Pleasure of Sex vs. Bliss of Self in Brain Scans

Khajuraho Temple Sculpture – 10th – 12th Century

Khajuraho and Kamasutra fire the fancy of any foreign tourist to India.  Add Spirituality and the heady mix becomes a killer app for seekers of quick-fix salvation for paying a visit to India!  Biologically sex evolved as a reproductive mechanism to possibly capture the advantageous heritable genetic traits from a partner.  Only humans and a few animals like bonobos and dolphins indulge in recreational sex.  Sex is closely tied to sensory perceptions and lies within the realms of the mind. Salvation transcends both senses and mind. “Rajneesh, the ‘horse’s mouth’ concerning the topic of enlightenment for Westerners for many years,” regrets James Swartz, “wedded two largely incompatible concepts, sense enjoyment and enlightenment.” One may lose ‘self identity’ and get enwrapped in an inexplicable joy in either of them as Brihadaranyaka Upanishad says. But the bliss of enlightenment and the pleasure of sensual gratification are totally different. Our brains can show it all very clearly!

Human brain is a mass of interlinked neurons piled up in three layers. At the bottom is the most primitive brain common to all animals.

Reptilian, Limbic and Neocrotical layers

The outermost covering (called cortex) of the brain is divided into several lobes. The lobes have distinct cognitive functional areas; but no rigid walls separate them. The frontal lobe (behind the forehead) having the overseeing and decision making function is well developed in humans. The top brain (cerebrum) comes parted vertically into two hemispheres. The right hemisphere is concerned with ‘NOW’, i.e. the present moment. The left hemisphere thinks analytically and is also the seat of language. Constant intercommunication between both the hemispheres provides a meaning to what we perceive. Activities like sex or meditation involve many parts of the brain.  No unique God-spot or Sex-spot exists within the brain.


Extensive brain scan studies were carried out on practitioners of various types of meditation like Buddhist, Christian, Hindu and Sikh meditative practices. I am not, however, aware of any brain scan studies done on a Jivanmukta (an individual who is said to have achieved Nirvana or Non-Dualistic “Awakening”).

The parts of the brain that become active during meditation depend on the type of meditative practice of the seeker. In the monks who practiced focused meditation, “activity in the parietal lobe (which orients us in space) goes down. Activity in the frontal lobe involved in paying attention goes up.” Dr. A. Newberg opines that loss of orientation together with focused attention cause a feel of ‘oneness’ with the object of meditation.

SPECT Image During Meditation (After A. Newberg, 2008)

Similar results were noticed in the case of Franciscan nuns too. Pentecostal nuns who do not focus on any particular object in their prayers showed lower activity in the forebrain. Brains of those practicing Transcendental Meditation (TM), essentially as a relaxation meditation, did not show much activity.  Carmelite nuns who achieved Mystical Union could not, however, summon their communion with God when they were within the scanner tube during the research studies. Dr. Beauregard, the investigator, could only scan a recollection of their profound divine experience. The results showed activity in those brain regions that are connected to learning, falling in love and social emotions.

Dr. R. Davidson mapped the activity in the brain of Buddhist monk Matthieu Ricard, who has over 30 years of experience in ‘compassion meditation.’  “The pictures showed

Meditation modulates Insula (After R. Davidson, 2003)excessive activity in the left prefrontal cortex (just inside the forehead). Generally people with happy temperaments exhibit a high activity in the left prefrontal cortex, an area associated with happiness, joy and enthusiasm.”  Scientists at Wisconsin reported that positive emotions such as loving-kindness and compassion could be learned the same way as playing a musical instrument.

excessive activity in the left prefrontal cortex (just inside the forehead). Generally people with happy temperaments exhibit a high activity in the left prefrontal cortex, an area associated with happiness, joy and enthusiasm.”  Scientists at Wisconsin reported that positive emotions such as loving-kindness and compassion could be learned the same way as playing a musical instrument.


fMRI of Zen Meditators (After G. Pagnoni et al, 2008)

Many epileptic patients with seizures in the temporal lobes experience intense religious feelings and calmness. Taking a clue from this, Dr. Persinger developed a helmet that produced electrical activity in the temporal lobes. Some volunteers wearing it did experience ‘cosmic bliss’.  Swedish scientists could not replicate these results. There is a rare case of Dr. Jill B. Taylor, herself a brain scientist, who had a stroke in 1996 due to hemorrhage in the left hemisphere of her brain.  With only the right hemisphere functioning at the time of the stroke, she felt she lost her identity as a separate individual. She reported experiencing Non-Dualistic cosmic connection to infinite energy.

