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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).




The Wandering Mind vs. Mindfulness

Neuroimaging Research has grappled with the concept of a “resting brain”. Researchers interested in Consciousness have grappled with localizing subjective states of awareness and the elusive “self”. It seems that contemplative science is bringing both concepts to the table given the profound interest in tracing neurophenomenological states associated with “the self” and intentional, meditative practices.

All functional neuroimaging research has focused on Blood-oxygenation-level-dependent (BOLD) changes in the whole brain associated with a particular active, goal-directed, cognitive or emotional function and which has shown to be statistically different from BOLD activity across the whole brain during a “passive” baseline state. The baseline state that most researchers use is typically a 5-6 min long period of passive “rest”. The instructions are typically, “Let your mind freely wander” and “try not to think of anything in particular”. These instructions sound benign and appear to be the perfect baseline state, but as it turns out, [surprise…surprise] a wandering mind is quite active. The mind in this baseline state has shown to have a tendency to wander towards self-reflection (in the past and into the future). Some researchers have called this type of wandering, “mental time travel”.

Recently, a growing body of research has investigated the nature of this resting, or “default” state, and has found that brain activation previously considered to be spontaneous noise actually reflects the operation of active and functionally connected neural networks. These patterns of activation has been termed the default mode network (DMN), have been shown to increase during passive states of rest, to diminish during tasks involving attention or goal-directed behavior, and tend to implicate brain areas associated with self-reflection, internal mentation, and narrative self-focus. In many forms of psychopathology, the DMN has been found to be more active during resting states and less likely to decrease in activation during active goal-directed tasks, suggesting a relationship between psychopathology, excessive self-reflection or rumination [about past events], and increased self-projection [into the future].

In a recent study[Link] by friend and colleague, Judson Brewer at Yale University, adept meditators trained in meditation techniques rooted mostly in Theravada (vipassana/insight) traditions actively meditated using multiple types of meditation practices (Concentration, Loving-Kindness, Choiceless Awareness) while being imaged in the MRI. A “mind-wander” rest state was the baseline state in this case, and comparisons were made also between the adepts and a group of novices who had brief instructions how to perform each meditative practice.

As seen below, Experienced meditators demonstrate decreased DMN activation during meditation. Brain activation in meditators > controls is shown, collapsed across all meditations (relative to baseline). (A and B) BOLD activations were found to be greater in the left mPFC and PCC for adepts. Although, one should take note that the % change was very minimal (about .25 % at most). The mPFC and PCC are critical nodes of activation during typical mind wandering, self-reflection, and the core areas for the DMN.

Choiceless Awareness (green bars), Loving-Kindness (red), and Concentration (blue) meditations. Note that decreased activation in PCC in meditators is common across different meditation types. n = 12 per group.

What does this mean?

You may ask what this means and how it relates to mindfulness and mind-wandering. It suggests that adept meditators spend less time using the self-reflective network or “DMN” while meditating. This makes sense given the heavy reliance on concentration in these practices. But how about when adepts are simply “wandering” during passive rest? Are they like everyone else? Do they also reflect upon themselves in the past or into the future? This study did not quite capture the phenomenological differences between the groups, but it did find that the DMN had different functional connectivity patterns.

Using mPFC as a seed region for connectivity, they found increased connectivity with the fusiform gyrus, inferior temporal and parahippocampal gyri, and left posterior insula (among other regions) in meditators relative to controls during meditation. Using the PCC as a seed region, increased connectivity (compared with controls) was found with the dorsal ACC and DLPFC during all meditative states and baseline wandering, suggesting increased cognitive monitoring and working memory across both meditative and passive resting states. It would be helpful to know if there was a qualitative aspect of “wandering” that was about equal for meditators and controls.

Similarly, David Creswell and Lisa Kilpatrick demonstrated that 8-weeks of MBSR training showed increased functional connectivity of dmPFC (an anterior DMN region) with an auditory/salience neural network (especially with BA 22/39 (associated with auditory processing) and the dorsal ACC (involved in salience) . They suggest these results indicate greater positive coherence between self-referential, attention, and auditory sensory processing and may underlie  greater attention and reflective awareness of auditory experience in MBSR trained subjects.

Again, the DMN is used here as a proxy for a “wandering mind”. Decreased activity in the cortical midline structures that make up this network reflects less self-reflection or narrative self-processing, and suggests more present-centered awareness, monitoring, and attention of interoceptive and exteroceptive stimuli in the environment and associated with the body. The reason I bring attention to this area of research is that contemplative neuroscientists will likely have to take these differences in the DMN between novices and adepts into consideration when scanning meditative states. In other words, a passive mind wandering state may be different between adepts and novices or naives. Thus, between groups comparisons should likely account for these differences and at the very least, quantify the qualitative aspects of mind wandering between groups.


There is some evidence that mind wandering is adaptive. One study (for example) by Jonathan Schooler and colleagues demonstrates that increased mind wandering during a boring task increased creativity. Schooler has previously demonstrated a correlation between daydreaming and creativity—those who are more prone to mind-wandering tend to be better at generating new ideas.

See New Yorker write up [Link]

Here are some links to press related to these studies:

psychology today [Link]

Researchers on retreat: Reflections and Mistakes

“House builder you have now been seen. You shall not build the house again. Your rafters have been broken down; your ridge-pole is demolished too. My mind has now attained the unformed nibbana and reached the end of every kind of craving.” (Dh. 153-54.)

Judson Brewer, M.D., Ph.D is the  medical director of the Yale Therapeutic Neuroscience Clinic. His primary research interests are in mindfulness training as a mechanistic probe and treatment for addictions. He can be contacted at”

Judson reflects upon his 10-day Vipassana and Metta retreat at Spirit Rock Meditation Center, which is located just north of San Francisco in beautiful Marin county. Led by two “teams” of teachers (metta: Guy Armstrong, Sally Clough Armstrong, Heather Martin, Sharda Rogell; vipassana: Joseph Goldstein, Andrea Fella, Kamala Masters, Steve Armstrong.) Judson writes, “After I went on retreat in July, I wrote down a few of my ongoing habit patterns that became more clear to me, many of which related to science. I remembered hearing many comments and questions from folks at both the MLSRI and scientists retreat about similar issues to which I have/had been struggling, and thought that “publishing” my reflections might be helpful for others who are working with the same “stuff” in their minds that I am.”

You can read his reflections, “Top 10 rookie Mistakes of a Dharma Scientist” HERE.