Pattern recognition in reverse: Emptiness through drawing, meditation, psychedelics

You can have a tiny "deconstructionist" experience, akin to yogic meditation experience of many years, in the following way:

  • With a mind as still as possible, look firmly at an object for a long time. Eventually, it may no longer appear as - say - a chair, but as a collection of shapes and colors

  • Repeat the same word - it doesn´t matter which - very often. After a while what you say may have lost its meaning - it may just appear to the mind as a sound.

Above you see one of my drawings from 1963, when I was 9 years old. Our village teacher made us paint "realistic" paintings. When we deviated and gave in to the joy of color and shape, we were reprimanded.

So, I learned to draw in a way that was tightly bound up with concepts: the concept of chairs, people, flowers, houses, etc.

Essentially, I was punished into seeing the world through a tight conceptual lense, feeling ashamed when I went astray by the teacher pointing out that "THAT is not a face!".

My mother remembered vividly the afternoon, when I tried for hours to get the painting of a bee right. She told me that I was desperately crying for having to start again and again, because some aspect of the bee was "not right". No wonder my artistic skills in this area never flourished!

Betty Edwards on dissolving chairs into patters when drawing, 1979

Only sometimes in the 1990 when I accidentally picked up a copy of Betty Edward´s "Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain", did I understand what had gone wrong: for the first time in my life, I took up a pencil, looked at an object as a collection of lines, curves, light and shadow, and drew a hand.

Actually I did not draw a hand. My eyes followed extremely slowly the contours of e.g. the outer rim of the hand, did not even look at the drawing paper, and let my hand with the pencil "automatically" follow my what my eyes saw. Not bothered with getting a hand right, not bothered with producing what my conceptual mind thought a hand should be. Just following the lines without thinking. In a way, this was already a kind of concentration meditation.

And I liked my drawing! I liked it because quite uneffortlessly, this new collaboration of eye and hand, non-conceptual, had freed me. My drawing actually wad much more a real hand than I had ever been able to produce before.

From that point on for a while I drew the faces of my children and wife with enthusiam Sadly I lost my drawing book. But I do remember the joy of painting that I never had as a child.

Betty Edward´s "non-conceptual drawing" pointed forward to mahamudra meditation that I was to meet later.

Daniel P Brown on meditation, pattern recognition, and desconstruction, 1981

Daniel P Brown is one of the meditation teachers - such as Culadasa - who have always tried to link the Eastern meditative traditions to Western science.

In particularly, two strands of Western science are linked to meditation training and concepts:

  • Development psychology (what Wilber calls "growing up and cleaning up" as opposed to the Eastern "waking up") such as trauma and attachment theory.

  • Cognitive psychology / cognitive science and neuroscience (such as presented by Goleman in "Altered Traits"). The combination of East and West is also called contemplative science. It includes, for example, EEG research of meditators while meditation.

Dan Brown uses both links in his "high intensity training" retreats. As cognitive science and neuroscience made headway in the last 40 years, he continually updated his training material. Here, I am just focusing on the link to cognitive psychology as established by 1981, the time of writing of his dissertation.

And here is the basic proposition by Dr Brown:

Deep yogic meditation in parts "is analogous to the process of pattern recognition in cognitive psychology, but in reverse." (MMS, p. 590)

This hypothesis rests on the "constructionist" theory that pattern recognition is (partially) a bottom-up process of receiving sensory stimuli, and aggregating them across levels of ever higher abstraction to what eventually appears in the mind as recognisable objects and instances (e.g. a specific car is an instance of the type "car").

Of course, in reality, there are also top-down processes shaping the earliest impressions into what the mind has already learned. However, Dan Brown in this 1981 dissertation rests on the early versions of this approach which emphasised the bottom up nature.

What does the yogi do during mediation to "reverse" this process?

Dan Brown describes it extensively in the 700+ pages of his dissertation. But, essentially, the yogi "deconceptualises" his mind by systematically training himself to stay at the level of more elementary sense impressions. In the end, Brown suggests, in line with Culadasa´s later "The Illuminated Mind", that the yogi trains himself to look behind the scenes, and lower levels of processing of sensory and mental artefacts. Only through repeated and ever deeper dismantling the constructions will the yogi reach enlightenment .

This is "deconstruction".

For example, he sais that "the yogic attainment of unaggregated empty space can be compared to stabilised-image research and the ganzfeld experiment" (MMS, p. 590).

Brown in the course of the dissertation maps the detailed mahamudra terminology across the stages of mediation to specific cognitive construction and deconstruction processes described in science.

Eventually, the resulting yogic way of perceiving without conceptual cognition is described in mahamudra Buddhism through its technical vocabulary. Here are some terms which have a specific meaning, eg

  • naked

  • fresh

  • unobstructed

  • lively.

The same deconstruction process applies to emotions and affects.

At the end of the yogic deconstructionist process, "only pure autonomic activity remains". The affective effect is stripped off the experience, as it is seen as "empty" (MMS, p 655). I have made such an experience once in a psychedelic ceremony, where I experienced only the autonomic reaction of tears, but without corresponding emotions.

Interestingly, Matthew Walker in "Why We Sleep" sees a similar process as the function of dreams in REM sleep. Basically, a dream, in this view, is a mechanism to retrieve and store back in a modified form the difficult parts of memory content. Dreams they allow to experience difficult input of the day without their emotional content. So, the original "difficult" dream, associated with emotions (such as trauma) is "overwritten" by cleansed memories. This is a kind of "deconstructionist" approach too.

