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Neurodharma: Practicing with the Brain in Mind

by Rick Hanson

Scientific studies of humans and other animals have established thousands of examples of tight linkages between mental activities – such as mindfulness, suffering, compassion, happiness, and awareness – and underlying neural activities. Change the nervous system for better or worse, and the mind changes for better or worse as well.

Apart from the possible effects of a potential X factor – such as God, Ground, or the Unconditioned – all mental activity depends upon underlying neural activity. Moment to moment, the mind is constrained, conditioned, and constructed by the brain. Certainly, the mind is affected by influences outside the nervous system, such as human culture, but the final common pathway of all the natural causes streaming through us to manifest this moment of experience runs right through the brain.

Naturalizing Buddhist Practice

In this light, how might it serve Buddhist practice to engage the causes of suffering and its end as natural processes embedded in our human neuropsychology? This focus on natural processes has been applied fruitfully to many phenomena, such as the diversity of life and the changes of the seasons. The causes of these phenomena may be complex and amazing – consider the tiny DNA molecules that contain the blueprint of the whole body or how the mass of the sun bends space itself so the earth rolls around this gravity well like a marble in a sink – but they are still natural. Naturalizing something enables us to understand it better – worthwhile in its own right – plus doing this often helps us to have more influence over it. For example, understanding that many diseases are caused by microbes rather than curses has led to successful treatments.

Clearly, Buddhist practice can be effective without naturalizing it. Following the Buddha’s teachings, hundreds if not thousands of people in his lifetime became enlightened and many more went far along the path of awakening. Since his death, Buddhism has spread around the world, enlightening some and inspiring, soothing, healing, and nourishing many more. None of these people needed an MRI to gain the benefits of their practice.

Still, 2500 years after the Buddha walked the dusty roads of northern India, we’ve learned a great deal about the material realm: matter and energy, mosquitoes and monkeys – and the brain. The Buddha engaged the mental causes of suffering and peace. Accelerating during the past twenty years, there is a growing scientific understanding of the underlying neural causes of these mental causes. What shall we do with this knowledge?

Buddhism calls us to see things squarely and deeply as they are, to deconstruct them down to their fundamental elements and causes, and to recognize how phenomena arise and pass away dependently upon each other. To turn away from the emerging understanding of how mental and neural activity are knitted together seems antithetical to Buddhism, which considers ignorance to be the root source of suffering, and seeing clearly as among the highest aims. Further, to the extent that the causes of suffering and its end are found in the brain, then practice naturally takes us into nature itself, grounding mind in life.

The Immaterial Yet Natural Mind

To do this productively, first we need to define what this “mind” is. In brain science, mind and related terms (e.g., mental) usually mean information and related processing. Beginning about 600 million years ago, multi-celled creatures had grown complex enough that their sensory and motor systems needed to communicate information to each other. For example, if a sensory organ detected signs of something good to eat, it could signal muscles to swim toward it. The nervous system – whether in an ancient jellyfish or in a human being today – represents, communicates, stores, and transforms information; its evolved purpose is to enable the mind.

Information exists while also being immaterial: we cannot touch or weigh a meaning, signal, instruction, perspective, or plan. The idea of a material substrate representing immaterial information may seem odd or remote at first, but we are surrounded by daily examples. The material shapes of the words on this page convey immaterial meanings; speak these words out loud and material sound waves will now carry their meanings; say them to someone else via a cell phone, and electromagnetic waves will now represent this information.

Even though it is immaterial, information can still be a natural phenomenon, conveyed in natural ways. The information in a thank you note is not supernatural or transcendental and is thus natural by default; it is communicated through the mails, not telepathy. Similarly, the signal that there’s too much carbon dioxide in the blood is a natural event, as is the instruction to the lungs to take a deeper breath. 

It is possible that the first creatures with a nervous system were entirely unconscious. Still, over 600 million years, somewhere along the way, the survival of animals was increased by evolving capacities to become aware of their internal states and external environment. Perhaps the ancient jellyfish had no awareness, but the goldfish in a pond are clearly aware of the gardener’s shadow as they rise to be fed, and a cat shows heightened awareness of a nearby dog. In humans and other animals, awareness, attention, sleep, and waking all depend upon underlying neural structures and activities; consciousness is largely if not entirely a natural process.

Co-Dependence of Mind and Brain

In this naturalistic framework, the information of the immaterial mind must be represented by the material nervous system. Mental activity involves neural activity – and repeated patterns of neural activity change neural structure and function. In the saying from the groundbreaking work of the Canadian psychologist, Donald Hebb: “neurons that fire together, wire together.” Meanwhile, connections between neurons that are not used wither away in a process sometimes called neural Darwinism: the survival of the busiest.

This process is turbo-charged for whatever is in the field of focused awareness. For example, cab drivers who must memorize all the streets of London build new connections between neurons (called synapses) in their hippocampus, a part of the brain that helps make visual-spatial memories. Or take meditation. Regular practice builds structure in the insula (a region key to both self-awareness and empathy for the emotions of others) and in prefrontal areas behind the forehead that regulate attention, emotions, and behavior.

