Finding our enlightened state | Andrew Newberg | TEDxPenn

Translator: Rhonda Jacobs
Reviewer: Peter van de Ven How many of you
have had a eureka moment where you suddenly realized the answer to a problem
you had been working on for a long time, maybe a problem at work
or a relationship problem? How many of you have had
that kind of an experience? How many of you have had
an incredibly intense experience that not only changed
the direction of your life but actually changed
the very essence of your being and changed everything
that you knew and understood about the nature of life itself? How many have had that experience? Well, what do we call this experiences? Can we call them enlightenment? And what is enlightenment? How does it happen? And how can we find
our own path to enlightenment? Well, I want to start this discussion by telling you a little bit
about my own personal story. You see, when I was growing up as a child,
I had lots of questions. These, to me, were the big questions, the questions about
the nature of reality itself. You know, I was always
very disturbed by the idea of we’re all looking out
at the same world, so can we have different religions,
different political ideas, different moral ideas? It didn’t make any sense to me. And I spent a lot of time
working on it in my own mind. I looked to science as a way
of trying to understand the answer to these questions. But that didn’t seem
to get me there, and I decided, I’ll look at some of the different
religious and spiritual traditions. I’ll look at what different philosophers
have said throughout the centuries. And yet as much as I tried, I still could not find
an answer to these questions. Finally, after college,
I had this little window of a couple of months
before medical school where I said, if I’m going to be a doctor, I’ve really got to find
the answer to these questions, I’ve got to know what I’m thinking about
before I go forward in my career. I remembered one of my old
philosophy professors, who said, “Sometimes you have to try
to find the answer to the questions, and sometimes you just have to sit there
and wait, and let them come to you.” And somehow the answer
still never came to me. I kept struggling. And somewhere between the angst
of trying to find the answer, between the struggle
of trying and not trying, at one point it finally hit me. And it was an experience
that the best way I can describe is something I refer to as infinite doubt. I came to this experience that everything
that I ever knew, thought, felt, experienced, everything I thought about myself
and about the world around me was unknowable. There was no way
I could ever find an answer to these kinds of questions. A couple of years ago, I was telling
my colleague Mark Waldman about this experience, and he said, “That must have been
one of the worst experiences you could have ever had. Here you are trying to find the answers, and you’ve come to the conclusion that there is no way you will ever
find the answers to these questions.” I though about that for a moment, and I said, “But you know,
the funny thing about it was, it was actually one of the most calming, most blissful kind of experiences
that I had ever had. I completely surrendered
to this sense of doubt, and suddenly, I didn’t need to find
the answer to these questions anymore, and it was incredibly comforting.” So as I started to think
about all of those experiences, I started to think about
what these experiences meant to me and to other people who’ve had them, it actually set up
a whole path of my career to be able to explore
the nature of these experiences and to try to understand them. And it has led
to a culmination, if you will, about two lines of research
that I’ve been involved in over the last 20 years. One of them is the use of brain scans
to peer into the brains to see what the activity is in people who are engaged
in these kinds of practices. And the other is an online survey
I’ve run over the past five years, asking people to describe for me their most intense spiritual,
enlightenment types of experiences, with the hope that somewhere
between understanding the biology of these experiences and the subjective aspect
of these experiences, that we could somehow
get a better understanding of what enlightenment is all about and help all of us find
our own paths towards enlightenment. So I came to the idea
that there are five core elements of the enlightenment experience, and the first one is a sense of intensity. And here’s a description
of that intensity in a 42-year-old man who gave us the information
on our website. He said, “I was traveling down
an infinite roller coaster, like waves of pure white ecstatic light. The ecstasy was overwhelming and the light was infinitely more real
than anything I had ever experienced.” Well, where in the brain does this happen? I want to show you
several different brain scans, and these are all brain scans that look at changes
in blood flow in the brain. Blood flow mirrors activity – the more active a particular
area of the brain is, the more blood flow it gets. The red areas are the most active, followed by the yellow, blue and black. So if something goes from yellow to red,
