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The brain in nirvana: what neurobiology has to say about enlightenment and how to achieve it without drugs

The more talk there is surrounding meditation, the less we actually know about it. Today it’s even regarded simply as a method of relaxation and stress relief. We’ve decided to find out what Buddha really meant and how his teachings fit in with modern-day scientific knowledge. Richard Davidson, neurobiologist, psychiatrist, psychologist, and author of the most comprehensive book on neurological research into meditation to date, agreed to comment on some of the fundamental tenets of Buddhism from the perspective of the brain science.

The neurophysiological nature of Buddhist suffering

The starting point of Buddhism is the realization that life is suffering. This fact is referred to as the First Noble Truth, the first of Gautama’s four insights for hacking reality.

In modern terms, the word «suffering» comes to mean the property of our brain to constantly respond to stimuli from the outside world.

Although the word «dukha» is commonly translated as «suffering», a more appropriate term seems to be dissatisfaction or discomfort — a mixture of anxiety, craving for something one doesn’t have, and fear of losing what one does have or of failing to obtain it. Seems like the Buddha was right after all.

Richard Davidson: «Knowing your real desires is likely to be associated with bringing awareness to your desires. This alone can be helpful in providing some separation between our desires and the rest of our being to avoid the problem of „experiential fusion“ referred to above. The suggestion you note from the East that we know that all of our desires „are not real“ is simply referring to the fact that were we to fulfill all our desires, we would still not show any enduring increase in our happiness or well-being. Scientific research bears this out as does the contemplative traditions of the East».

Not only does the brain itself start to perform differently under the influence of external stimuli, but its performance also affects the performance of the rest of the body. For example, shifts in the relative activity of the hemispheres make us more likely to experience positive (in case of the left prefrontal cortex activation) or negative (in case of the right prefrontal cortex activation) emotions.

People who tend to get fixated on negative emotions often have not only a more active right prefrontal cortex but also insufficient connections between the left prefrontal cortex and the amygdala, which is responsible for negative experiences.

That is to say, the «merry» prefrontal cortex is simply unable to control the amygdala, which is responsible for feelings of stress, release of cortisol and adrenaline — that is, for us being nervous, angry, sweaty, and eager to punch someone in the face or hide in the corner and cry. And the worse the connection is between the «merry» prefrontal cortex and the amygdala, the longer we’re going to keep being grumpy even after the stressful event is over.

Why Buddhists say that everything is an illusion

Emotions exist not just for us to feel them — they have deeper biological meaning. This complex biochemical and neurological processes guides our behavior. The part of the brain which regulates emotions is more ancient, is located deeper, and developed during the time when man’s survival was less assured than now. That’s why it responds more swiftly than the cortex (which is more «thoughtful») and «prefers» basic stimuli having to do with survival.

The main purpose of emotional responses is to guide us in the outer world, showing us as quickly as possible what’s good and what’s bad for our body, survival, and procreation.

On the basic level everything is pretty simple: food, right partners and safety cause joy; enemies and competition for goods cause anger, etc. That’s why we keep looking around, wanting to eat some food, try something new, get in bed with someone, and all that kind of stuff we discussed previously in the article on «dopanomics» and in the analysis of how pornography affects the brain.

The cerebral cortex, which regulates more complex physic processes, also actively responds to external stimuli. Selective attention is the attention we choose to focus on something. It is regulated by the prefrontal cortex. Events that draw our attention cause a burst of activity synchronized with the moment of directing attention to an object. The image of the external world is formed in our consciousness through a variety of waves of activity in different areas of the brain.

Everything — from images and sounds to a subjective perception of a place’s atmosphere and of oneself in it — exists for us only due to our sensory performance, processing of sensory information by our brain, and the release of neurotransmitters and hormones.

Probably this is what Buddha meant when he spoke of the world as an illusion. His statement seems to make no sense unless we lose our mind or at least fall asleep. Both a madman and a sleeper perceive their experiences as real, and we understand that their worlds are illusory only because they differ from what most people see. But the principle of how the world image is constructed in the mind is the same for a sleeper, a madman, or anyone else and is the result of complex performance of the whole body, and most importantly, the brain. When speaking of the illusory nature of the world from the standpoint of neurophysiology, it’s important to understand that it doesn’t mean the world is fake, but rather that the nature of our perception is determined by the way of perception. In other words, what matters is not only what we perceive but also how we do it.