Neural and mental activity thus co-arise, affecting each other. Causes flow both ways, from the mind into the brain and the brain into the mind. The mind and brain are two categorically distinct – immaterial and material – aspects of a single, integrated system. In effect, as Dan Siegel puts it, the mind uses the brain to make the mind. Consequently, we can use the mind to change the brain to change the mind for the better.

How might these insights from neuroscience support and enrich Buddhist practice? Down here in the trenches of everyday life, we are left with the Buddha’s encouragement to steer clear of any thicket of views about what is ultimately true and instead focus on how to end suffering here and now. I’d like to offer one example in which practicing with the brain in mind could be helpful.

Conviction and Motivation

Attention is like a combination spotlight and vacuum cleaner, both illuminating what it rests upon and sucking it into the brain. In a traditional saying, the mind takes its shape from what it rests upon. The modern update would be that the brain takes its shape from what the mind rests upon.

Rest the mind repeatedly upon self-criticism, anxious rumination, and a resentful case against others, and then the brain will gradually take the shape of a sensitized amygdala (the alarm bell of the brain), a weakened hippocampus (which places things in context and calms down the amygdala), depleted serotonin (a neurotransmitter that supports a positive mood), and growing sensitization to stress.

On the other hand, if you rest the mind repeatedly upon the recognition of your genuinely good qualities, the development of steady attention, and compassionate and kind feelings for yourself and others, then the brain will take a different shape, one with more activation in the left prefrontal cortex (linked to increased happiness), thicker cortex in the executive regions behind the forehead (for better self-regulation and emotional balance), thicker cortex in the insula (strengthening both self-awareness and empathy for others), and greater resilience and capacity to deal with the hard things in life.

The knowledge that your mind is changing your brain in lasting ways is sobering and motivating. I’ve become a lot more attentive to and less indulgent of the grasping and grumbling in my mind since I learned that it’s grinding grooves of suffering – metaphorically speaking – in physical structures. Yes, in principle, I should already be moved to practice on psychological grounds alone, but in reality, the knowledge that my thoughts and feelings can change my body for the worse has extra motivational impact. This news is concrete, physical – and compelling.

Knowing that practice – on the cushion and off – can also change the most important organ in your body for the better has a similar motivational effect. Dharma practice has dry spells, times when nothing seems to be happening. But synapse by synapse, breath by breath, our wholesome efforts cannot help but sculpt the brain. Even if the results are not yet apparent, we can have confidence – some might call it faith – that our efforts are making tangible, physical changes that will eventually bear fruit.

Understanding the power of attention to shape the brain can add motivational juice to a person’s cultivation of mindfulness. More broadly, throughout the dharma, the Buddha and other teachers have emphasized the importance of conviction – one of the five spiritual powers – as well as determination and diligence. Additionally, we are called to compassion for all beings, including oneself. Whether it comes from a muscular, sober clarity or from a sweet caring kindness, or both, recognizing the impact of your repeated thoughts and feelings on the body, particularly on the brain, can help one stay on one’s chosen path.

Conclusion

I visualize the expression of the dharma over time as a kind of cone originating with the historical Gautama the Buddha, and moving toward us over 2500 years while also widening to encompass Theravadan, Tibetan, Zen, Pure Land, and other developments. While we’ll never know precisely what the Buddha said or thought, he initiated a Buddhastream of realization and practical wisdom that many others have contributed to, and which should be judged on the Buddha’s own terms: ehipassiko, see for yourself what hurts and what helps.

In our own age, a significant new eddy in the Buddhastream seems to be emerging, with these elements:

  • a high percentage of householders engaging deep contemplative practice
  • multiculturalism as both a reality and a value
  • ready access to and eclectic use of the full array of Buddhist teachings and practices
  • flattening hierarchies
  • assimilating ideas and findings from science, including psychology
  • naturalizing dharma practice
  • deconstructing and using Buddhist perspectives and practices in non-Buddhist settings (e.g., pain-control clinics, schools, psychotherapy)

Of course, the eddies in the Buddhastream swirl together and influence each other, and many people draw upon more than one. The developing naturalization of the dharma may well influence other parts of the Buddhastream. Who knows what the future holds? All eddies disperse eventually, whether inside the brain or in the human unfolding. Meanwhile, we have an extraordinary opportunity to draw upon a great toolbox that is historically unprecedented in its richness and diversity, including its naturalized ideas and methods.

Ehipassiko.

© Rick Hanson, Ph.D., 2015, The Wellspring Institute for Neuroscience and Contemplative Wisdom

Rick Hanson, Ph.D., is a psychologist, Senior Fellow of the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley, and New York Times best-selling author. His books include Hardwiring Happiness, Buddha's Brain, Just One Thing, and Mother Nuture. Founder of the Wellspring Institute for Neuroscience and Contemplative Wisdom, he's been an invited speaker at Oxford, Stanford, and Harvard, and taught in meditation centers worldwide. For more information, visit www.rickhanson.net.

 
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