The knowledge of neuroscience has doubled in the last twenty years. It will probably double again in the next twenty years. I think that neuropsychology is, broadly, about where biology was a hundred years after the invention of the microscope, around 1725.
In contrast, Buddhism is a twenty-five-hundred-year-old tradition. You don’t need an EEG or MRI to sit and observe your own mind, to open your heart and practice with sincerity. I don’t think of neuropsychology as a replacement for traditional methods, but simply as a very useful way to understand why traditional methods work. This is helpful in our culture, since arguably the secular religion of the West is science. If you understand why something works in your own mind, that promotes conviction (saddhā, trust in the Buddha’s teachings).
Understanding a little neuropsychology also helps you to emphasize or individualize those particular aspects of traditional practices that best suit your own brain; natural differences in the brain are a fundamental kind of diversity, and if teachers and meditation centers want to respond to the needs of their existing members and to reach out to new ones, they will have to take into account normal variations in the brain.
Science and Buddhism
Breakthroughs in brain science create opportunities to develop new or refined methods of practice. As Buddhism spread through Tibet, China, and Japan, it learned from the cultures in those lands and developed new methods. Similarly, as Buddhism has come to the West and encountered what is arguably its dominant cultural force—science—it is beginning to draw on science for ways it, too, might be of use on the path of awakening. Not in any way to change the aims of practice—as the Buddha said, I teach one thing: suffering and its end— but to increase the skillful means to that end.
Immaterial experience leaves material, enduring traces behind. In the saying from the work of the psychologist, Donald Hebb: “Neurons that fire together, wire together.” This is a neurologically informed way to appreciate why your experience really matters, and how important it is to have a kind of mental hygiene, to really appreciate what we allow in our minds.
Perhaps your mind is running themes of threat, grievance and loss. Or alternately, perhaps it is running heartfeltness, generosity, kindness to self and others, awakening. Whichever movie we’re running, those neurons are firing and wiring together. Learning how to use your mind to shape the wiring of your brain is a profound way to support yourself on the path of awakening.
The Mind & Brain Co-arise Co-dependently
There’s been a lot of research and clarification over the last several decades about how the brain makes the mind, and how the mind makes the brain, in a codependent, circular kind of way.
Let’s begin with some clarifications:
- By “mind” I mean the flow of information through the nervous system, most of which is forever unconscious. We privilege what’s in the field of awareness because that’s what we’re conscious of. But cultivating beneficial factors down in the basement of the brain, outside of conscious awareness, is actually more influential in the long run.
- Further, the brain is embedded in larger systems, including the nervous system as a whole, other bodily systems, and then biology, culture, and evolution. It is shaped by those systems, and also shaped by the mind itself. For simplicity, I’ll just refer to the brain, but really we are talking about a vast network of interdependent causes, much as the Buddha taught.
- There may well be transcendental factors required for the mind to exist, to operate: call those factors God, Buddhanature, the Ground, or by no name at all. Since by definition, we cannot prove the existence or non-existence of such transcendental factors, either way, it is consistent with the tenets of science to acknowledge transcendental factors as a possibility. That said, and with a deep bow in their direction, we will stay within the frame of Western science.
- Within that framework, the brain is the necessary and proximally sufficient condition for the mind. (It’s only proximally sufficient because the brain is nested in a great network of causes, without which the brain could not exist.) This view, generally shared within Western science, is that every mental state is correlated with a necessary and proximally sufficient brain state.
This integration of mind and brain has three important implications.
First, as your brain changes, your mind changes. Second, as your mind changes, your brain changes. Many of those changes are fleeting, as your brain changes moment to moment to support the movement of information. But many are lasting, as neurons wire together: structure builds in the brain. Mental activity is like a spring shower, leaving little traces of neural structure behind. Over time, the little tracks in the hillside draw more water down, deepening their course. A kind of circular self-organizing dynamic gradually develops, and then the mind tends to move more and more down that channel, and soon enough you’ve got a gully.
For example, if you are using neural circuits a lot, they actually become more sensitive to stimulation, for better or worse. Over time, if a region is increasingly active, it gets more blood flow, more glucose, more oxygen and so forth. Existing synapses get stronger and new synapses form. Cortical layers actually get thicker as neural structures build; for example, the thickening in the part of the brain called the insula—which senses the internal state of your body—that is due to meditation, is on the order of a two-hundredth of an inch, which may not sound like much, but that’s a lot of new synapses.
Remarkably, synapses began forming in your brain before you were born, and your brain will keep changing up to the point of your last breath. Since neural activity continues in an increasingly disorganized way for a few minutes after the last breath, synapses may still be forming as the lights in the great mansion of the mind slowly go out.
The third implication is the practical one, and that’s where we’ll focus: you can use your mind to change your brain to benefit your whole being— and every other being whose life you touch.
Your Complex, Dynamic, Interdependent Brain
Your brain has about a hundred billion neurons in it. In principle, the number of possible states of the brain is the number of possible combinations of a hundred billion neurons either firing or not (“on or off”). That number is really big: ten to the millionth power, which is one followed by a million zeros. To put this in perspective, the number of particles in the known universe is about ten to the eightieth power—one followed by eighty zeros versus a million zeros. The brain—your brain, right now—is the most complex object known to science. It’s more complex than an exploding star, or climate change.
The brain functions through a mixture of specialization and lots and lots of teamwork. Parts of the brain do specialized things, like the speech centers in the left temporal and frontal lobes.
On the other hand, if you map the communications pathways among the regions and specialized tissues of the brain, you see that it’s highly interconnected. It’s a little bit like tracking roadways from space or information on the Internet: a very dense network. So when people talk about specialization and function in just one place, like “The amygdala is the fear part of the brain,” or “The left hemisphere is bad and the right hemisphere is good,” it’s an inaccurate simplification.
Understanding the chaotic and sometimes wacky flux of neural activity can allow you to take it less seriously.
Within the networks of the brain, there are lots of circular loops. To simplify, there is the “A” neuron connected to the “B” neuron, connected to the “C” neuron, connected to the “D” neuron, and then back to the “A” neuron. These possibilities of recursion, as a computer programmer would call it, give you the capacity—among other things—to become aware of awareness.
Neurons also share each other. To simplify again, let’s say you activate the “C” neuron in our A-B-C-D-A loop, and the “C” neuron is shared with another loop. So there you are, irritated because the faucet’s dripping in the middle of the night, and suddenly you think about the smell of your grandmother’s cookies. Why? For some reason, there was shared circuitry in the coalitions of synapses that momentarily formed.
The discursive stream of consciousness is so complex that as a system it exhibits some chaotic qualities. Understanding the chaotic and some – times frankly wacky flux of all that neural activity can allow you to take it less seriously.
This is Part One of a three-part series. Part Two – Amazing Brain Facts and Meditation,
Part Three- Dependent Origination, Brain & Equanimity
© Rick Hanson, PhD