The Dhammapada, a collection of Buddha’s sayings from the period of early Buddhism, begins as follows: «All that we are is the result of what we have thought.» By now, we should know very well that this is not an allegory but an accurate observation on how our brain works.

Richard Davidson: «I believe this is a profound insight in Buddhism and one that is at least indirectly addressed in modern neuroscience. What matters in our experience is not the external environment, but rather our perception of the external environment. For example, a variety of research indicates that „perceived stress“ is more predictive of various bodily response to stress than is a measure of „objective“ stress. In this sense, it is our thoughts or our mental activity that determines our reality and not really what is „out there.“ In this sense, modern neuroscience is quite consistent with the Buddhist concept of emptiness and the view that objects are devoid of intrinsic existence».

Buddha cuts straight to the chase with his next statement: «Those who bridle their mind will be free from the bonds of illusion».

Why desire is the cause of suffering

Our lives offer many illustrations of the dramatic conflict between the way our brain works and our conscious attitudes. In such cases, we tend to say to ourselves, «I want to but I can’t» or «I don’t know why I keep doing it.» We want to make balanced decisions, but when the time comes, we act impulsively. We want to concentrate on writing a book but can’t force ourselves to write a single line. We know we’re safe and yet can’t help feeling anxious. There are a multitude of examples, and they all testify to the fact that our brain works perfectly to assure the survival of our distant ancestor, but far from perfect for our modern world with its complex social norms that often contradict our natural urges. And let’s not forget ethical standards, which are mainly incomprehensible for our body.

The main reason for this conflict is that we find it very hard to resist urges of our body.

All basic drives can be divided into two major groups: desire to get something that brings pleasure and desire to avoid something that brings suffering. Many of our actions are determined by either one of these two basic drives common for all living beings, and the majority of those actions we’re not even conscious of. No wonder we often find ourselves in a situation we would never want to be involved in or living a life very different from the one we envisioned for ourselves. But usually this sudden realization is quickly swept away by a whirlwind of new sensations and responses of our body.

Richard Davidson: «On a neurophysiological level, our brains are constantly being modulated by attachment and aversion. We want things we may not have and we wish to avoid things that cause us pain. These are basic operating principles of the brain. It requires training to develop the skills to change our relationship to attachments and aversions. Such mental training can alter the brain».

If we were to give this realization some consideration, we would comprehend — exactly as Prince Gautama did — the second fundamental truth of Buddhism, namely the fact that the cause of suffering mentioned in the First Noble Truth is craving. It’s drives of this kind that underlie most of our actions. Our life consists of seeking pleasure and avoiding suffering on all levels: from basic needs like food, shelter, and desire to alleviate physical pain to complex desires like achieving social recognition, finding a loyal partner, and avoiding separation or loneliness.

What it means to be «free of attachments»

The Third Noble Truth that the Buddha came up with 2,5 00 years ago says that it’s possible to put an end to this discontentment which makes us act for good. And today we can confirm that fact based on scientific evidence.

The task of becoming «free of attachments» is often understood as complete cessation of all desires and urges, or even foregoing a family and everything to do with relationships: love, friendship, care. This seems not only to be impossible but also to go against our values and any idea of meaning in life. What’s the point of becoming a lifeless log with no wants?

But this understanding of the goal of freedom is false: what we want is not to get rid of desires but to be independent of them in making decisions (since they’re often caused simply by the imperfection of our brain or its maladjustment to our modern conditions).

Liberation is possible if two conditions are met. First, if we manage to become aware of our feelings and desires. That will allow us to separate stimuli from the subjective response caused by them and the action that follows. For example, we’ll be able to separate stress caused by project deadlines at work from irritation with our partner’s belongings lying all over the place — and thus from a seemingly inevitable quarrel involving all kinds of bizarre accusations.

When we’re not aware of the causes of our emotional state, the «stress — irritation — quarrel» triad seems natural and inevitable. When we’re able to separate the wheat from the chaff, we can work with each of the elements in the triad individually: take a hot bath and relax to relieve stress, leave our partner to deal with their belongings remembering that it’s her or his day off, establish mutual understanding by sharing the day’s struggles and irritations (and laugh at how good a hot bath is at eliminating the urge to kill someone).

