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The fundamental skillfulness of self-directed neuroplasticity – of deliberately lighting up neural networks of happiness, love, and wisdom – is a great resource as we face the challenges of a world that is overheated.
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Self-Directed Neuroplasticity: A 21st-Century View of Meditation
Ed. Note: In the following dialogue, excerpted and edited from the Institute of Noetic Sciences’ teleseminar series “Exploring the Noetic Sciences.” IONS Director of Research Cassandra Vieten talks with neuropsychologist and meditation teacher Rick Hanson, author with neurologist Richard Mendius, MD, of Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love, and Wisdom. Rick spoke at the IONS International Conference San Francisco.
Vieten: What exactly is contemplative neuroscience?
Hanson: Broadly defined, it’s the study of what happens in the brain when people are doing contemplative practices, how the brain changes with such practices.
Although the word contemplative sounds fancy, everyone has been contemplative – you know, looking up at the stars, going to the ocean and getting a sense of the enormity of it all, or looking into your baby’s eyes and thinking, Holy Moly, how did I get you and how did you get me? All of that is contemplative. In addition to that, all the major religions have formal contemplative practices. But people can engage in contemplative activity without framing it in terms of a relationship with God or something like that.
The contemplative tradition I know best is Buddhism. It’s also the contemplative tradition that has had the greatest crossover with Western science; much of the research on meditators has been on Buddhist meditators. Arguably, though, the majority of research has been on those who practice TM, or Transcendental Meditation, which is nested in the Hindu tradition.
The field of contemplative neuroscience is just exploding, in tandem with the explosion of knowledge about brain science in general. People know twice as much about the brain today than they did in 1990, and I’d have to say science knows a hundred times more today than it did in 1990 about what happens in the brain when people engage in contemplative practices.
I’ll give you a couple of examples. One of the enduring changes in the brain of those who routinely meditate is that the brain becomes thicker. In other words, those who routinely meditate build synapses, synaptic networks, and layers of capillaries (the tiny blood vessels that bring metabolic supplies such as glucose or oxygen to busy regions), which an MRI shows is measurably thicker in two major regions of the brain. One is in the pre-frontal cortex, located right behind the forehead. It’s involved in the executive control of attention – of deliberately paying attention to something. This change makes sense because that’s what you're doing when you meditate or engage in a contemplative activity. The second brain area that gets bigger is a very important part called the insula. The insula tracks both the interior state of the body and the feelings of other people, which is fundamental to empathy. So, people who routinely tune into their own bodies – through some kind of mindfulness practice – make their insula thicker, which helps them become more self-aware and empathic. This is a good illustration of neuroplasticity, which is the idea that as the mind changes, the brain changes, or as Canadian psychologist Donald Hebb put it, neurons that fire together wire together.
I think of thought as immaterial information that flows through the nervous system. Buddhism teaches that the mind takes the shape of whatever it rests upon – or more exactly, the brain takes the shape of whatever the mind rests upon. So, if you regularly rest your mind on regrets, resentments, quarrels with others, self-reproach – you know, the voice in the back of the head yammering away about what a nobody you really are and if others only knew better, et cetera – if you rest your mind there, it will change your brain in that direction, because neurons that fire together wire together, for better or worse. On the other hand, if you rest your mind on wholesome themes, those things that are going well, what you’re grateful for, good connections you have with others, your good qualities, what you accomplish in a day, the conditions in the world that are okay, you're going to build up neural substrates and circuits of positivity.
I find this knowledge incredibly exciting at a time when the world obviously is on the edge of the sword. The fundamental skillfulness of self-directed neuroplasticity – of deliberately lighting up neural networks of happiness, love, and wisdom, let's say – is a great resource as we face the challenges of a world that is overheated. People are way too driven by greed, hatred, and delusions, which are the three poisons Buddhism identifies. Our caveman brains are armed with nuclear weapons.
