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Vedana – Affective Feeling Tone or simply Sensation?

Hi all,
I was recently having this conversation with Martine Bachelor, a Buddhist teacher and a few of my colleagues, Judson Brewer and Willoughby Britton. I thought it would be helpful to open it up to the public. I look forward to hearing your comments.
There is certainly confusion amongst many Buddhist translations and psychological translations. Vedana is typically translated as affective feeling tone, but this is confusing in a psychological or cognitive neuroscientific context. Some of our colleagues have vaguely emphasized the association with valence (positive, negative, or neutral).
This issue came up once in a conference in Dharamsala with HH Dalai Lama in the context of asking “what is emotion?” and Bob Thurman had the following to say: Vedana translated as “feelings” confuses sensations of pleasure and pain with mental or emotional reactions to those sensations – so vedana should therefore be translated as “sensation” rather than “feeling”. Pain does not lead to Hatred necessarily – there is a conceptual piece that follows sensation that likely falls under another category. Vedana when put next to Rupa skandha is seen more as a physical process. Feelings like moodiness or anger or sadness are much more vague mental reactions.
Using a physiological and cognitive POV, there is clear evidence that valence (positive, negative or neutral) determination may occur before their is conscious awareness and with associated attentional biases (towards or away from such stimuli) – so at the sensory-perceptual level or early level of attentional processing.  Detection, labeling, and/or interpretation of that valence and the associated emotion clearly happens later (in time) in the cognitive processing stream. So no matter how you end up describing vedana, my suggestion would be to be sure to emphasize such distinctions.


Dear Dave,
This is very interesting.Thank you for the video clip.  I am not totally sure about Bob’s suggested definition.  Vedana comes upon contact, so  feeling tone is quite good, with the emphasis on tone or tonality.  I would use feeling sensation for something a little more elaborate emotionally.  What is interesting about vedana is that the same contact with a different person lead to a different vedana, i.e art, music or food.  Moreover in a different state the same contact will give rise to a different vedana to the same person.  So there is something constructed already in terms of culture or affinity for example, or conditional in terms of circumstances.  Also it can be quite subtle sometimes and then tonality is quite suitable there.  What do you think?Warmly,


Bonjour Martine,
thanks so much for engaging in this dialogue….if you don’t mind, I’d like to share your comments with the contemplative community. I feel it could benefit from more heads than two. 🙂

My difficulty is primarily a semantic one. The word “tone” doesn’t translate well into psychological or cognitive terms in which we typically talk about emotion, sensation/perception, or valence. I think we are likely to agree that contact with a sense object will lead to different vedana across individuals due to culture, inherent bias, conditioning, or otherwise. The often underlooked nature of emotional expression (e.g., anger) lies within the initial contact with the sensory object of that anger (e.g., favorite wine spoils). Upon first taste that the wine has spoiled, there is a non-conscious assessment of taste that either leads to an immediate emotional reaction or cognitive interpretation and further reactivity. In this example, there is a particular temporal framework to describe contact with sense object through non-conscious processing and then a more elaborate expression of emotion. The question I still have is whether Vedana resides in the initial contact with spoiled wine, the knee-jerk reaction of anger, or the cognitive elaboration of anger??



Dear Dave,
Yes, please do share.

It is a good question.

I am very interested in vedanas because I think that they influenced a lot of what we do but it takes time for us to notice where it comes from because we have already elaborated and move somewhere else with it.

In my humble opinion vedana refers to the initial contact.  We come into contact with something, this creates for example an unpleasant feeling tone, which we then have to give meaning to and then we further elaborate and stick it to something else.  I would say that we start with a feeling tone, then it can become a feeling sensation that is where basic anger (survival mechanism, automatic judgement, etc) might come in and then it can turn into a disturbing emotion.  This is a way I would parse it but I am not an academic only a meditator so that I am not sure how the vocabulary could work in an academic context.

Two points to consider.  You have a nice experience > pleasant vedana, then something small abruptly make this change > unpleasant vedana but you do not notice it, it is just a funny feeling.  Then an hour later you find yourself saying something nasty to someone totally foreign to the previous vedanas.  If you investigate you realise that it is the first vedana moving quickly into the 2nd which then lead you to something you think/feel is right when it is wrong.

I have seen this again and again how vedanas seep sideways and create suffering if you are not more aware of them.  I think that vedanas are crucial in terms of being ethical or not but that often there are not that much conscious content but a lot of automatism.

I am also keen on neutral feeling tones and not everyone agree on these.  Maybe we should skype, it could be fun.

The wine example: it starts with a taste > different from expected> could stay there and feel and explore the strangeness of the state: pleasant, unpleasant, neutral.  What does it feel like?  3rd nama is key: perception/meaning> the wine tastes funny > the wine is spoiled>  this is terrible that the wine is spoiled > it was such an expensive bottle >  I/someone made a mistake (again) > I/s/he is terrible >  I am always terrible…..