Second, we need to fine-tune our brain: reduce what’s excessive, boost what’s insufficient, fix the connections between the different parts of the brain. In fact we can do it by analyzing our recurring issues and applying the idea of neuroplasticity.

Richard Davidson: «Being free of attachment does not imply that we devoid of emotion or emotion zombies. Quite the opposite. The great livings masters in Buddhism — for example, His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Mingyur Rinponche — both have very rich wide ranging emotional lives. They experience and display emotion all the time. However, the emotion does not inappropriately linger because they have little or no attachment. It is the attachment that causes emotions to linger beyond the point of their usefulness and this is what ensnares us, not the emotion itself. There are some hints, though by no means anything definitive, in the neuroscientific literature that suggests that decreased attachment is associated with altered connectivity in certain brain circuits. It is not associated with blunting of emotional centers, but rather it is more associated with alterations in connectivity so that emotions no longer hijack other key brain circuits».

What constitutes the practice

It is now an established fact that the brain is malleable. It responds to new experiences by modifying its structure and performance. A new impression, a new effort, a new acquired skill, a change in usual behavioral patterns all have physical effects on our brain. This feature is called «neuroplasticity».

Let’s assume, that now we’ve woken up to the fact that our «rich inner life» turned out to be a monkey business of our uncontrolled mind — and now we want to subdue our brain and make it work for us. The first solution that comes to mind is pharmacology: after all, since mental issues can be treated by the psychiatrist, why can’t the brain be fine-tuned using medication?

Pharmacology may well be the future, but today things don’t look quite so good. Consider the single fact that most psychiatrists in our country prescribe medication without even examining the brain in the same way other doctors examine the organs they deal with.

Even in highly developed countries, few psychiatrists make their patients get a brain scan. For the most part, medication is still selected by trial and error, without knowledge of what exactly is wrong with the brain being treated. Sometimes, medication is chosen incorrectly and proves to be useless or even harmful. And we’re talking about cases when the patient clearly needs medical help, and their symptoms point to the problematic area of the brain. And it is not clear at all what psychiatrist needs to do with a healthy brain. That means fine-tuning a healthy brain in this way is out of the question. But the main problem with medicine is its temporary effect. It is effective only as long its active ingredient lasts. The same goes for experiments with recreational drugs. The only possible lasting effect after trying those at home is brain damage.

Among ways to enlightenment laid out by Buddha is the Middle Way — a life of moderation, in which joys and pleasures are balanced by asceticism and restraint. This basic condition is backed up by psychiatry as well.

When treating a disorder, in addition to medication, any patient is instructed to follow a certain routine: get sufficient sleep, go to bed at the same hour, stay away from psychoactive drugs and limit legal stimulants like alcohol, coffee, and tobacco, keep a healthy diet, spend time outdoors and with a significant other. This is the way of moderation. By controlling the intensity of external stimuli, you also indirectly control your brain activity. Compare your emotional state at the weekend when you had two parties in a row, took psychoactive drugs, and were deprived of sleep on the one hand, with the weekend when you got enough sleep, worked out, ate some broccoli, and met your friends to discuss your plans for the upcoming journey on the other.

Meditation is a vital part of the practice aimed at reaching liberation. There’s a vast corpus of literature on different ways of meditating, and this topic can’t be covered in a short introductory article like ours.

Although techniques and schools of meditation may differ, the end goal is the same: make us realize that all the phenomena in our mind (emotions, thoughts, images, sensations) emerge in the subjective space of our psyche under the influence of external processes (be it the outer world or the body).

Being mindful, we learn to understand which external stimulus caused a certain event in the «inner world» and avoid responding to this stimulus automatically, instead letting it disappear by itself as the body always tends to restore homeostasis. It’s precisely this skill that allows us the freedom to choose what to strive for and how to act. «The wise man keeps earnestness as his best jewel,» the Dhammapada says, maintaining the importance of being watchful and guarding our mind so that nothing can enter it without us knowing, since our brain is more than capable of blowing everything out of proportion.