Vieten: Even though the field of contemplative neuroscience is burgeoning – making newspaper headlines, PBS programs, and even the cover of Time magazine – it’s still groundbreaking to understand that the relationship between our mind and our subjective experience actually has physical effects on our body and brain, effects that are dramatic and can even be enduring.
How do you define mind?
Hanson: We’re talking about things that philosophers have written and argued about for thousands of years. There is a major movement in the West these days that’s a little bit like a giant salad blender mixing together all kinds of spiritual stuff. It does help when dealing with such important topics to be clear about the words; then we know what we’re talking about.
Basically, I think of the nervous system, headquartered in the brain, as matter – and by matter, I mean energy as well. E = MC2. That is materiality broadly defined. Mind is the flow of information through that material nervous system. Immaterial information is carried – or more exactly represented – by a physical substrate of some kind or another, whether it’s the vibration of air molecules as sound waves move through them or signals traveling across the Internet or cell phone towers transmitting this teleseminar. This is not only my view but also the common way of thinking about it in neuropsychology.
In this definition of mind, with information flowing through the nervous system, it becomes clear that most of mind is outside our awareness at any given time – and actually, most of mind is forever outside our awareness. When someone does something fairly routine, like picking up a coffee cup or scratching their ear, the motor scripts buried in the brain in different places aren’t accessible to consciousness. We don’t look at our hand and say, “Okay, hand, rise.” You know what I mean? We just intend it somehow, and it works, right? That’s outside our field of awareness. So, I find one of the takeaways here is that even though we tend to privilege what we find in our field of awareness, it’s just the tip of the iceberg of all of mind.
One of the useful things we can do is use our attention. Mindful attention is something like a combination spotlight and vacuum cleaner that illuminates what it rests upon and sucks it into the brain. Neuroplasticity is turbocharged for whatever is in the field of focused attention. And while neurons that fire together do wire together in terms of unconscious movements of information through the nervous system, the neurons that fire in the focal field of attention, particularly sustained attention – wow! – those neurons really, really wire together. It’s how Mother Nature wants us to learn from our conscious experiences. So, the point here is to use mindful attention to rest our awareness on what is useful to us and then work skillfully to get those neurons firing together so that they wire together wholesome tendencies inside ourselves.
Vieten: You use the metaphor of a vacuum cleaner, and it occurs to me that in their everyday lives many people experience a “reverse” vacuum cleaner – rather than people directing the focus of their attention, things in their environment compel their attention. Sometimes those things are wholesome, but other times they’re not so good for us. How do you propose we work with that involuntary “sucking up” of things that are not wholesome?
Hanson: What you’re describing is our nature as animals at the top of the food chain, and it’s the product of three-and-a-half billion years of evolution – in particular, six hundred million years of the evolution of the nervous system. In that long run, those ancestors who were good at resting their attention on something benign for long periods of time – chomp! – got eaten, because they weren’t nervously scanning for shadows, slithers, snarls, and things like that. We are the great, great, great, great grandchildren of very nervous and very cranky ancestors. So, the nature of the brain is to have a monkey mind – literally.
On top of that, we live in an ADD culture. We are bombarded. I’ve seen studies that look at the number of titillating media messages a person gets a day, and the number is in the zone of thousands, if not tens of thousands. We may not consciously be aware of them, but these messages do enter our field of awareness. Now think about how many messages a day people get that play on the theme of fear. I mean, just go to the airport; every ninety seconds you get a recorded message telling you that the threat level is orange, which is scary because orange is, as we know, the color before red.
So, the combination of our biological tendency, personal history, and culture has habituated us to an incredibly dense incoming stream of media. In that larger context, it’s totally understandable that the untrained mind is continually scanning for either something to want or something to fear – in other words, for a problem to solve. That’s why, as William James said, an education of attention would be an education par excellence. If we don’t have control over that spotlight and vacuum cleaner, if it’s “stimulus bound,” to use the phrase from cognitive psychology, then we pretty much have no control over how our brain is changing over time. And that is not a good thing.