Dr Brown´s 1981 foresighted statement that "there there are no constructivist theories of affect within cognitive psychology, the meditative texts anticipate this current trend within other areas of cognitive psychology" (MMS, p 655). The 2016 book by Lisa Feldman-Barret, "How Emotions are Made" fulfills exactly this promise.

When I link this back to my experience with "Drawing from the Right Side of the Brain", it appears obvious: Betty Edward helps with seeing the world "naked".

Culadasa on the hierarchical board room model of the mind , 2016


Culadasa is a meditation teacher who did his quiet work in his Sonora desert retreat until he "exploded on the scene"in 2016 with his ground-breaking "The Mind Illuminated. Integrating Buddhist Wisdom and Brain Science for Greater Mindfulness".

This book is - I believe - one of the truly great achievements that has helped many meditation-resistant lay-persons like me to actually start meditating. I heard of it through the Peter Attia podcast first - and if someone is scientific, it is Peter Attia.

A large part of the book is given to what he calls "Interludes" that give the reader a first view of contemporary brain science, at a high level, as it pertains to sensory and mental perception and what consciousness is. In these interludes he mixes Buddhist and cognitive science terms.

In particular, I want to point out two strands in his mapping of cognitive science to Buddhism: the implied " Global Workspace Theory" of what consciousness is, and on the hierarchical model of processing (as held by Daniel P Brown).

The Global Workspace Theory of the Mind

This theory represents consciousness as something akin to a boardroom, in which the board members (the subsystems of the mind; the six senses, including the cognitive mind), share a common workspace (such as a Powerpoint Presentation). They "project" their respective sensory and mental content into this space for "discussion". Eventually, the agreement of the board members determines, what we will experience as conscious mental event. Thus , there is no conscious agent as such.

An example is, when a driver on a dark road has to decide whether the object appearing in front of the car is a person or an animal, or even a hallucination.

This theory is highly intuitive and plausible. However, as the AI researcher Joscha Bach points out, it does not rest of emipirical research, but is a model essentially arrived at through introspection (just like meditation). Being an experienced meditator himself, Bach does not refute the model.

Bottom Up Processing,

Culadasa´s mind model rests essentially on a hierarchical model of the mind, as I have described it in the section on Daniel P Brown. Culadasa´s version is updated with newer research, but essentially the same.

And, identical to Daniel P Brown, he sees cognition as the aggregation of sensory input over many levels into what we eventually perceive as specific inner or outer objects (e.g. a bird, a thought).

Meditation, for Culadasa, achieves a similar result as described by Dan Brown: the ability of the meditator to become aware of deeper levels of processing through deconstruction.


Here, Culadasa in a footnote adds a new aspect. Culadasa is not only a meditation teacher. In his youth, he had also become an expert on psychedelics. As he describes publicly on Youtube, he had become known as the "drug doctor", since he becanme known to lead people in difficult psychedelic experiences into calmer water. In fact, like Jack Kornfield and many other spiritual teachers, he came to Buddhism through psychedelics.

Now, back to "reverse cognition": Culadasa claims, from theory and from personal experience, that the basic process of de-aggregation and de-conceptualisation in meditation has its equivalent in psychedelic experiences.

In particular, this is true for some visual phenomena. In meditation and under the influence of psychedelics, the visual field can be modified in very similar ways. It can, for example, be decomposed into very fine-grained patterns such as lines, threads, squares, triangles etc.

In modern art, some psychedelic artists have brought back these changes of the visual field into their art

Here is a partial section of one of Alex Grey's "Sacred Mirrors" series.

Alex Grey, Universal Mind Lattice (section)

This phenomenon is described in a traditional Buddhist text like this:

"When the visions of primordial wisdom arise, they do not stay in one place, but run to the right, left, up, down ...The visions are like a silk brocade, patterns, or lattice"(TPT, p. 925 ff.)

These description have to taken as exact descriptions of the visual field of the meditator, not as metaphors etc. They describe quite precisely one of my experiences with Ayahuasca.

In fact, it is interesting to compare Grey's psychedelic with the cover page image of the quoted source book of mahamudra meditation

The Precious Treasury of the Expanse and Awakened Awareness: The Ornaments of the Definitive Secret


Daniel P Brown

"Mahamudra Meditation-Stages and Contemporary Cognitive Psychology. A Dissertation Submitted to the Faculty of the Divinity School in Candidacy for the Degree of Doctor of Philosophy", 1981

"Pointing out the Great Way"

A book in with Daniel P Brown further develops his ideas of the 1981 dissertation for a non-dissertation environment. Sadly this book is out of print, but it is available as Kindle edition.

Judson Brewer, Daniel Brown

Mapping complex mind states: EEG neural substrates of meditative

unified compassionate awareness. 2018


"The Mind Illuminated.. A Complete Meditation Guide Integrating Buddhist Wisdom and Brain Science for Greater Mindfulness." 2016

Edwards, Betty

Drawing on the right side of the brain. 1979/1989

Feldman, Lisa-Barret

"How Emotions are Made. The Secret Life of the Brain", 2016

Shar Rdza Bkra' Shis Rgyal Mtshan (Author), Daniel P Brown (Translator), Sonam Gurung (Translator)

"The Precious Treasury of the Expanse and Awakened Awareness: The Ornaments of the Definitive Secret" 2021

Walker, Matthew

"Why We Sleep"

A thought on...