Meditation-Induced Hallucinations

the practice of meditation in a peaceful setting
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Meditation is the common practice of concentrating one’s attention upon a single aspect of life[1]. It can be performed for many reasons, including reduction of stress, coping with illness, and promoting personal growth. Common behaviours during meditation include a detachment from external sensory information and an increase in the effects of suggestion[2]. As a result, out of body experiences and hallucinations are frequently reported. Meditation induced hallucinations are even encouraged in some cultures[3] which leads to a different cultural outlook on certain psychotic disorders and therefore differences in patient outcomes of the disorders[3]. Many studies have looked at the psychotherapeutic effects of mediation-induced hallucinations[4][5]both for psychotic disorders as well as the psychological aspect of physical disorders. It has commonly been found that meditation helps to reduce the negative emotions that result from various mental and physical illnesses[4][5]. However, a new study looks at the potential of adverse effects of meditation-induced hallucinations[2]. Although many studies dealing with the topic of meditation tend to be cross-cultural studies or case studies, a novel study by Lehmann et. al (2001)[6] took EEG recordings for five different meditation induced hallucination states to examine which brain areas are involved in these processes. Since then, more research has been made examining brain changes during meditation with fMRI technology. A recent paper displays changes in neural plasticity after mindful-meditation training[7]. Meditation-induced hallucinations are a relatively under-researched area and more still needs to be looked at before the full effects and benefits can be understood.

Meditation Across Cultures

South Asian vs. Western

The practice of meditation is more common and even encouraged in some cultures than in others. The hallucinations that could potentially result from the practice of meditation are viewed in different ways in the differing cultures and therefore affect the outlook on disorders and treatment options. Many studies have found that it is very difficult to differentiate between the symptoms of dissociative disorder and schizophrenia because the hallucinations experienced are so similar[3]. In Indian yogis the common practice of frequently entering a meditative trance, described by divided consciousness and religious visions, produce a state of permanently altered consciousness[3]. This is not considered to be characteristics of mentally ill patients in the local Indian culture of the yogis, however the same experiences are considered delusional in modern Western cultures. Yogic meditation is preformed specifically to reach an altered consciousness state and the Indian culture is aware of this and therefore does not think it abnormal. Whereas in a psychiatric setting the states might be viewed as negative psychotic symptoms[3]. The yogis experience no emotional distress, but those who are found to actually have a mental disorder have a much better prognosis than those in Western cultures[3]. This is due to the different cultural values and belief systems, many non-Western cultures are more traditional, in the sense of having a spiritual belief system in place, and family based and therefore there is a lot of support and understanding of hallucinatory disorders. Western cultures tend to be more individualistic, with less reliance upon the extended family, and therefore similar types of hallucinatory disorders are seen as a negative internal and incurable attribute of the individual[3]. Promoting a sense of rejection and social isolation of the patient.

Beneficial Effects

Many often see meditation as a very beneficial practice. There have been numerous studies regarding the proposed beneficial effects of meditation, both physiologically and also psychologically. The full beneficial effects of meditation are still relatively known and this could a great area for future research.


Meditation can be very useful as a preventive strategy in lower individuals addictive behaviours, to drugs as well as other substances[4][5]. It has also be commonly seen to reduce blood pressure in individuals who commonly practice meditation as compared to a control group who did not[4], it seems like the main reason for this effect is the idea that meditation puts you in an extremely relaxed state of mind, and this relaxation results in the physiological changes observed[5]. Other common effects are lowered heart rates and oxygen consumption. Many studies have also observed that those who regularly practice deep meditation states have better reaction times, better auditory sensation, and greater perceptual discrimination, than individuals who do not[8][9].


Meditation also shows many psychological effects. Many cultures practice meditation with the goal of reaching happiness and fulfillment, as well as a form of psychological therapy for the mind after the stresses of daily life. The most common noted effect is a decrease in overall stress, and also a decrease in stress-related disorders[4]. Stress-related disorders include phobias and anxiety related illnesses. With the practice of meditation a more relaxed state can be observed in patients with these disorders as well as an increase in their self-esteem[4]. Some studies have made the conclusion that meditation can be used as a coping mechanism for dealing with trauma and the psychological aspects of the trauma are greatly reduced and more accepted by the individual after meditation treatment[5]. These results may be due to the idea that alterations in consciousness produced by a deep meditation state can give rise to positive feelings and a sense of oneness with the immediate surroundings of the individual, many people have claimed to have developed more insight into their problems and lives with meditation[4][5].

Adverse Effects

The adverse effects of meditation are not as commonly known as the beneficial effects, and likewise are only beginning to be studied in the literature world. The common belief about meditation is that it is helpful to all types of individuals in all areas of life. However, some studies do have evidence that meditation is not all good and that there are some serious side effects to it.