Admittedly a laboratory is profoundly an unsexy environment to study human sex, that too inside the claustrophobic confines of a scanner.  Thanks to the Dutch scientists   who could successfully pull off such an impossible study, valuable data could be gathered  on the activity of the brain during the peak sexual performance of the volunteers.

“Achieving orgasm involves more than heightened arousal. The brain’s pleasure centers generally lighted up brightly in the brain scans of both sexes,” reports Dr. Holstege. In the male volunteers “extraordinary activation of the brain’s reward circuitry during ejaculation was noticed” accompanied by high activity in the regions connected with memory. In contrast, “when a woman reached orgasm, much of her brain went silent” indicating relaxation and overcoming of inhibition. Brain regions related to bonding with the partner were also lighted up in the female.

MRI Scanner

It is clear from these studies that brain records religious highs and sexual pleasures differently.  Does it mean that God-feeling in our head is nothing more than a few chemical signals and electrical pulses in our neurons? Can misfiring neurons create exalted religious feelings like in those of Moses, Muhammad and the Buddha? We do not know. Nevertheless, we may expect the lofty capstone of religious experience to leave its footprint in the brain.  This does not mean that knowing which part of our brain gets activated during Nirvana in any way lessens the reality or beatitude of Nirvana. Man set foot on the moon over forty years ago and found it to be no more than a pockmarked lifeless dusty place. Did it in any way lessen the poetic charisma or the romantic inspiration of the moon?

[Note: This article was originally published in late 2008 and is presented here for a wider circulation.

In the intervening three and half years since the publication of this article, a few research papers on the effect of mindfulness and vipassana meditation on brain and a couple of papers on sensual pleasure have appeared.  The substantive part of the research findings remain the same. A Buddhist Monk and also a Neuroscientist, Prof. Zoran Josipovic published a paper saying that the brain appears to be organised into two networks: the extrinsic network and the intrinsic, or default, network. “The extrinsic portion of the brain becomes active when individuals are focused on external tasks, like playing sports or pouring a cup of coffee. The default network churns when people reflect on matters that involve themselves and their emotions. Dr Josipovic believes the ability to churn both the internal and external networks in the brain concurrently (during meditation) may lead the monks to experience a harmonious feeling of oneness with their environment.”  He has an ongoing project with The Baumann Foundation on “The Influence of Nondual Awareness on the Functioning of Anti-correlated Intrinsic and Extrinsic Networks in the Brain.” The premise of the study is, as reported: Nondual awareness presents a unique opportunity to study the functioning of the intrinsic/extrinsic networks in the brain, as it is characterized by the cessation of habitual fragmenting of the field of experience into inside vs. outside, self-related vs. other-related processes. The work hopes to answer:  In what way can nondual awareness inform us about the functioning of anti-correlated networks in the brain? And  What can understanding of the neural correlates of nondual awareness tell us about its nature and its possible effects on people’s mental health?]

7 thoughts on “Pleasure of Sex vs. Bliss of Self in Brain Scans

  1. Dear Ramesam,

    thank you for this blog with valuable scientific information pointing to something profoundly true. Still, having been with Rajneesh for more than 20 years, I would like to comment on your introductory remarks. I hold that he has been misunderstood by most listeners as far as sex is concerned – including many of his followers at certain stages of their development. Meanwhile many of his followers have moved beyond their misunderstandings, in contrast to people who judge him from the outside .

    Rajneesh has been a tantric master and never proclaimed sex for pleasure’s sake. Even without scientific prove – which was not available at his time – he went on saying the same: that what is triggered by mere pleasure does not have anything to do with ‚the bliss of the Self’ as you call it. „This is what tantra says: sex is the deepest bondage, yet it can be used as a vehicle for the highest freedom. Tantra says poison can be used as medicine, but wisdom is needed. So do not condemn anything. Rather use it. (…) Find out ways how it can be used and transformed.“ From Rajneesh on Vigyan Bhairav Tantra (Osho, The Book of Secrets)

    It would be very interesting if research had been done with real tantrikas. Do you know whether such scientific data are available?

