West Meets East: Neuroscience and Buddhism

I was watching this video from the wonderful “Greater Good Science Center” Web site the other day, and just today I was reading an interview in Shambhala Sun with Joseph Goldstein and Jack Kornfield about mindfulness and Buddhism in the Western world. It’s not news that the world of Western science and the world of Eastern philosophy are coming closer and closer together, but what’s interesting to me is that the Buddha was apparently quite aware of the plasticity of the brain long before anyone actually knew the true functions of the brain.

horrizontal rule“Letting your frontal lobe support…non-judgmental, present moment open awareness…is merely a function of practice. That is why practice helps these circuits fire, and the more they fire, the stronger they get.”

~ Berkeley Neuroscientist Dr. Emiliana Simon-Thomas

“Whatever a monk keeps pursuing with his thinking and pondering, that becomes the inclination of his awareness.”

~ The Buddha

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The Biological Landscape of Mindfulness and Compassion. The following video presentation by GGSC’s Dr. Emiliana Simon-Thomas explains the neuroscience behind compassion and mindfulness. It’s a fascinating explanation of how mindfulness and neuroscience are related; how, for instance, the brain’s vagus nerve plays a central role in calm and relaxation, and how stress undermines one’s ability to engage in mindfulness and compassion. She also addresses oxytocin, a subject that I’ve written about in a previous post (love some back-scratchings? Go get some and release the love neuropeptide oxytocin naturally!) She also talks about how we have evolved to be sensitive to the feelings and needs of others, as well as how the brain’s “insula” helps us resonate with others emotionally and empathetically. She explains how the “newer” pre-frontal cortex is extremely interconnected to other structures of the brain and is essential to determining which circuits contribute to your experience “in the moment.” It’s 21 minutes long, but well worth the watch to find out about the brain biology behind the emotions we experience.

Wait, the Buddha was a Neuroscientist? That might be a bit of a stretch, especially considering that “science” didn’t exist during the time of the Buddha, let alone an understanding of the functions of the brain, but Joseph Goldstein explains that the Buddha essentially knew what Dr. Simon-Thomas explains, to wit, that the brain can be trained or “inclined” based on our actions and thoughts. As Goldstein explains, “it’s essential that we understand which are wholesome thoughts–those are pathways worth deepening–and which thoughts and emotions are unskillful. Those are worth letting go of so we’re not unconsciously deepening their pathways.” Rick Hanson couldn’t have said it better by explaining that “neurons that fire together, wire together.”

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 About the Authors

About Dr.  Simon-Thomas...from the GGSC Web site:

Emiliana R. Simon-Thomas, Ph.D., is the science director of the Greater Good Science Center, where she oversees the GGSC’s Expanding Gratitude project.

Emiliana is a neuroscientist who earned her doctorate in Cognition, Brain and Behavior at UC Berkeley, where she also conducted post-doctoral research with the GGSC’s Dacher Keltner, studying the human propensity for care/nurturance, love of humanity, compassion and awe. Her research has explored the neuro-biological roots of pro-social emotion and behavior, as well as the psychosocial benefits of emotional authenticity and connection, among other topics.

About Joseph Goldstein…from the Insight Meditation Center Web site (which also includes his teaching schedule):

Joseph Goldstein has been leading insight and lovingkindness meditation retreats worldwide since 1974. He is a cofounder of the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts, where he is one of the organization’s guiding teachers. In 1989, together with several other teachers and students of insight meditation, he helped establish the Barre Center for Buddhist Studies.

Yours in Mental Hygiene,

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The Ancient Brain and Modern Mindfulness

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