it increases in activity. If it goes from red
to yellow, it decreases. There’s an area of our brain,
where this arrow is, which is looking at what’s called
the limbic system, that helps us with
our emotional responses. And when anything of great
importance happens to us, something very intense happens, our limbic system is the area of our brain
that seems to light up when that happens. So if you look at
this resting state of the brain and compare it to what’s going on when the person is engaged
in a practice like meditation, where they feel this incredible
intensity of experience, this area lights up, it becomes all red, and that’s what helps us
to experience enlightenment as one of the most intense experiences
that you can possibly have. The second core element
of enlightenment experiences is a feeling of clarity, as described by
this 37-year-old scientist. She said, “Everything in life
seemed to click. I had this clarity, and it was as if I was looking
at life from the inside out …” Now, this is a very important
aspect of these experiences because people, when they have them, it’s like they “get it”
for the first time. They understand life.
They understand themselves. They have figured it out. Where does this happen in the brain? Just above the arrow
is a very central structure of the brain called the thalamus, and the thalamus
takes our sensory information and helps us to construct
our view of reality. And you can see that at rest, both sides of the thalamus
are pretty equal. But when a person engages
in a practice like meditation or prayer, where they feel this intense sense
of clarity and understanding, something dramatic
changes in the thalamus. One side becomes much more active. And this helps us to understand
how our brain rearranges and feels that sense of clarity as the person has
this profound experience. The next core element is a sense of unity,
oneness or connectedness, as described by
this 65-year-old Jewish woman. She said, “I felt an energetic
merging and being at One with the most powerful Creative Force
in and beyond all universes.” Well, where does this happen in the brain? Well, at the back of our brain is a part
of our brain called the parietal lobe, which takes all of our sensory information and helps us to construct
the sense of ourself and how that self relates to the world. It’s denoted by the arrow
here on this scan. And you can see
when the person is at rest, all the different parts of the brain
and the parietal lobe are all acting about the same. But when the person experiences
that profound sense of oneness and unity, the activity in that area goes away. And as that area decreases, what normally
is a sense of self that it creates, that sense of self goes away, and the feeling of unity and oneness
and interconnectedness of all things permeates the person’s experience. The fourth core element of these
experiences is a feeling of surrender, as described by
this 55-year-old agnostic male. He said, “I surrendered my past,
my future, any conception of myself, and any conception of spirituality …” Where does surrender occur in your brain? Well, right behind your forehead
is your frontal lobe. Studies have shown
that when you are concentrating, when you’re purposefully
trying to do something, you turn on your frontal lobe. That’s the seat of the will. That’s what helps you
to make things happen. Well, what we have observed
in a number of different practices where the person feels that they surrender
themselves to the experience, they surrender to the feeling itself, the activity in this frontal lobe,
the red areas of activity, they kind of melt away. And that makes sense because if this area is normally on
when we’re trying to make things happen, when that area shuts down, we begin to feel that sense of surrender,
we let our purposefulness go. Now, I was thinking about
how I might be able to demonstrate this a little bit more visually for you because it’s not just
that there’s a decrease, but it is the magnitude of that decrease. And I’ve thought about this for a while,
and I was really struggling with it, and I actually had
a little epiphany myself because I was in the grocery store, and I reached over,
and I got this little watermelon for my daughter. And I thought, you know, it kind of looks like the size
of your head a little bit. And I started to think about
the analogy of this watermelon in relation to our brain
and enlightenment. And I thought, you know, this really
is a great analogy for our brain because inside is where our brain is,
just like it’s inside of our skull. And it doesn’t really have a clear way
of connecting to the outside world. I mean, sure, I could knock on it, and I guess maybe
you’d hear the sound inside. But there’s no way to really no way
to connect the outside world to the inside of this watermelon. Now, if I wanted
to enlighten this watermelon and expose it to the light
of the universe, so to speak, one way to do it
would be something very rational. I could cut through it, open it up, and to some degree,
I’ve exposed part of it to the world. But that still isn’t exactly
what I’m talking about. I would like to find a way to really radically
open this watermelon up. If I really wanted