Do you work with the framework of the nama factors?



Nice article on Martine [Link]


more recently (June, 2017), there was a conference organized by the Barre Center for Buddhist Studies on this topic (Vedana) – [Link]

Here, BCBS resident scholar Mu Soeng overviews the concept of vedana and offers a brief summary of each speaker’s presentation at the symposium. Part two will be a new article from Bhikkhu Analayo on the issue of the third kind of vedana (the neutral or neither-pleasant-nor-unpleasant).

Admittedly, there is a difficulty in translation. He states, “When translated as “feeling” or “feeling tone” its understanding in, and application to, meditative process takes on a certain hermeneutic trajectory. When translated as “sensation” an alternate or a parallel understanding and application emerges that could be considered phenomenological.”

Great speakers were present from both Buddhist and Neuroscientific perspectives, including: John Peacock, Akincano Weber, Anne Klein, Robert Buswell, and Martine Batchelor. The other group representing neuroscientists who are also Buddhist practitioners consisted of Sara Lazar, Judson Brewer, Paul Grossman, and Anurag Gupta.

You may all look forward to reading the transcripts of the full presentations as they become available. Unfortunately, I have yet to read a satisfying account clarifying the types of processing contributing to “initial sensory contact” with an object using both pre-conditioned forms of attention, sensory-motor, and memory processing as well as something relatively novel with fewer biases to distort the initial processing pre-conscious and at moment of perception before evaluation.


The full papers from the conference will be published in the Spring 2018 issue of Contemporary Buddhism (Vol 19:1).




Why Mindfulness can help the Immune System

Stress is immunosuppressive. Research into this pernicious relationship between stress and disease has piqued interest in the ways that contemplative practices might positively influence the immune system. According to a large body of evidence, meditation appears to have profound effects on immune function in health and disease because of its ability to reduce stress.

Why does mindfulness reduce stress?

Two main facets of mindfulness meditation are equanimity and focused attention. Equanimity towards one’s thoughts decreases reactivity to stressful stimuli, and focused attention helps reduce the tendency towards the type of ruminative thinking that can activate the stress pathway. This relaxation response seems to have multiple effects on the body’s stress pathways. It enhances vagal tone, which in turn suppresses the activity of pro-inflammatory cytokines through the cholinergic anti-inflammatory pathway. It also reduces hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) activity in response to stressful situations, reducing basal levels of cortisol and meditating other downstream stress-related processes.


The majority of empirical evidence for meditation’s effect on the immune system support a protection and recovery model. Imagine being caught in a rainstorm without a raincoat and without a towel. In a torrent of stress, mindfulness is both the raincoat (preventative) and towel (palliative), so that, at the very least, stress is impeded in its course to reach downstream immune targets.  Some lines of evidence are described below:

1) Richard Davidson has conducted studies on the relationship between affective style and brain lateralization, and has found that people with positive affect have increased right prefrontal activation compared to people with negative affect. In a recent study, Davidson and colleagues found that after an eight-week mindfulness program, subjects demonstrated both increased left-PFC activation as well as an increased antibody production after administration of a flu vaccine, indicating an enhanced immune response.

2) Amount of meditation practice in a 6-week compassion meditation program was positively correlated with a decrease in stress-induced interleukin-6 (a pro-inflammatory cytokine with immunosuppressive activity; increased IL-6 production is common among individuals with chronic stress and depression.)

3) Subjects who participated in a three-month mindfulness meditation program demonstrated increased activity in immune cell telomerase, an enzyme responsible for preventing immune cell death. Suppressed telomerase activity is related to increased stress perception. Increased telomerase activity is associated with decreased LDL cholesterol and epinephrine.

4) A “perception” approach to mindfulness and the immune system

Another proposed mechanism, in contrast to the stress-reduction paradigm, is a “perception” approach to meditation’s effect on the immune system, whereby one sensory modality shifts to accommodate another sensory modality. This perception approach is demonstrated by the classic “prism experiment”. If you are holding an object in your palm, you are receiving information from both visual and proprioceptive modalities. If a prism is placed in your line of vision, however, there is a perceptual discrepancy between the information from the two modalities. To overcome this discrepancy, one modality will attenuate to match the other. This “cross-modal adaptation” can also explain why mindfulness seems to positively influence the immune system. If one can visualize oneself as “healthy”, they can cause their immune system to attenuate to match the visualized information. However, there are two premises that must be accepted:  a) the immune system is a sensory modality, and that b) visualization involves the same neurobiological processes that vision does and thus also functions as a sensory modality. This mechanism lacks substantial empirical support, however, and could benefit from further study. This mechanism may not pertain to mindfulness, which is more about an open, non-intrusive introspection. However, it may support visualization-related practices, such as Tibetan g Tum-mo yoga, in which practitioners are able to regulate their body temperature [LINK]. 


