31 December 2010

Buddha's Brain

I apologize for the raft of posts coming up. I wanted to flush all my buffers before the new year.

Buddha's Brain: the practical neuroscience of happiness, love, and wisdom, by Rick Hanson and Richard Mendius, is about contemplative practices like Tibetan Buddhism, and what scientists have in recent years discovered about how they work at a neurological level. (From fMRI studies it is pretty clear now that people who are good at meditating are doing something very different with their brains from what the rest of us do.)

Putting on my engineer hat, I would paraphrase the major assertions of this book as follows. Evolution has optimized our brains not for happiness, but for long-term survival. At first glance this is kind of a downer— what hope could there be for sustained happiness, if it's not an end, but a means toward an end? But just because a system is designed or optimized to do one thing does not mean that it cannot be hacked to do another, if you understand its principles of operation. Buddhism encompasses a huge variety of practices, beliefs, and traditions, but among them, it gives you what I would call tools to hack your own brain: to alleviate suffering, to become more mindful, or in general to activate more wholesome and productive states of the brain. Which is much (much) easier said than done, but this book gets you started on that road and discusses the neurological basis for those techniques as we understand them today.

Here's one example. For very good evolutionary reason, our brains are risk averse: we naturally focus on, and give more weight to, the bad rather than the good. Moreover, it's now understood that neuronal associations become stronger the more they are activated. This induces a feedback phenomenon ("positive" feedback, ha ha) that can be quite dangerous, because of the negativity bias. It can manifest as, for example, the feeling of being consumed by anger, or of debilitating anxiety. And that feedback phenomenon is why it's so important to actively interrupt negative trains of thought (and, when possible, to actively bring to mind any positive aspects that are available) rather than indulging in them. Doing so not only alleviates suffering in the present, but also actually rewires your brain to reduce your future predisposition towards those kinds of unproductive thoughts. If you follow Buddhist teachings you will recognize this is as the Right Effort of the Eightfold Path: cultivating wholesome thoughts while weeding out the harmful ones.

In this and a variety of other contexts the authors help you to understand some of the brain's evolutionarily adaptive but potentially unproductive tendencies. (I found the discussion of the brain's capacity for simulation, and why it can lead to suffering, to be particularly interesting.) In some cases a mere awareness of the phenomenon goes a long way in being able to counteract it, so the payoff is near immediate. In other cases it takes a substantial amount of time and effort to stop old habits and access more desirable states of brain/mind. The assertion is that as with other skill, you too can practice in order to learn to be more loving, kind, level-headed, mindful, and happy.

The book is written in a casual and accessible style, and is a moderately easy read. A number of guided meditations and exercises are provided. The authors do discuss a fair amount of neuroscience/biochemistry, only some of which is directly relevant to a practical understanding or to the techniques. Many of those parts can be safely skimmed (though some are very interesting), so you can treat this book as a purely practical guide if you like.

The premise that we have subtantial power to effect physical changes in our own brains, to become happier and healthier people— and using nothing more than our own minds— is extremely interesting. It's not about putting a happy face on everything but it is about helping yourself to take control of your mind.

Highly recommended.

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