to try to change this watermelon, I’d have to climb up to the rafters
or climb up onto the ceiling and see what would happen if I were
to drop it all the way from there. So let’s take a look at this video to show you a little bit
about what that would look like. (Video) (Short, vibrational sound) (Video ends) It is a permanent effect. Right? There’s no way to put that watermelon
back together again. And when people have
this enlightenment experience, there’s no way to put themselves
back together again in the same exact way. In fact, when we asked people
in our survey, “How did this experience
change who you are?” they said that it changed
everything about them. It changed their sense of relationships,
their sense of life, death, their sense of health and well-being, their sense of religious
and spiritual selves, and almost all, universally,
for the better. So this is an incredible experience
that transforms your life, totally and permanently, and we can see exactly
how this happens in the brain. This is going to be the last scan
I want to show you because this is actually my scan. And it turn out that over the years, I’ve found a way to connect back
to that feeling of infinite doubt. If I just do a little meditation, I can rest within that feeling
of infinite doubt. And one time when we had
a new MRI scanner, I volunteered to go into it; I just wanted to see
what was going on in my brain, and I didn’t even
tell them what I was doing. I just went into the scanner, but I did this little meditation where I experienced
my feeling of infinite doubt. And when they showed me the scan, they said, “What were you doing in there?” I said, “Well, I was …”
I explained it to them. They said, “Uh huh.” But when you look at the scan itself, we see two areas of significantly
decreased activity. One, where the upper arrow is,
is my frontal lobe, and the other, the bottom arrow,
is in my parietal lobe. So those feelings of surrender
and those feelings of oneness that I have are also reflected in the scan
of my own brain, and it helps me to understand
what these experiences do, not only for me,
but for everyone else around me. So can we use all of this information
in some helpful way that each one of you
can find your own path to enlightenment? And I think that we can. I think we’ve learned enough now to be able to set up a series of steps
that perhaps everyone can follow. Now, obviously,
there’s never a guarantee – and I would never stand here
and tell you that I could do that – but if you think about
these different steps, you can try every one of them on your own. The first is a desire to change. Of course, perhaps all of you would say, “Yes, I would love to have
this kind of an experience.” One of the things
I often recommend to people is to go home and take out
a piece of paper and write down why you would like to have enlightenment
and what enlightenment means to you. Try it. It’s a good way to start that path,
to take that first step. The next step is to prepare yourself
for this experience. As I said, it is a scary experience, and it’s important
to find ways of being okay with it, of being able to relax with it, doing certain types
of relaxation exercises, yoga, meditation. The third step
is perhaps the most important. This is creating your own
personal ritual or practice. And it could be a meditation;
it could be prayer. Like me, it could be just trying
to find the answer to big questions. It could be music or creativity,
some of the things you heard today. But try to find that ritual because what that does is
it ratchets up that level of activity, it ramps up the activity in your brain
and in your frontal lobe, so that when you get to Step 4
and you surrender to the experience, you really have that sudden drop, and you have that incredible experience. And then finally,
reflecting on your experience, because that’s what helps you
to bring that experience back into who you are as a person – what it means to you
and how you can understand it. So what have we learned?
What’s the big take-home message? I think one of the most important things – because in our survey, we had a couple of thousand people
tell us about their experiences – I think the most important thing is that enlightenment
is not just for the Buddhas of the world. It is an experience that anyone can have, and it’s an experience
that everyone can have. And you can imagine
what a great world this would be if we all found our own path
to enlightenment. And to some degree, we all
have a brain that’s capable of doing it. When you look at all the brain scans, our brains are about
five percent different from each other, so we’re all capable
of having these experiences. So what have I given you today? Hopefully, I’ve given you a map, I’ve given you a guideline
to your own path of enlightenment. Maybe some of you will find
a spiritual enlightenment, maybe some a scientific one, perhaps some will find infinite doubt. But ultimately, as with any map, it is only as good as if
your willingness to take that first step. But if you take that first step, it will be an amazing
and wondrous journey, and that is something
that I have no doubt about. Thank you. (Applause)