Benson, H., Beary, J.F., Carol, M.P. (1974). The relaxation response. Psychiatry, 37, 37-46.

Davidson, R.J., Kabat-Zinn, J., Schumacher, J., Rosenkranz, M., Muller, D., Santorelli, S.F., Urbanowski, F., Harrington, A., Bonus, K., Sheridan, J.F. (2003). Alterations in brain and immune function produced by mindfulness meditation. Psychosomatic Medicine, 65, 564-570.

Jacobs, T.L., Epel, E.S., Lin, J., Blackburn, E.H., Wolkowitz, O.M., Bridwell, D.A., Zanesco, A.P., Aichele, S.R., Sahdra, B.K., MacLean, K.A., King, B.G., Shaver, P.R., Rosenberg, E.L., Ferrer, E., Wallace, B.A., Saron, C.D. (2010) Intensive meditation training, immune cell telomerase activity, and psychological mediators. Psychoneuroendocrinology.

Olivo, E.L. (2009). Protection through the lifespan: the psychoneuroimmunological impact of Indo-Tibetan meditative and yoga practices. Annals Of The New York Academy Of Sciences, 1172, 163-71.

Pace, T.W.W., Negi, L. T., Adame, D.D., Cole, S.P., Sivilli, T.I., Brown, T.D., Issa, M.J., Raison, C.L. (2008). Effect of compassion meditation on neuroendocrine, innate immune and behavioral responses to psychosocial stress. Psychoneuroendocrinology.

Tausk F., Elenkov, I., Moynihan, J. (2008). Psychoneuroimmunology. Dermatologic Therapy. 21(1), 22-31.

Mechanisms of Mindfulness – Deconstructing the concept into psychological and neurobiological terms

A new paper has come out in the November issue of Perspectives in Psychological Science [Link]

This paper is one of the first to begin deconstructing the concept into component processes for investigation both at the clinical and basic science level. Previous attempts at operationalizing the concept have relied on the most widely cited definition:

paying attention in a particular way, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally. This definition comes from Jon Kabat-Zinn‘s book, “Coming to Our Senses” as:

moment-to-moment, non-judgmental awareness, cultivated by paying attention in a specific way, that is, in the present moment, and as non-reactively, as non-judgmentally, and openheartedly as possible. When it is cultivated intentionally, it is sometimes referred to as deliberate mindfulness. When it spontaneously arises, as it tends to do more and more the more it is cultivated intentionally, it is sometimes referred to as effortless mindfulness.

Other attempts at operationalizing the concept have relied on this definition for a framework. See table below

Here, we unpack the definition by illustrating very specific core neurocognitive processes that appear to be targeted in cultivating mindfulness as a state and trait. These processes are supported by the extant literature with specific neuroanatomical targets as well

I elaborate a bit more on dismantling mindfulness here [Link]

see vol 12 (2011) of Contemporary Buddhism for some great commentary on the difficulty of operationalizing mindfulness [Link]:

  • Dreyfus, G. (2011). “Is mindfulness present-centred and non-judgmental? A discussion of the cognitive dimensions of mindfulness.” Contemporary Buddhism: An Interdisciplinary Journal 12(1): 41 – 54.
  • Dunne, J. (2011). “Toward an understanding of non-dual mindfulness.” Contemporary Buddhism: An Interdisciplinary Journal 12(1): 71 – 88.
  • Williams, J. M. G. and J. Kabat-Zinn (2011). “Mindfulness: diverse perspectives on its meaning, origins, and multiple applications at the intersection of science and dharma.” Contemporary Buddhism: An Interdisciplinary Journal 12(1): 1 –
  • Gethin, R. (2011). “On some definitions of mindfulness.” Contemporary Buddhism: An Interdisciplinary Journal 12(1): 263 – 279.

Many researchers now agree that mindfulness can be thought of as multi-dimensional set of skills that can be developed through the practice of specific types of meditation; however, we need to be careful not to confuse the concept of mindfulness with the common every-day usage of the term and contextualize the concept as a state, trait, type of practice, and intervention.

Media coverage for this paper:

Psych Central: “Meditation improves quality of life” [Link]

Huffington Post: “Why Mindfulness Meditation makes us healthier” [Link]

The Secular Buddhist interviews Dr. Holzel concerning this paper here [Link]

Neural targets for Depression – a Neurocircuitry Model

Hi all,

Over 3 decades of neuroimaging research has begun to reveal a distinct neurocircuitry model for depression and psychopathology that involves Cortical-Striatal-Pallido-Insular-Thalamic-Temporal connectivity and dynamic activity. Check out the link below for a recent publication that proposes this model based on decades of research from the area of neuropsychiatry.