritual approach. This middle way, ironically, seems to leave out the best of both worlds.