Yoga Sutras: Insights on Memory Parallels between Yogic cognition and cognitive/behavioral neuroscience

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During the past century, research in psychology and neuroscience has lead to an understanding of several cognitive and neurobiological processes underlie the three stages of memory processing: encoding, consolidation and retrieval. Encoding refers to the processes that transform the information we perceive through the senses into a mental representation. These processes occur at the time of our experience, and some aspects of the experience get recorded as a memory representation [1].

Article highlights: Parallels between the Yogic cognition and Neuroscience

Yoga Sutras/Yoga Philosophy Cognitive neuroscience/Behavioral neuroscience
Buddhi’s function – anuvyavasaya – described as an important part of memory formation Frontal lobes – involved in attention and elaboration – important factors that affect memory encoding
Formation of memory from samskara

Binding together of features of both the process of cognition and the object cognized

Hippocampus – convergence zone that binds together various features of a life experience, including one’s own thoughts during the experience
Memories consist of pleasure and pain, associated with raaga and dwesha, respectively Amygdala stories both appetitive and aversive conditioned memories

Allows individuals to both secure pleasure and avoid pain.

Memory Encoding, Attention and Elaboration

In Veda Vyasa’s commentary on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, very interesting insights on the nature and formation of memories are offered [2]. It is explained that an experience or cognition is “associated with and coloured by” both the object that is perceived as well as process and instrument of cognition. Such a cognition produces a mental imprint, a samskara, which then gives rise to memory.

The chain of causation is clearly explained as follows:

Cognition -> mental imprint (samskara) -> memory

Similar to the cognition and samskara that produced it, the memory contains features of both the nature of the object perceived as well as the process of cognition. For example, in the experience of an orange, both features are included:

  • Features of the process of cognition, which is a role of the buddhi, the faculty of intelligence

(2) Features of the object that is cognized, which is the orange as it actually is, with its colour, form, texture, smell etc.

In the Yoga Sutras, memory is defined as a vritti (thought wave; often translated as a “whirlpool” or fluctuation of the mind) that rises in the chitta, the mind-field, through the samskara of a past experience.

anubhootavishayasanpramoshah smritih (1.11)

Translation: Memory is when the thought waves of perceived subjects do not slip away (and through impressions come back to consciousness).

The buddhi, intelligence, has several functions, and one of its functions, described as anuvyavasaya, is important for the process of memory. Anuvyavasaya is described as the awareness that buddhi has that it cognizes or experiences. Abhinavagupta, the great Kashmiri polymath and philosopher, described anuvyavasaya as the determinate perception that occurs after (“anu”) the initial perception of the object by the senses (“vyavasaya”). In Yoga philosophy, anuvyavasaya refers to the function of the mind by which sense perceptions are associated, differentiated, integrated and assimilated into meaningful concepts. Hence, anuvyavasaya is also considered a creative function of the buddhi [3].

The human brain: Frontal lobes, Hippocampus and Amygdala

(Image source: Illustration by Levent Efe)

Interestingly, modern research studies have consistently shown that memory encoding is mainly influenced by how much we pay attention to information and the extent to which we “elaborate” on its meaning. Here, elaboration involves connecting the new information with other information or past knowledge, pondering over it, making it personally meaningful and so on. It has been demonstrated that deeper elaboration, especially making it personally relevant and making multiple connections, helps in creating stronger memories. For instance, if someone from South India is asked to remember a “Kabocha”, which is a green ridged pumpkin native to Japan, they might remember it by connecting its appearance to a green pumpkin grown locally and to memories of savouring the delicious sambar prepared using the pumpkin. This would create a stronger memory than it would if one remembers it as “a 7 letter word beginning with K”. Another example of how attention affects memory encoding is how we forget things in our everyday life. For instance ”Where did I place my mobile phone?” This occurs as a consequence of not paying attention while the particular action is happening, or because of dividing our attention to multiple tasks.

From a neuroscientific perspective, data from neuroimaging and clinical studies corroborate these findings and indicate that the frontal lobes of the brain (shown in green in the figure) are involved in attention and elaborative processing and hence affect memory encoding.

Hippocampus: Binding of Features

Episodic memories are memories of personal life experiences, and encoding them involves attention and elaboration, processes that take place in the frontal lobes of the brain.  Just the way a memory of an orange requires the binding together of different features such as the organge colour, round shape, citrus smell and sweet-sour taste, the memory of a life experience requires the binding together of all its features such as where and when the event happened, the people and objects present during that event and one’s own thoughts while that event was occuring. Research has established that the hallmark of episodic encoding is the binding together of various features of an experience into an integrated memory representation.

Neuroimaging studies have shown that the hippocampus, which is a structure located deep in the medial portion of the temporal lobe (shown in figure), acts like a “convergence zone”, since it receives highly processed information from many areas of the brain. The various features of an experience like faces of people in the scene, the location, and the context converge on the hippocampus and it binds these features into an integrated memory representation. As the lobes involved in attention and elaboration, the frontal lobes have the ability to modulate memory encoding by giving more attention to the processing of particular features of an experience, enhancing their input to the hippocampal convergence zone, thus increasing the chances of those features getting bound into the memory representation.

Amygdala: Pleasure and Pain

Vyasa further explains that all the memories consist of pleasure, pain and obliviousness. He describes pleasure as being closely associated with raaga, attraction or desirable experiences, pain as being associated with dwesha, aversion or undesirable experiences and obliviousness as being connected to avidya, ignorance. Recent research in behavioral neuroscience has shown that amygdala, which consists of two lima-bean shaped clusters near the hippocampus, mediates both appetitive behavior (satisfying various desires, e.g. food) and aversive (fearful) behavior through different mental processes [4]. There is convincing evidence that the amygdala stores memories that allow initially neutral stimuli to become associated with appetitive and aversive outcomes through conditioning. These associations are coded at the neuronal level. It is due to these associations that individuals can both secure pleasure and avoid pain.

More interesting insights will be discussed in upcoming articles…


  • [1] Smith, E. E., & Kosslyn, S. M. (2013). Cognitive Psychology: Pearson New International Edition PDF eBook: Mind and Brain. Pearson Higher Ed.
  • [2] Bhāratī, S. V. (2004). Yoga Sūtras of Patañjali with the exposition of Vyāsa: a translation and commentary. Motilal Banarsidass Publishers.
  • [3] Beitmen, L. R. (2014). Neuroscience and Hindu Aesthetics: A Critical Analysis of VS Ramachandran’s “Science of Art”.
  • [4] Fernando, A. B., Murray, J. E., & Milton, A. L. (2013). The amygdala: securing pleasure and avoiding pain. Frontiers in behavioral neuroscience, 7, 190.