Monday, June 07, 2010

Rick Hanson and Rick Mendius - Buddha's Brain

Buddha's Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love, and  Wisdom

I found this article at Patheos - which looks like a cool site. Rick Hanson and Richard Mendius are authors of Buddha's Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love, and Wisdom. More at the bottom.

Buddha's Brain

May 18, 2010

By Rick Hanson and Rick Mendius

In a way, the methodologies of Buddhist thought and science are essentially similar. ~ The Dalai Lama

photo  courtesy of The Buddhist Channel

We all want to be truly happy. The question is, how?

In Buddhist practice, the "how" includes gradually transforming the mind -- the seat of clinging in all its forms -- to increase the causes of happiness and reduce the causes of suffering, ultimately, to complete Awakening.

But what does it mean actually, to transform the mind? (We mean "mind" in the ordinary sense, as the realm of awareness, thoughts, feelings, sensations, images, desires, personality patterns, etc.)

Mind and Brain

In terms of Western science, changing your mind means changing your brain.

Many people, us included, believe that there are transcendental factors at work in the mind outside of the realm of matter and energy. But apart from those potential influences, mind must be what the nervous system does. What else could it possibly be?

While acknowledging the possibility of the transcendental, for the rest of this article we'll stay within the framework of what's known scientifically about the mind and brain, and explore how you can use that information to support your own path of practice.

For example, psychology, neurology, and "contemplative neuroscience" have recently made discoveries about attention, cultivating positive emotions, and controlling craving that support the development of virtue, concentration, and wisdom. Further, the growing synergies between science and contemplative practice are a vital resource for a world poised on the edge of the sword, since the way it tips will depend a lot on whether enough people become more skillful at managing the reactive patterns of their minds -- and thus, their brains.

Mind Changes Brain . . . Which Changes Mind

Scientists have shown that your mind and brain routinely change each other. This fact opens many gates to deepening practice.

For example, the mental activity of meditation changes your brain in numerous ways, including:

  • It adds billions of synaptic connections -- and thus, a measurable thickening of brain tissues-- in the regions handling control of attention and sensory awareness (most obvious in the comparison between aging meditators and older non-meditators: good news for those of us with gray hair).
  • It increases serotonin, the neurotransmitter that helps regulates mood and sleep.
  • It changes your brainwaves depending on whether you are doing a concentration or a mindfulness meditation.
As the psychologist, Donald Hebb, put it: "Neurons that fire together, wire together." Fleeting thoughts, feelings, etc., leave behind lasting marks on your brain -- much like a spring shower leaves little tracks on a hillside -- which form the tendencies and views that make us suffer, or lead us to happiness. This means that your experience really, really matters. Which is a profound and scientifically substantiated rationale for being kind to yourself and creating the causes of more wholesome experiences and fewer unwholesome ones.

And as your brain changes over time, so does your mind. For example:

  • If the left side of your frontal lobes becomes increasingly active compared to the right side, you become more prone to positive emotions.
  • If serotonin increases through medication or through supplementing the amino acid it's built from, tryptophan, it can lift depression and free attention for psychological growth and spiritual practice.
  • If the circuits of the soothing parasympathetic nervous system become more sensitized with practice, they help dampen stress reactions and support equanimity.

In sum, with a little skillfulness, you can use your mind to change your brain to benefit your whole being -- and everyone else you affect.

Taking in the Good

So let's consider how this could actually work, in an extended example.

Imagine some of our earliest mammal ancestors, little rodent-like creatures scurrying about in the shadows of the last dinosaurs. The ones that became absorbed in the pleasant sensations of a good meal, warm rocks, and sweet-smelling flowers . . . CRUNCH . . . got eaten because they missed the sound of a slither nearby. The ones that lived to pass on their genes were nervous and jumpy, quick to notice potential threats and to remember painful experiences.

That same circuitry is active in your brain today in the amygdala, hippocampus, and related structures. It's hard-wired to scan for the bad, and when it inevitably finds negative things, they're both stored immediately and made available for rapid recall. In contrast, positive experiences (short of million dollar moments) are usually registered through standard memory systems, and thus need to be held in conscious awareness 10 to 20 seconds for them to really sink in.

