The Psychology of the Enlightened Mind
Jacob Abuhamada

Central to all Eastern psychology is the notion of enlightenment: but what is enlightenment? Can it be measured or discussed empirically within the context of western psychology? Very little research has been done to give us a scientific understanding of the capacities of the human mind to achieve states of consciousness which transcend ordinary cognition. Such research would prove to be ground-breaking in the process of expanding the Eastern and Western scholarly traditions, as it would end up calling for major reform of typically held beliefs about no less than humankind itself on either the Eastern or Western sides; enlightenment could be reduced to mere religious superstition, or it could be validated and thus warrant a whole new dimension of education and scientific study in the West. This paper will explore this topic by looking at scientific studies that have been done to in some way measure or validate the possibility of attaining an “enlightened” mind, it will present a hypothetical study which could be carried out to give more scientific validity to this rather prevalent Eastern concept, and will lastly explore the possible implications of validating such a remarkable concept.

Definition of Terms

What is enlightenment? In the East there are many divergent psycho-spiritual systems of thought, but there is a common understanding about certain psychological qualities of an enlightened mind. Every tradition sees the enlightened mind as having, at the very least, freedom from afflictive emotions, profound joy and equanimity, a great propensity for deep and complex philosophical concepts, and possessing total or near-total self-control. This control keeps the mind from being swayed by base biological urges, and gives such an individual the capacity to concentrate at a level of absorption beyond the capacity of the average human.

In addition, such a mind lacks almost all notion of self: Self-definitions are only conventionally{1} present, there appears to be effectively no differentiation between personal and social identity, and self-esteem is not a concern in any way. This removal of the self-concept creates a profound sense of unity with all things, and immense non-dual compassion (Greek: agape) is said to thus manifest. In a symbiotic relationship with the compassion is the understanding of some ultimate truth about individuals being pure and having an ultimately transcendent nature which prevents negative judgments and assumptions. It should also be noted that this state is achieved through very systematic and comprehensive mind-training exercises{2}, of which meditation is paramount.

Psychologically speaking the enlightened mind is free from the sway of schemas or heuristics, and – being in a state of incredible equanimity – is virtually free from the effects of affect on cognition. Because the self-concept has effectively been done away with, the enlightened mind is beyond concern over impression formation. Attitudes play a large part, as they can provide a tool for mind-training in regards to understanding the world and for maintaining equanimity. The self-created and self-preserved positive attitude greatly affects behavior in a positive fashion. Having this unconditionally compassionate attitude which permeates the root nature of an enlightened mind should remove prejudice, lead to positive relationships, give one stronger ethos to facilitate social influence (in conjunction with the self-mastery), and eliminate aggression (while boosting prosocial tendencies). Lastly, the enlightened individual will feel a strong sense of belonging in the world and almost paradoxically feel wholly self-sufficient by their lacking the self-concept.

{1} — That is to say, only present for the purpose of getting along and communicating in the conventional, every-day world.
{2} — These practices of mind-training which are said to be the path and building blocks of the enlightened mind are where most research has been done, and will be the bulk of the existent research this paper will refer to for evidence.

Overview/Analysis of Existing Research

In 2008 a study was carried out to measure the gray matter of experienced meditators against a control of individuals matched for age, gender, and education, with no subjects having any psychological or biological abnormalities (Luders). The meditators demonstrate more gray matter in the right orbito-frontal cortex and right hippocampus, which deal with emotional control and mindfulness. The study notably demonstrated that the first few years of meditation practice are what led to the increased gray matter and that further experience in meditation does not contribute to the accumulation of it, but is more likely conducive just to maintaining the presence of the extra gray matter{3}.

It is possible, however, that the meditation itself does not cause the increased gray matter in the various regions of the brain; it could simply be that people prone to practice meditation have such predispositions naturally because the aforementioned parts of the brain naturally happen to contain more gray matter than average individuals. Longitudinal studies would be necessary to determine more valid conclusions.

Other related studies have been done in recent years to determine other facets of information about the neurological effects of meditation. One such study (Brefczynski-Lewis) determined experienced meditators to have less activation of regions of the brain dealing with discursive thoughts and emotions, and more activation of regions dealing with attention and response inhibition. Another determined that long-term meditators are generally able to self-induce spikes in gamma-wave oscillations when doing compassion meditations, as opposed to novice practitioners (Lutz). Yet another study surveyed 351 adults, all of varying ages and levels of experience with meditation, and determined a clear, positive correlation between meditation experience and emotional intelligence, low stress, and the rarity of afflictive emotions (Chu). And a 2009 study of advanced Tibetan Buddhist meditation practitioners (Kozhevnikov) determined that a Tibetan Deity-Yoga meditation practice leads to enhanced visuo-spatial processing efficiency (notably even more so than other experienced Tibetan Buddhist meditators who happened to specialize in other forms of meditation).