There has been evidence to suggest that meditation may induce states of severe sleep deprivation and physical exhaustion, and this in turn can cause individuals to become more vulnerable to believe in their hallucinations and delusions[2]. These individuals also reported feeling more disturbed and uncomfortable. A case study of an individual who preformed an unguided, intense meditation session for himself showed how immediately after the meditation session he developed a case of short lived psychosis[2]. This was classified as a relapsing acute psychosis with polymorphic symptomatology and was thought to be a direct result of the hallucinations experienced during the intense unguided meditation state[2]. This state has been observed in both previously healthy individuals as well as individuals with a prior history of mental illness. Common symptoms include confusion, mood swings, and psychotic symptoms including delusions and hallucinations. Antipsychotic drug administration proved to be unclear as to the effectiveness of the treatment since this particular psychosis state is so short lived[2].


Meditation, especially intense and unguided meditation, can act as a stressor for people who may more vulnerable to psychotic states. Even those who had no prior history of a mental illness may still be a risk due to genetic factors, and meditation can act as the situational factor that triggers this state. Many serious psychological side effects have been reviewed in the literature[10][11]. Including depersonalization, which is a feeling of detachment from themselves; derealization, beliefs about the external environment as being unreal; hallucinations and delusions; and severe mood disturbances. Therefore although these side effects are not commonly known to the general public, it is important to keep them in mind when attempting to preform any activity that is out of one’s normal routine.

Brain Changes

An interesting question that always seems to come up when researching this topic is whether or not actual brain changes can be observed in individuals who practice meditation. The short answer is yes. There has been many recent studies looking at this very topic, and greater evidence is recently being published to support the idea of neuronal changes, and even alterations in immune functions[5]. A few studies used single-photon emission tomography to find that with regular meditation practice there are increases in cerebral blood flow to the thalamus, cingulate gyrus, and the dorsal-lateral prefrontal cortex[5]. This can result in an increased working memory and increased processing of attention and sensory related information.

Figure 1: Different Brain Activation Recordings with Each Meditation State
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Retrieved from[6]

EEG Recordings

One study took multichannel EEG recordings of a Buddhist lama advanced meditation during five different meditation states. The meditation states were: 1. Visualize Buddha in front of me 2. Visualize Buddha above me 3. Verbalization of a mantra 4. Experience of the dissolution of the self into surrounding empty space 5. Experience the reconstitution of the self. There were twenty-six electrodes placed and recordings were taken for each state, which lasted about two minutes each[6]. It was observed that each altered state of consciousness produced different activation regions of neuronal populations, as well as different locations of intracerebral source gravity centers[6]. The results obtained showed right posterior region activation for the two visualizing meditations, a left central area activation for the verbalization of the mantra, a right anterior area activation for self-dissolution, and left central area activation for self-reconstitution[6] (please view Figure 1). These results show that different regions are activation for the different experiences, for induced visual hallucinations the early visual areas are activated and for the out of body experiences a more central area of the brain is activated. The differences in gamma activity could reflect concentrated arousal in the task relevant neural areas[6].

Figure 2: Brain Activation Regions with Meditation Practice
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Retrieved from[7]  

Figure 3: BOLD Effects with Meditation Practice
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Retrieved from[7]

fMRI Recordings

Another study looked at the fMRI changes observed after six weeks of meditation training, observing specifically if the training increases or decreases central executive activity. The study recruited participants with no prior history of meditation practice and spilt them up into either a meditation-training group for six weeks, or a control reading group for six weeks[7]. During the training period as well as after, the researchers utilized an error-awareness task (EAT), with colour words presented either with congruent font colour or incongruent, and viewed the fMRI images acquired during the processing of this task. It was found that with greater meditation practice, participants had an increase in EAT accuracy, therefore adding more evidence to the idea of meditation aiding in cognitive functions[7]. Meditation training also lead to a greater dorsal-lateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC) activation in response to the task processing (see Figure 2 top panel) and there was a strong positive correlation of the amount of meditation practice and cingulate cortex and premotor area activation during emotion-based tasks[7] (see Figure 2 bottom panel). 
Additionally meditation practice also increased BOLD recruitment in the DLPFC, right anterior insula, and medial prefrontal cortex during negative emotional processing tasks[7] (see Figure 3). These specific areas that have greater activation as a result of meditation, links the practice of meditation to improvements in working memory of an individual.

Want to Try Meditation Yourself?

Guided Meditation
retrieved from Buddha Meditation for World Peace
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11. Epstein MD, Lieff JD. (1981). Psychiatric complications of meditation practice. J Transpers Psychology, 13:137–147.

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