  2. Thank you, Sitara for kindly putting in perspective the philosophy of Rajneesh from your point of view.

    With a hope that James goes through these columns, I would rather leave it to him to say why he said what he said in the way he did. Of course, I do not mean to absolve myself by hiding behind James for quoting him and I shall briefly explain my reason here.

    The simple and direct message that Advaita points out to, as you are well aware of, is the misidentification of our self with the body-mind, instead of identifying with the undimensional, attributeless non-objective Consciousness that we truly are. This understanding can come through Knowledge and Knowledge alone and not through the observation of any bodily practices. The shift has to happen both at the level of thought (mind) and feeling (body).

    “Who am I?” is a tool of inquiry suggested by Ramana, Atmananda and others. It is not unknown to you that, by this way, the Non-dual teaching is relatively more easily understood at the thought (intellectual) level. But the sense of separation at the bodily feeling level is the most tenacious aspect of ignorance. In fact, this is the reason, as often pointed out by Rupert, that the feeling of separation usually remains intact long after we have some intellectual understanding of our true nature.

    So there is a need to supplement and continue the inquiry by a careful investigation into the bodily sensations. The technique of analyzing sensations advised by Francis and Rupert, and the Unfindable Enquiry and Boomerang Enquiry developed by Scott can be innovatively adopted by the seeker for an exploration and subsequent dissolution of the sense of solidity at the level of feelings in the body. But indulgence in sexual acts either with one’s own self or with an ‘other’ has a danger of substantiating the physicality and solidity of the ‘feeling’ of separation in the body. One may get entrapped in the euphoric highs of tantric sex and be irretrievably lost mistaking it to be the supreme bliss.

    In fact, Sankara brought a huge huge revolutionary movement in the ninth century to emphasize the Upanishadic teaching that Self-Knowledge only could lead to a correct understanding of Non-dual Oneness. His teaching was in stark opposition to the prevailing sacrificial ritual and tantric practices that were supposedly prevalent in those times. In spite of this, the powerful hold that Tantra could exert on the people may be gauged from the fact that the Chandela rulers (supposed to be followers of tantra) celebrated sex through the depiction of erotic images on something like a hundred odd temples during the two to three centuries following Sankara’s time. (Agreed, most of the dates (including that of Sankara’s period) and the intentions behind the construction of the Khajuraho temples are in doubt, but I am going by the most accepted view without getting into the chronological and other disputes of history).

    Regarding your question on research done on real tantrics: To the extent I am aware (I know my limitations), I have not seen any published papers in standard peer-reviewed journals.

    Thanks again and regards

    • Dear Ramesam, thank you for your reply. To prevent misunderstandings: I did not mean to say that Rajneesh was a Vedanta teacher. Just wanted to point out that he was not propagating pleasure for pleasures sake. Tantra is not Vedanta but it also is not a spiritual approach promoting self serving pleasure. Some tantrikas use sex as a meditation. I agree with James Swartz that this is risky because not all practitioners will be able to go beyond the pleasure part of such a meditation. Nevertheless I claim that it is possible. (You pointing to the possibility of reinforcing the identification with the body refers to the same risk).

      The other point you made is that from Vedanta’s perspective no method can lead the seeker all the way to enlightenment; we agree that only right understanding can do that. Yet, in Advaita Vedanta meditation is used as preparatory measure – as upasana or as nidhidyasana.

      I guess that no traditional Vedanta teacher would support tantric meditation techniques if sex is involved (in most techniques it is not). This is wise as most seekers would not be able to handle them properly. Still, from my point of view there is no reason to dismiss this kind of meditation in a generalized way – although for the mentioned reasons I would also not advertise it in a generalized way.

      Ramesamji, basically I consent with everything you said and welcome the scientific results you made available to us. Thank you and best regards.

  3. correction of the third sentence: instead of ‘pleasure for pleasure’s sake’ it should read ‘sex for pleasure’s sake’.

  4. Coincidentally, I have just had what amounted to a complaint from a reader of the site about the fact that I had a lineage chart for Osho along with those for Swami Chinmayananda, Atmananda Krishna Menon, Ramana Maharshi etc. The suggestion was that Osho, with his ‘drugs, luxury cars and sexual relationships with disciples’ did not merit inclusion with such respected teachers.

