Meditation-induced bliss viewed as release from conditioned neural (thought) patterns that block reward signals in the brain pleasure center

Religion, Brain and Behavior 3 (4):202-229 (2013)
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The nucleus accumbens orchestrates processes related to reward and pleasure, including the addictive consequences of repeated reward (e.g., drug addiction and compulsive gambling) and the accompanying feelings of craving and anhedonia. The neurotransmitters dopamine and endogenous opiates play interactive roles in these processes. They are released by natural rewards (i.e., food, water, sex, money, play, etc.) and are released or mimicked by drugs of abuse. Repeated drug use induces conditioned down-regulation of these neurotransmitters, thus causing painful suppression of everyday pleasure. As with many spiritual traditions, Buddhism provides strong advice against the pursuit of worldly pleasures to attain the ‘‘good life.’’ In contrast, many forms of meditation give rise to an immense and abiding joy. Most of these practices involve ‘‘stilling the mind,’’ whereby all content-laden thought (e.g., fantasies, daydreams, plans) ceases, and the mind enters a state of openness, formlessness, clarity, and bliss. This can be explained by the Buddhist suggestion that almost all of our everyday thoughts are a form of addiction. It follows that if we turn off this internal ‘‘gossip of ego,’’ we will find relief from the biochemical dopamine/opiate down-regulation, which is, perhaps, the perpetual concomitant of our daily rumination.
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