In sum, your brain is like Velcro for negative experiences and Teflon for positive ones.

In the moment, this built-in bias puts a negative spin on the world and intensifies our stress and reactivity. Over time, these experiences build up in what's called "implicit memory," casting a glum shadow over mood and outlook, and darkening one's interior landscape. Yes, these hard-wired inclinations have been evolutionarily successful, but Mother Nature cares about grandchildren, not about dukkha.

In terms of Buddhist practice, the brain's negativity bias feeds all the hindrances, and it saps motivation for right effort. It also undermines bhavana -- the cultivation of wholesome qualities -- by downplaying good lessons and experiences, by undermining their storage, and by making it harder to recollect positive states of mind so we can find our way back to them.

You can overcome this innate tilt toward the negative by deliberately enhancing the way your brain forms implicit memories:

(1) Help positive events become positive experiences:

  • Pay extra attention to the good things in the world and in yourself. For example, notice things that go well, or people who treat you kindly, or your success at something. As we know, it is ignorance, fundamentally, that leads to suffering, and not seeing the good that is actually present is a kind of ignorance.
  • As a mindfulness practice, focus on the sensations and the feelings in your positive experiences since they are the pathway to emotional memory.
  • Deliberately create positive experiences for yourself. Examples include acts of generosity, evoking compassion, or recalling a time when you were happy.

(2) Savor the experience as a kind of concentration practice; keep your attention on it for many seconds while letting it fill your body and mind.

(3) Sense that the experience is soaking into you, registering deeply in emotional memory. You could imagine that it's sinking into your chest and back and brainstem, or imagine a treasure chest in your heart.

These three steps usually take half a minute or less, and with practice, you'll get even faster. Every day, there are many opportunities for noticing and absorbing good experiences. Any single instance won't make a big difference, but as the days and weeks add up, the mounting pile of positive implicit memories will provide more resources for coping -- and practice -- and brighten your inner landscape.

Because "neurons that fire together, wire together," momentary states become enduring traits. These traits then become the causes of more wholesome states, which nourish your traits further in a positive cycle. To paraphrase Mathieu Ricard: If you take care of the minutes, the hours -- and the days and years -- will take care of themselves.

How Brain Science Can Support Practice

To be sure, Western science is not necessary to fulfill the path of awakening set forth by the Buddha. But the emerging map of the mind and the brain can support practice in numerous ways.

First, knowing more about the brain/mind deepens conviction (faith) -- one of the factors of enlightenment -- since scientific developments keep re-confirming the dharma. For example, researchers have found that the activities of "self" are scattered throughout the brain, constructed from multiple sub-systems, and activated by many prior causes. There is no coherent, stable, independent self looking out through your eyes; in a neurological sense, self is truly empty. For many Westerners, science is the benchmark authority for what is true, and its harmony with Buddhism reduces the hindrance of doubt.

Continue reading.

Rick Hanson, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist, author, and teacher with a great interest in the intersection of psychology, neurology, and Buddhism. He has written and taught extensively about the essential inner skills of personal well-being, psychological growth, and contemplative practice, as well as about relationships, family life, and raising children. He is the author of Mother Nurture: A Mother's Guide to Health in Body, Mind, and Intimate Relationships and his latest book is Buddha's Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love, and Wisdom (with Rick Mendius, M.D.). He and Rick Mendius have also created the audio program, Meditations to Change Your Brain.

Rick Mendius, M.D. is a neurologist, author, and teacher. He trained at UCLA as an epileptologist under Jerome Engel and as a neurobehaviorist under Frank Benson and Jeff Cummings. He has been on the teaching faculty of UCLA, Oregon Health Sciences University, and Stanford University. His meditation practice began in the 1980s with Shinzen Young in Los Angeles, and continues at Spirit Rock with Jack Kornfield, Phillip Moffitt, Ajahn Amaro, and Ajahn Sumedho.

1 comment:

Matt said...

great to see our integral friends covering the work of Drs. Rick; we're pretty into it ourselves. not to be overly marketing, but come check out the online event series we're doing with Dr. Hanson on Awakening Your Brain. same structure as the series with did with Ken a few months ago.