    My reply was as follows: “Osho has his own lineage chart solely because so many modern Western teachers claim to be disciples or to have been influenced by him. And it would not have been possible to put him under anyone else’s lineage, even had there been enough space! You will notice that he is not placed in the ‘Traditional and ‘quasi-traditional’ Teachers’ but under ‘Western Satsang Teachers’. I could of course have left him out altogether but then what would I have done with his ‘disciples’ who are now teaching? And he did produce some good discourses (e.g. see ‘The Mustard Seed’).

    “Also, although your comments about his ‘lifestyle’ may be true (though I have doubts about some of the accusations), this is not necessarily relevant. One has to judge a teacher on his teaching merits, not on his reported behavior. I have written about this elsewhere in the Q & A section of the site.

    “You might be interested in reading Phil Mistlberger’s book on ‘Three Dangerous Magi’.

    “You also, of course, are entitled to your opinion. Or do you actually know firsthand about some of the accusations? E.g. did you personally see the fleet of Rolls Royces? There will always be stories about such people. (There are also stories about Ramakrishna if it comes to that.) I have personal acquaintance with some of his disciples and have the greatest respect for them. This is not to say that I agree with some of his reported methods! But then, I don’t necessarily always agree with the interpretation of the teaching of someone like Ramana Maharshi either.”


  5. Thanks Dennis for the forthright and deeply meaningful intervention you have taken time to make here.
    Once Consciousness, in Its Own Freedom, goes on what we may say the nivRitti marga, what a “person” is or what he/she does or does not hardly matters.
    When Advaita is All-inclusive in its true sense and no-thing gets excluded literally, how can one be judgmental about what form Consciousness should take in its expression?
    I remember a few articles of Rajneesh I read and some tapes I heard several decades ago. I agree with what you said. He did come out to be talking about Non-dualism in simple and decent terms.
    Very recently I happened to attend a meditation session of this group at the invitation of a friend. There was such a cacophony of high decibel ear-piercing drum beats accompanied by shrill screams and awkwardly frivolous bodily movements for more than 30 minutes – everyone in the assembly being goaded by a “trained guru” to continue on in the name of releasing oneself.

  6. Dear Sitara – Ji,

    Many thanks for the follow up note and the kind words re: reporting on the scientific studies.
    Because of your expressed interest in the scientific aspects, I am tempted to invite your (and other similarly disposed readers’) kind attention to the following postings, if you have not seen them already:
    1. “Research on Non-dualism, ‘self’ and Consciousness”
    2. “Neuronal Correlates of a Jivanmukta’s Mind – Identification of Markers in the Brain”

    You have also been kind to mention about the role and importance of Meditation in Advaita. I am sure you know all this, but in way of more clarity for the sake of the general reader, I may be permitted to say the following:

    Meditation is useful to train the mind in its ability to become focused and incisively analytical so that an unbiased and bold inquiry can be made into Self-Knowledge using such a sharpened mind as a tool. But educated and reasonably intelligent individuals are already equipped with such a mind by their academic training and there may not be much to be gained by more training of the mind. After all, I do have to get to use the sharpened tool rather than continue on and on only with the process of sharpening!

    Meditation, in a slightly different form, has a role once again in the post-Manana stage, that is, after obtaining a completely clear and unambiguous understanding of the Advaita teaching beyond any doubt. Because of the fact that the mind, out of its old habits, tends to fall back to its accustomed reactions, thereby interrupting the seeker from being continuously abiding in Self-Knowledge. Meditation techniques may be a sort of a crutch in those times to help the seeker in reining back the mind quickly from any deviation.

    Beyond this, no type or amount of meditation can deliver the Self-Knowledge as such.
    Meditation in Advaita attains a significantly different meaning. It does not at all have the usually interpreted Master-Slave attitude nor is it concerned with a relationship that goes by the name of love. Meditation in Advaita is the ending of triputi – the observer-observing-observed difference. Only a Shiva can meditate on Shiva, Vedanta says. Prahlada says in Yogavaasishta that only a Vishnu can worship Vishnu. What these statements imply is the absolute identity of the worshiper and the worshiped. As JK used to say, the Meditator is the Meditated. That means only Meditation remains with no meditator and what is meditated upon. Rupert expresses it very poetically. He says, “Meditation is not what you do; it is what you are!” He adds, “The apparent person is in fact not an entity but rather a process of thinking and feeling, made only of mind. We realize that meditation, which we previously considered to be a process carried out by an apparent person, is in itself the knowing space of Consciousness in which and out of which all things are made.” Meditation in Advaita is just “to Be.”

    Thanks again and regards

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