Psychiatrist and addiction expert Judson Brewer came up with a system of overcoming nicotine addiction, which is focused around mindfulness of the desire to smoke and whose participants gradually stop to identify themselves with the discomfort of being addicted to nicotine. His method achieved twice the efficiency rate compared to the program developed by American pulmonologists, which advocates relaxation and getting one’s mind off smoking. This success is largely due to the fact that Brewer suggests not avoiding these sensations from overpowering us but becoming aware of them.

Oriental tradition has a beautiful image to illustrate the «true nature» of the human mind: a mirror covered with dust or water rippled by the wind. Dust and ripples represent impressions. But dust can be wiped and wind can subside. And then, we’ll see that the true nature of the mind is a smooth surface accurately reflecting the world. This image also has a neurophysiological interpretation.

Richard Davidson: «Yes this image makes quite a bit of sense scientifically. We can think of the filth and the ripples as emotions that disrupt, color and distort our perception and thought. There are scientific findings that show that when threat is aroused in most people, it will activate the amygdala which in turn modulates or distorts sensory processing at the earliest stages of sensory processing in the cortex. This is how the emotions produce the ripples and filth that obscure the mind».

Meditation changes the brain

Meditation still remains understudied, even though the scientific community has been devoting more attention to it lately. Until recently, the main difficulty about studying meditation was the fact that scientists themselves knew nothing about the different kinds, techniques, and aims of meditation and failed to take into account the differences in level and experience of practitioners. Daniel Goleman and Richard Davidson assembled in their book Altered Traits the whole corpus of research into meditation, denouncing some of it as false and discussing the few convincing experiments, among which their own studies of the brains of experienced monks.

The most interesting pieces of research show that when an experienced practitioner (Mingyur Rinpoche, for example, was estimated to have had 62,000 hours of practice in his life) meditates, an EEG chart shows a high level of activity; functional MRI records an up to 800% increase in activity in some areas of the brain; and high-definition MRI scans demonstrate that in terms of the amount of gray matter the brain of a 41-year-old monk corresponds to that of a 33-year-old.

But the amazing thing is not that brain activity changes during meditation. Experienced meditators display a dramatic difference in gamma-wave activity compared to control groups of non-practitioners not in the state of meditation. There are four main types of EEG waves. Slow delta waves occur mostly during deep sleep. Somewhat faster theta waves occur when we’re about to nod off. Alpha waves — when we’re relaxed and have very few thoughts. Fast beta waves represent intense thinking or concentration.

Gamma waves are the fastest ones and occur when different areas of the brain are activated simultaneously. This happens in moments of insight, when pieces of a puzzle suddenly combine to form a single image.

A gamma flash takes place when you’re solving a puzzle or a riddle or when you suddenly discover the periodic table of elements. The same flash takes place in Marcel Proust’s brain when he tastes cookies that remind him of his childhood and is suddenly bombarded by associations and memories of things that moved him in those years: the smell of home, the hair color of his beloved, and the sensation of wind on his cheeks.

The range of gamma waves in the brains of yogis, even in the state of relaxation, turned out to be 25 times as high as that of ordinary people. That may not say much, but it provides the neurophysiological expression of the state experienced by practitioners: full awareness of all the events both in the external and in the internal world, without attachment or rejection, effortless and relaxed but vigilant at the same time. It was discovered that this state of the brain could even be observed when practitioners were asleep, even though there shouldn’t be any occurrence of gamma oscillations in the brain during sleep.

Besides, experienced practitioners demonstrated an unprecedented ability to «switch» their brain activity on command, as well as showing differences in activity and connections in default mode network responsible for our fixation on ourselves.

The fact that effects of meditation last into state of relaxation, everyday activity, and even sleep proves that it has the property to transform the human brain. This is what the researchers from Davidson’s team called «altered traits»: after one accumulates a certain number of hours of practice, the effects stay with us forever, transforming our brain, personality, and way of life.

One can only imagine what it’s like to live in the permanent state of insight and experience connectedness of all the elements of the world without having to be too concerned about oneself. Or, alternatively, one can take up meditation.


Благодарим за перевод Романа Шевчука. Оригинал на русском языке можно прочесть здесь.