Vieten: You talk about practical neuroscience and training so that we can begin to shift that habit of mind. What are some of the ways we can begin to do that?
Hanson: First, to contextualize it, there are thousands of years of methods of attention training that work if people really do them. People sometimes describe contemplative practitioners who have a lifelong practice of hours a day as the Olympic athletes of mental training. What neuroscience has added is scientific evidence of the value in these methods, and by studying what happens in the brain when it is stably mindful, we learn targeted ways to nourish the neural substrates of attention in people who do not live in a monastery but are dodging cars in Manhattan or something like that.
For example, here’s a basic practice made of five steps, or suggestions. Anyone can do any one of these to whatever extent he or she wants. But don’t do this while driving, and if you start to feel uncomfortable, feel free to stop. You can practice these suggestions with your eyes open or closed, though it might be simpler to do with your eyes closed.
To begin, bring your awareness to the sensations of breathing. If there's anything about paying attention to your breathing that makes you uncomfortable, which is the case for some people with a history of trauma, rest your attention instead on something you find mildly pleasant or simply neutral, such as the sensations in your feet or a phrase such as “May I be happy” or “May my family be well.”
Now, set an intention to stay with the object of your attention for the next few minutes while doing this practice. Whether it’s your breath or a phrase or anything else, set the intention in your mind to stay present with that object of attention. You could either set this intention top down by using words such as “I’m going to stay attentive here” or set your intention from the bottom up by getting a felt sense inside yourself of mindfulness.
The second step or suggestion is to relax. Take some long exhalations, longer than your inhalations, and take care to relax your tongue.
The third suggestion is to feel as safe as you reasonably can. Sometimes this can be a challenge because it can make us nervous to lower our guard, and if so, take a moment to recognize that wherever you are is probably a protected and comfortable place. Get a sense of the good people who support you in your life, as well as a sense of your own strengths that enable you to deal with whatever life brings. With this basis, explore lowering your guard and being less braced against life.
Moving on to the fourth suggestion, open to feelings of simple well-being. Without straining or forcing anything, encourage gentle feelings of happiness and gratitude. For example, forests make me happy, and I am grateful for the smell of oranges. Whatever works for you, allow a sense of positive emotion to fill you. There may well be other feelings, even negative feelings; don't resist them. Let them come and let them go, as you keep bringing your attention back to feeling as good as you can in the moment.
The fifth suggestion is to get a sense of your awareness being like boundless space. Notice that awareness has no edges, no bounds. In a sense, it is infinite, like the sky or space. In that vast space, different experiences come and go, and you now have a panoramic sense of experiences arising and passing in the vast space of your awareness. You have a kind of bird’s-eye view of thoughts, sensations, sounds, feelings, desires, memories, whatever, coming and going in boundless, open space. Feel free to enjoy whatever is worthwhile in whatever you’re feeling.
Vieten: Thank you for that exercise.
Hanson: I have found again and again that those five simple suggestions are a great preliminary practice. It takes about five minutes, and with practice, you can actually do it in even less time because you know how to go there, how to light up those circuits and steady the mind.
I’d like to explain what happens in the brain during each of those five stages. We begin with our intention to pay attention to our breathing or whatever we’ve chosen. When we set an intention top down, we light up the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain behind the forehead where there are a lot of executive systems. I find the bottom-up form of setting an intention really interesting; that’s when we get an embodied sense, an emotionally rich sense or inclination. Setting an intention from the bottom up is very powerful because it engages the limbic system, the subcortical regions underneath the cortex, which involve emotions. It’s where we begin to have emotionally positive rewards associated with our intention.