What most of these studies seem to have in common is that they lack sufficient numbers of test subjects to make the results more externally valid, statistically speaking. Nonetheless, they strongly support the gray matter study in demonstrating a strong likelihood for very real and measurable correlative and causative effects of a positive nature through the process of mastering and regularly practicing meditation or similar contemplative and cognitive practices.

This evidence for meditation directly supports the notion of enlightenment, because it demonstrates at the very least that the brain has the capacity to be strengthened and shaped the way the muscles of the body can be exercised to become strong. If nothing else, the state of enlightenment described earlier in this paper can be realized and maintained with very fervent daily practice over many years.

{3} — I have recently considered that enlightenment is a state one must maintain, such as physical fitness. One doesn’t achieve “physical fitness” and then have the freedom to eat as much and move as little as they so please, and be able to maintain their fitness. Likewise, it is possible (probable, even) that the enlightened mind be a mental state requiring frequent maintenance through the prolonged and regular utilization of profound mind-training practices such as meditation – and the Luders study appears to be consistent with this theory.

Hypothetical Study on Enlightened Sages

No studies (or at least no prominent studies) have been recently done (if ever) on people recognized by different societies (particularly the practitioners and scholars of such societies) to be enlightened individuals. I am proposing such a study to be carried out which would utilize a wide array of different methods of analyzing the mental characteristics and capacities of individuals: EEG scans (to measure for gamma-oscillations), MRI scans to look at the physical structure of the gray matter in the subjects’ brains, surveys, attentional blink tests, tests of visuo-spatial capacities, IQ tests, and virtually any other possible means of coming to understand the nature of the minds of these individuals. Such a study would take as many subjects as possible from societies and religions from around the world who are considered to be enlightened by the “experts” of their respective societies (virtually every Eastern religion and the mystic sects of the Western religions have some kind of concept of enlightenment).

I would expect this study to demonstrate which traditions are the most effective at leading one to the enlightened state. Those sects which prove to be the least conducive will likely end up having grounds for some level of revision, reformation, and improvement. Those unable to change (assuming the appropriate dispersion of results to members) will likely shrink or die out because of their inability to grow and change fast enough. Perhaps more importantly than this would be that the study would, ideally, yield a more concrete explanation of the physical signs and qualities of enlightenment, which should help solidify the broader empirical acceptance of such a state of human consciousness.


The existent studies mentioned (as well as quite a few others) do seem to give much validity to the mind’s capacity for growth beyond the typical mental limitations studied by psychologists like heuristics, aggression, and self-image, and it’s only a small logical corollary to assume the validity of achieving a general state of being that is free from suffering, and characterized by great self-control, self-awareness, equanimity, and compassion. When such a state of consciousness as enlightenment (most conservative conceptual form) becomes accepted in the greater world culture, it will redefine our notions of the extent of the capacity of the human mind. Ultimately it may warrant a complete rethinking of western psychology as much as it warrants religio-spiritual change, to make it more in line with or focused on how to go about reaching the higher states of consciousness. It will cause us to rethink rehabilitative psychology, as mental disorders and learning disabilities will not be seen as so permanent and unchangeable that temporary drugs are necessary to counter their negative effects. Education too will need reform at some level to help foster this capacity. William James didn’t seem to have much familiarity with the systems for developing the enlightened capacities that existed in the East, but he independently recognized the importance of such an education and summed up the implications nicely:

“The faculty of voluntarily bringing back a wandering attention, over and over again, is the very root of judgment, character and will. No one is compos sui if he have it not. An education which should improve this faculty would be the education par excellence. But it is easier to define this ideal than to give practical instructions for bringing it about”. (James)


– Brefczynski-Lewis, J. A., Lutz, A., Schaefer, H. S., Levinson, D. B., & Davidson, R. J. (2007). Neural correlates of attentional expertise in long-term meditation practitioners. PNAS, 104(27), 11483-11488. Retrieved May 12, 2011, from the PNAS database.
– Chu, L. (2009). The benefits of meditation vis-à-vis emotional intelligence, perceived stress and negative mental health. Stress and Health, 26, 169-180.
– James, W. (19501918). Attention. The principles of psychology (Authorized ed., p. 424). New York: Dover Publications.
– Kozhevnikov, M., Louchakova, O., Josipovic, Z., & Motes, M. A. (2009). The Enhancement of Visuospatial Processing Efficiency Through Buddhist Deity Meditation. Psychological Science, 20, 645-653.
– Luders, E., Toga, A. W., Lepore, N., & Gaser, C. (2009). The underlying anatomical correlates of long-term meditation: Larger hippocampal and frontal volumes of gray matter. NeuroImage, 1. Retrieved May 11, 2011, from the Elsevier database.
– Lutz, A., Greischar, L. L., Rawlings, N. B., Ricard, M., & Davidson, R. J. (2004). Long-term meditators self-induce high-amplitude gamma synchrony during mental practice. PNAS, 101(46), 16369-16373.