A Stroke of Insight?

In April, I posted a blog about a medical condition I’m interested in. The condition is sometimes referred to as “athymhormic syndrome” and sometimes as PAP (French: perte d’auto-activation psychique, i.e., loss of subjective autoactivation).In the following post, you see a sequence of emails between myself and Ron Serrano. Ron is a jhana adept who has studied extensively with Leigh Brasington and consults on meditation research with Dr. Jud Brewerof Yale Medical School.The exchange raises some interesting and fundamental issues regarding the possibility of a neuronal basis for enlightenment.

On Mon, Jun 4, 2012 at 5:58 PM, Ron Serrano wrote:


…Regarding PAP; is this really a pathological version of arhatship? I read the associated article and this condition sounds more like “indifference” rather than “no self”. At first blush, indifference seems like being without hatred and without greed and therefore without ego. On closer inspection, however, indifference is really a separation from the world, where as “no self” is a union. Also, I’m sure you’re aware of a great deal of fMRI study which has been done on construction of the self in the brain (including Jud Brewer’s work). A number of brain areas, including the posterior cingulate cortex (PCC) and medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC) have been repeatedly highlighted in these studies, but to my knowledge the anterior caudate has never come up. I know that you are well versed in this area, so I am probably missing something here.…


On Wed, Jul 11, 2012 at 5:34 PM, Shinzen Young wrote:

Hi Ron,

…Okay, I’m willing to admit that referring to Athymhormic Syndrome (aka PAP) as a “pathological version of arhatship” may be a little over the top  : ) .

But here’s why I’m interested in it.

  1. It has some intersection with at least four themes that are central to the Buddhist endeavor.
  2. Its effects in those areas are really dramatic.
  3. Its physical basis can be easily characterized.

The four areas of intersection with Buddhist experience are:

  • Dukkha Reduction. PAP victims report experiencing physical pain with normal poignancy but little suffering. (It would be interesting to know if they have the same relationship to emotional pain.)
  • Lobha-dosaReduction. PAP victims seem to have little craving or aversion.
  • Samatha. PAP victims apparently experience long periods of time conscious yet without thought.
  • Anatta. Personality does not arise unless booted from the outside.

As you imply, the real question here is what’s the relationship between symptoms of PAP victims and the attainments of Buddhist adepts? There’s somerelationship. Even if the relationship is “they’re vastly different,” I think it would be useful to know in a fine-grained way exactly how different and why.

I would divide this question into four sub-questions.

  1. First Person Question – Part One: Do any PAP victims spontaneously experience any of the “good stuff” we associate with advanced meditation?
  2. First Person Question – Part Two: Could PAP victims be trained to find good stuff in their symptoms?
  3. Third Person Question – Part One: Does the neuronal basis of PAP intersect in any way with the neural correlates of meditation states/traits?
  4. Third Person Question – Part Two: Even if the answer to Question #3 is no, it would still be interesting to know if inducing PAP-like states through “reversible lesions” (based on Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation or Transcranial Ultrasonic Neural Modulation, etc.) is in any way useful. Specifically, could it help accelerate a person’s meditation progress? (Metaphor: the mechanical principles underlying the flight of airplanes and those underlying the flight of birds and bees are quite different. Relative to birds and bees, airplanes fly “artificially”, but they still fly!)

I think these questions are worth looking into because:

I think the first step in answering these questions would be “Organoleptic.” I would interview PAP victims to determine if I could smell or taste anything about their conditions that either:

  • is liberation like.   OR
  • could become liberation like through training….

All the best,

On Thu, Jul 19, 2012 at 11:47 AM, Ron Serrano wrote:


…Regarding the organoleptic interview, you might focus on two aspects: Do PAP victims exhibit either some high level aspect of well being or selflessness (generosity, compassion, etc.)? If so, there could be something of great interest here. Otherwise, it looks more like clinical indifference, which is an altogether different path from enlightenment….


On Thu, Jul 19, 2012 at 12:28 PM, Shinzen Young wrote:

Hi Ron,

…I’m not sure I’ll ever have the opportunity to pursue research on athymhormia, but I just wanted to get the idea “out there” just in case someone someday decides to look into it.  So, thanks for permission to post our interactions.  By the way, that goes both ways.  Feel free to use anything I send you in any way you wish….

All the best,