Contemplative Neurosciences Research

Vedana – Affective Feeling Tone or simply Sensation?

Brigham and Women's Hospital

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.
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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]

4 Responses

  1. Julie Brefczynski-Lewis : If one studies all the classes of Vedana – positive, negative, neutral and then categorized by contact with the sense organs, pure, impure, turbulent, non-turbulent – then it’s very clear that it doesn’t refer to the more vague notion of feelings in English – such as feeling sad, etc. I think Sensation has potential for misinterpretation as well – like the sensation of sandpaper or something. That might be just as far off the mark.

  2. Peggy Murray: Personally, I like “feeling tone” and understand that tone to be either pleasant, unpleasant or neither pleasant or unpleasant (I think the use of the word “neutral” is misleading). My understanding is that vedana is what moves consciousness by quickly hooking up with underlying tendencies; when the sankhara meets and “colors” the vedana, our interpretation= emotion.

  3. Ron Purser: Yes interesting discussion…would be worth opening it up more in terms of the influence of mental formations (samkharas) as prior conditioning of vedanas. Beauty is in the eye of beholder may point to how any contact and its preconscious labeling is conditioned even deeper by mental formations and mental fermentations. Yogacara is an interesting exploration for this inquiry.

  4. peg murray says:

    Dave, I agree with Ron, and in my opinion, the sense doors are more often than not primed by sankharas such that they are prowling the environment for specific types of sensory data that are “nutriment” for that sankhara. Thus the arising of a pleasant, unpleasant or neither pleasant or unpleasant feeling tone is often pre-conditioned even as it co-arises with the contact. My understanding is that all of the system is unconscious to this point.

    What I find most interesting is that the practice allows for a temporal gap during the interpretation phase of vedana such that one can recognize the hookup of vedana and sankhara, disconnect the pleasant, unpleasant or neither feeling tone from the underlying tendency, and consciously determine whether/ what emotional response is cultivated or restrained.

    Even more interesting is coming to understand that in cultivating the wholesome inclination of the mind, one is creating a whole new set of rules for the system to play by.

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