The Urban Dharma Newsletter - February 6, 2007
In This Issue: Buddhism and the Brain
1. What Can Cognitive Neuroscience Learn from Contemplative Spirituality?
2. Scans of Monks' Brains Show Meditation Alters Structure, Functioning
3. Meditation 'brain training' clues / BBC News
4. Meditation skills of Buddhist monks yield clues to brain's regulation of attention
5. Can Buddhists transcend mental reservations?
6. New Brain Studies and Meditation
7. This is Your Brain on Buddha Dharma and Neuroscience
1. What Can Cognitive Neuroscience Learn from Contemplative Spirituality?
This Free talk will take place at Loyola Marymount University (www.lmu.edu/) in Los Angeles, CA on Thursday, Feb. 15, 2007 from 12:15 PM 1:25 PM in University Hall 1000. There is free parking and No Charge to attend this presentation.
For more information on this free talk please email: Cynthia Bond email@example.com
Subjective experience is orchestrated by vast networks of living brain cells. Empirical studies are now encountering depths and nuances of experience in religion and spirituality previously unknown to science. Meditation, the central contemplative practice of Buddhism, trains attentive skills which mediate profound observations of subtle human experience, and is receiving great scientific interest, fueled by recently developed functional brain imaging methods. The subtleties of spiritual experience are explored from a neuroscience view that delineates the pivotal roles of attention and intercellular communication within the nervous system.
Here is a biographical sketch:
Peter G. Grossenbacher, Ph.D., is the Director of Naropa University=s Consciousness Laboratory, and Chair of Naropa=s Contemplative Psychology Department. He holds a doctorate in Experimental Psychology from the University of Oregon, and directs a program of research on Meditation and Contemplative Spirituality. Dr. Grossenbacher is a gifted teacher, a long time meditator, and a research scientist who studies meditation and perceptual phenomena such as synesthesia. Dr. Media coverage has included the New York Times, Newsweek Magazine, Smithsonian Magazine, Discover Magazine, and numerous radio interviews and newspaper articles. In his twenty years as a research scientist, Dr. Grossenbacher's work at England's University of Cambridge, the U.S. National Institute of Mental Health, and Naropa University in Colorado has broadened psychological science to address capacities of awareness that were not previously acknowledged or understood by science.
2. Scans of Monks' Brains Show Meditation Alters Structure, Functioning SCIENCE JOURNAL By SHARON BEGLEY November 5, 2004
All of the Dalai Lama's guests peered intently at the brain scan projected onto screens at either end of the room, but what different guests they were.
On one side sat five neuroscientists, united in their belief that physical processes in the brain can explain all the wonders of the mind, without appeal to anything spiritual or nonphysical.
Facing them sat dozens of Tibetan Buddhist monks in burgundy and saffron robes, convinced that one round faced young man in their midst is the reincarnation of one of the Dalai Lama's late teachers, that another is the reincarnation of a 12th century monk, and that the entity we call "mind" is not, as neuroscience says, just a manifestation of the brain.
It was not, in other words, your typical science meeting.
But although the Buddhists and scientists who met for five days last month in the Dalai Lama's home in Dharamsala, India, had different views on the little matters of reincarnation and the relationship of mind to brain, they set them aside in the interest of a shared goal. They had come together in the shadows of the Himalayas to discuss one of the hottest topics in brain science: neuroplasticity.
The term refers to the brain's recently discovered ability to change its structure and function, in particular by expanding or strengthening circuits that are used and by shrinking or weakening those that are rarely engaged. In its short history, the science of neuroplasticity has mostly documented brain changes that reflect physical experience and input from the outside world. In pianists who play many arpeggios, for instance, brain regions that control the index finger and middle finger become fused, apparently because when one finger hits a key in one of these fast tempo movements, the other does so almost simultaneously, fooling the brain into thinking the two fingers are one. As a result of the fused brain regions, the pianist can no longer move those fingers independently of one another.
Lately, however, scientists have begun to wonder whether the brain can change in response to purely internal, mental signals. That's where the Buddhists come in. Their centuries old tradition of meditation offers a real life experiment in the power of those will o' the wisps, thoughts, to alter the physical matter of the brain.
"Of all the concepts in modern neuroscience, it is neuroplasticity that has the greatest potential for meaningful interaction with Buddhism," says neuroscientist Richard Davidson of the University of Wisconsin, Madison. The Dalai Lama agreed, and he encouraged monks to donate (temporarily) their brains to science.