  1. The talk is really intense! Loved it! I can say I am not alone struggling with philosophy of life. 🙂 <3

  2. he is awful, not even one time mentioning of soul. He didn´t answer most of questions he asked… what a douche, and this guy has a m.d.

  3. very dissapointing, it seems like he missed what enlightenment is. He is only looking at the brain's reaction to enlightenment of one's soul. He doesnt even touch on the expanded consciousness and the one consciousness that everything is made of. He mentions one women's comment about the feeling of unity and oneness, then goes on to talk about her brain like it was all in her head. I think he's missing the whole point, that she actually connected with the universe and her brain just reacted to that experience. Big difference.

  4. you should read his amazing book, HOW ENLIGHTENMENT CHANGES YOUR BRAIN, to get a comprehensive view of all the different levels of enlightnment:

  5. I loved this. I love Dr. Newberg's Video's. I am very spiritual. I have spoken in tongues, I do meditate & pray, but refuse to be any religion. I prefer to say I am mystic. I believe brain scan's are proof. Of, course…non educated people will argue this as they do everything.

  6. Enlightenment is not about the brain. It is about fully understanding one’s mind (note that it is the mind that studies the brain – the brain is just another organ in the body that cannot speak for itself). Ancient Buddhist teachings comprehensively explain the mind (i.e., the “stream of consciousness”).

  7. Discovery is in the experience. Experience is in the question. The juice is in knowing that we will always have more to adventure!

  8. The exciting part of this is that when we learn how these experiences happen we can replicate them much easier using better techniques and technologies. Imagine if everyone could experience enlightenment on some level and do so easily. I got a feeling the world would be a much different place.

  9. Great speech indeed.
    I was practicing meditation on daily basis and earned severe head pressure that remains in my head for almost a year. I have seen so many doctors but none was able to provide relief.
    I find many people on internet that share same symptoms from meditation and it can last for years or even never to stop , my life is destroyed by this. Who knows what have I done to my brain. I warn all potential mediators to be cautions with practice or even better not to start at all.

  10. For the purpose of this presentation, you could call Enlightenment an "experience" but truthfully speaking it is NOT an experience. These are more rightly called "mystical" experiences instead. Moreover, just having these ephemeral experiences is no guarantee that the person having it will indeed stay "enlightened". This is more accurately a case of having been "liberated" and THAT is very rare. Long term self-inquiry(as described by Gary Weber in his You Tube video) is the "real deal."

  11. People are so afraid of science lol This is a good thing to understand so it can happen more. Don't be afraid, nobody is saying your experiences are meaningless. It takes the brain to understand them though. Scientists and Shamans and Buddhists would be better off if they worked together. They have things to gain from each other.

  12. Enlightenment, a process you can't explain by science, but this man did just that with brain scans for those people who only function with "logic", I say that bloody brilliant. Science is just a tool that explains the process. Although there is more to this topic, this video is a great intro to what is enlightenment, the awareness that we are all one, everything is connected.

  13. 🙁 If enlightenment is not an experience. You may have an experience to realize that you are so called "enlightened", but it is not an experience.

  14. This guy drives me nuts. So many rhetorical questions. So much talking and saying so little. Just get on with it ffs.

  15. Enlightenment is not a state…nor are there levels of enlightenment. Andrew does not really understand enlightenment and the path he illustrates is bogus. It has the lasting after-effect of the cessation of suffering. No longer seeking, feeling inadequate or incomplete. Also worry/anxiety/fear ceases to arise. Guilt no longer arises.

  16. So … it has been two hours since I intuitively realized or acknowledged five aggregates, in other words, there is no permanent self. And since then, a sense of profound relaxation and clarity. And I was in a huge emotional turmoil from a loss of a relationship before. It is not 100 percent, because I have been kind of struggling with not wanting to let my sense of self go. I will see how it goes. But really. It feels like a relief, as when a hamster stops running on a treadmill.:-) My ego fears all kinds of things, mainly what if I am not motivated to do anything extraordinary in life or have a great romantic relationship. But I kind of think, that I am whole even if I decide not to. It also appears to me, that samsara and bhavacakra is just a metaphor for psychological states.

  17. When you discover you are still lost and unable to find answers, try researching, studying and absorbing the Bible. Then try to prove it untrue. If you want the truth ask God if He is real, and if He is, is Jesus the way? Ask with a humble and contrite heart truth seeker and then you'll get an answer. In Christ you have true power and freedom and begin your journey of wisdom and understanding of your brain, your heart and all the wonders or our Creator. You can't know all that God knows, but you can know His heart, and His heart is love for you all, even those who deny He could possibly exist.

  18. Unfortunately. One can’t find enlightenment it’s earned. Not just a method. Our brain is not involved it’s the heart. Spiritual is the way. 💕

  19. Those who talk about enlightenment, do not know enlightenment. The true seed to illumination is the watching of the mind. The watcher is who you are, the watched is not. You can read every book and listen to every talk on the subject, it's really as simple as that – watch and know thy self. Don't listen to scientists or deluded religious fanatics.

  20. This guy is way off course, he hasn't the foggiest! Totally misses the point. Completely overwhelmed by his own mental chattering and unfounded assumptions about the spark or state of entertainment. Such an overused and wrongly interpreted word, enlightenment. The human condition; Lost in thought…

  21. people are just having varying degrees of experience, this isn't enlightenment imo. enlightenment is arrogance and virtually always connected to supernatural assumptions

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