The second suggestion is to relax. In modern life, we chronically activate our stress response, our fight-or-flight system, which is related to the sympathetic nervous system. We did evolve to handle bursts of stress, but not chronic stress, and it’s hard to be mindful when we’re stressed out because stress activates the skittery, monkey-mind tendencies in the brain. To calm that monkey-brain as it scans for tigers in the environment, so to speak, it’s important to calm down sympathetic arousal, and the way to do that is to activate the parasympathetic wing of the nervous system. This is the rest-and-digest part of the autonomic nervous system, the part that keeps us on an even keel. A great way to activate the parasympathetic system is through our exhalations, because the parasympathetic system handles exhaling. As few as three to ten long exhalations will light up the parasympathetic circuits and calm down sympathetic arousal. Similarly, because the parasympathetic system handles digestion, relaxing the tongue or the lips also helps to light up this system.
The third suggestion focuses on feeling safe. This is a very important one, although it’s often hard for people because we have what I call “paper-tiger paranoia.” Essentially, we evolved to overestimate threats and to underestimate opportunities and resources for dealing with threats. Although that may have been a great way to pass on gene copies in Africa two million years ago, it’s a lousy way to experience quality of life in the twenty-first century. Most of us can feel safer than we normally do. I prompt people to feel as safe as they reasonably can because there is no perfect safety in life. None of us is safe from old age, disease, or death, for example, but most of us can afford to feel less guarded, less braced, and more confident in our capacities to meet life.
A sense of safety helps us with mindfulness because when we don’t feel safe, we continually scan for threats, which increases external vigilance and interferes with internal self-awareness. It’s probably no accident that in the traditional stories about the Buddha’s awakening, he has his back to the Bodhi tree. The tree “had his back.” It protected Buddha from the direction in which most lethal threats in the wild occur – from behind us – and it forced Mara and the other forces of delusion to come at the Buddha from the front, where he could deal with them.
The fourth suggestion invites a sense of well-being. To be mindful, to overcome the constant hijacking of the monkey mind, we rest our attention on one thing, such as the sensations of breathing, a loving-kindness phrase, or a prayer. To hold that focus in the field of attention requires holding it in what’s called working memory. The neural substrate of working memory has a kind of gate that is either open or closed. When it’s closed, the contents of it stay there, and what that translates to in our experience is that we maintain steadiness of mind. We are able to stay with whatever we want to pay attention to. The way the gate works is through dopamine, a neurotransmitter that tracks rewards. A steady flow of dopamine keeps the gate closed. What pops the gate open is either a drop in dopamine, when a feeling of reward falls away, or a spike in dopamine, when new and sweeter rewards are introduced, distracting us from what we were paying attention to.
So, in this practice, when you encourage feelings of well-being, you’re doing two things. You’re creating a steady flow of dopamine, which keeps the gate closed, and because you’re directing a highly rewarding flow of dopamine, you cannot get a spike of it. Those two things keep the gate of working memory closed and thereby steady the mind.
The last suggestion to regard the field of awareness as boundless space is connected to some new research that shows it activates lateral networks – circuits on the side of the head that are associated with mindful, open, spacious awareness. It moves people out of the conventional state of mind in which the circuits in the middle of the brain are busy planning, thinking about the past, using language, and engaging in abstraction, all with a strong sense of self, of me-myself-and-I. Although there’s a place for that, modern life overemphasizes the activation of these midline networks, and because neurons that fire together wire together, we get a strong buildup in those regions. So it takes training to stably activate the lateral networks. One of the ways to activate the lateral networks is through a panoramic view. There are a couple of others, such as not knowing and not needing things to make sense, but one of the easiest is cultivating a sense of boundless awareness – a bird's-eye, panoramic view.
These five simple suggestions make up a basic practice that is based on good science. It’s a good illustration of self-directed neuroplasticity. This practice reliably stimulates the neural substrates of mindful attention, and over time, stimulating the neural substrates of mindful attention will naturally strengthen them, because neurons that fire together wire together. We can use this knowledge to build up the neural substrates of compassion, self-esteem, resilience, spiritual insight, and deep concentration. Pretty great, isn’t it?