The result was the scans that Prof. Davidson projected in Dharamsala. They compared brain activity in volunteers who were novice meditators to that of Buddhist monks who had spent more than 10,000 hours in meditation. The task was to practice "compassion" meditation, generating a feeling of loving kindness toward all beings.
"We tried to generate a mental state in which compassion permeates the whole mind with no other thoughts," says Matthieu Ricard, a Buddhist monk at Shechen Monastery in Katmandu, Nepal, who holds a Ph.D. in genetics.
In a striking difference between novices and monks, the latter showed a dramatic increase in high frequency brain activity called gamma waves during compassion meditation. Thought to be the signature of neuronal activity that knits together far flung brain circuits, gamma waves underlie higher mental activity such as consciousness. The novice meditators "showed a slight increase in gamma activity, but most monks showed extremely large increases of a sort that has never been reported before in the neuroscience literature," says Prof. Davidson, suggesting that mental training can bring the brain to a greater level of consciousness.
Using the brain scan called functional magnetic resonance imaging, the scientists pinpointed regions that were active during compassion meditation. In almost every case, the enhanced activity was greater in the monks' brains than the novices'. Activity in the left prefrontal cortex (the seat of positive emotions such as happiness) swamped activity in the right prefrontal (site of negative emotions and anxiety), something never before seen from purely mental activity. A sprawling circuit that switches on at the sight of suffering also showed greater activity in the monks. So did regions responsible for planned movement, as if the monks' brains were itching to go to the aid of those in distress.
"It feels like a total readiness to act, to help," recalled Mr. Ricard.
The study was published (Available Below) in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. "We can't rule out the possibility that there was a pre existing difference in brain function between monks and novices," says Prof. Davidson, "but the fact that monks with the most hours of meditation showed the greatest brain changes gives us confidence that the changes are actually produced by mental training."
That opens up the tantalizing possibility that the brain, like the rest of the body, can be altered intentionally. Just as aerobics sculpt the muscles, so mental training sculpts the gray matter in ways scientists are only beginning to fathom.
3. Meditation 'brain training' clues / BBC News
Meditating monks are giving clues about how the brain's basic responses can be overridden, researchers say.
Australian scientists gave Buddhist monks vision tests, where each eye was concurrently shown a different image.
Most people's attention would automatically fluctuate but the monks were able to focus on just one image.
Writing in Current Biology, the scientists say their ability to override this basic mental response indicates how the brain can be trained.
Researchers from the University of Queensland and the University of California, Berkley, studied 76 Tibetan Buddhist monks at mountain retreats in India.
The monks had undergone between five and 54 years of meditative training.
In the tests, they were given special goggles that meant they could see a different image with each eye.
Normally, the brain would rapidly alternate between both termed perceptual or visual rivalry.
It had been thought that this was a basic and involuntary response.
However, the monks who carried out "one point" meditation, where they focus attention on a single object or thought were able to focus on one image.
Monks who had undergone the longest and most intense meditative training were able to focus their attention on just one of the images for up to 12 minutes.
Olivia Carter, of the University of Queensland, said: "The monks showed they were able to block out external information.
"This is an initial step in understanding how their brains work.
"It would now be good to carry out further tests using imaging techniques to see exactly what the differences are in the brains of the monks."
She said that could direct researchers to a broader understanding of how meditation influences what happens in the brain when someone is deciding whether to give something their attention, and what happens when they choose not to dwell on bad news, or to calm down.
Ms Carter added: "Buddhist monks often report that if something negative happens they are able to digest it and move on.
"People who use meditation, including the Dalai Lama have said that the ability to control and direct your thoughts can be very beneficial in terms of mental health."
Dr Toby Collins, of the Oxford Centre for the Science of the Mind, told the BBC News website: "Meditation is a way of tapping into a process of manipulating brain activity."
He said the idea that meditation trained the brain to attend to just one thing at a time fitted in with previous research.
He added: "How that's done, we don't yet know. But studies using fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) can show what's happening in the brain."
4. Meditation skills of Buddhist monks yield clues to brain's regulation of attention / medicalnewstoday.com
In an unusual but fruitful collaboration between Tibetan Buddhist monks and neuroscientists, researchers have uncovered clues to how mental states and their underlying neural mechanisms can impact conscious visual experience. In their study, reported in the June 7 issue of Current Biology, the researchers found evidence that the skills developed by Tibetan Buddhist monks in their practice of a certain type of meditation can strongly influence their experience of a phenomenon, termed "perceptual rivalry," that deals with attention and consciousness.
The work is reported by Olivia Carter and Jack Pettigrew of the University of Queensland, Australia, and colleagues at the University of Queensland and the University of California, Berkeley.
Perceptual rivalry arises normally when two different images are presented to each eye, and it is manifested as a fluctuation typically, over the course of seconds in the "dominant" image that is consciously perceived. The neural events underlying perceptual rivalry are not well understood but are thought to involve brain mechanisms that regulate attention and conscious awareness.
Some previous work had suggested that skilled meditation can alter certain aspects of the brain's neural activity, though the significance of such changes in terms of actually understanding brain function remains unclear.
To gain insight into how visual perception is regulated within the brain, researchers in the new study chose to investigate the extent to which certain types of trained meditative practice can influence the conscious experience of visual perceptual rivalry.
With the support of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, 76 Tibetan Buddhist monks participated in the study, which was carried out at or near their mountain retreats in the Himalaya, Zanskar, and Ladakhi Ranges of India. The monks possessed meditative training ranging from 5 to 54 years; among the group were three "retreatist" meditators, each with at least 20 years of experience in isolated retreats.
The researchers tested the experience of visual rivalry by monks during the practice of two types of meditation: a "compassion" oriented meditation, described as a contemplation of suffering within the world combined with an emanation of loving kindness, and "one point" meditation, described as the maintained focus of attention on a single object or thought, a focus that leads to a stability and clarity of mind.
Whereas no observable change in the rate of "visual switching" during rivalry was seen in monks practicing compassion meditation, major increases in the durations of perceptual dominance were experienced by monks practicing one point meditation. Within this group, three monks, including two of the retreatists, reported complete visual stability during the entire five minute meditation period. Increases in duration of perceptual dominance were also seen in monks after a period of one point meditation.
In a different test of perceptual rivalry, in this case prior to any meditation, the duration of stable perception experienced by monks averaged 4.1 seconds, compared to 2.6 seconds for meditation naïve control subjects. Remarkably, when instructed to actively maintain the duration, one of the retreatist monks could maintain a constant visual perception during this test for 723 seconds.
The findings suggest that processes particularly associated with one point meditation perhaps involving intense attentional focus and the ability to stabilize the mind contribute to the prolonged rivalry dominance experienced by the monks. The researchers conclude from their study that individuals trained in meditation can considerably alter the normal fluctuations in conscious state that are induced by perceptual rivalry and suggest that, in combination with previous work, the new findings support the idea that perceptual rivalry can be modulated by high level, top down neural influences.
The researchers include O.L. Carter, C. Callistemon, Y. Ungerer, G.B. Liu, and J.D. Pettigrew of University of Queensland; and D.E. Presti of University of California, Berkeley.
Carter, O.L., Presti, D.E., Callistemon, C., Ungerer, Y., Liu, G.B., and Pettigrew, J.D. (2005). Meditation alters perceptual rivalry in Tibetan Buddhist monks. Publishing in Current Biology, Vol. 15, June 7, 2005, pages R412 R413. http://www.current biology.com
5. Can Buddhists transcend mental reservations? / By Steve Connor Science Editor
Buddhists who meditate may be able to train their brains to feel genuine happiness and control aggressive instincts, research has shown.
According to Owen Flanagan, professor of philosophy at Duke University in North Carolina, Buddhists appear to be able to stimulate the left prefrontal lobe an area just behind the forehead which may be why they can generate positive emotions and a feeling of well being.
Writing in today's New Scientist, Professor Flanagan cites early findings of a study by Richard Davidson, of the University of Wisconsin, who used scanners to analyse the active regions of a Buddhist's brain.
Professor Flanagan said the findings are "tantalising" because the left prefrontal lobes of Buddhist practitioners appear to "light up" consistently, rather than just during acts of meditation.
"This is significant, because persistent activity in the left prefrontal lobes indicates positive emotions and good mood," he writes. "The first Buddhist practitioner studied by Davidson showed more left prefrontal lobe activity than anyone he had ever studied before.
"Buddhists are not born happy. It is not reasonable to suppose that Tibetan Buddhists are born with a 'happiness gene'. The most reasonable hypothesis is there is something about conscientious Buddhist practice that results in the kind of happiness we all seek," he writes.
Another study of Buddhists by scientists at the University of California has also found that meditation might tame the amygdala, the part of the brain involved with fear and anger.
Professor Flanagan writes: "Antidepressants are currently the favoured method for alleviating negative emotions, but no antidepressant makes a person happy. On the other hand, Buddhist meditation and mindfulness, which were developed 2,500 years before Prozac, can lead to profound happiness."
6. New Brain Studies and Meditation / Punnadhammo Bhikkhu
A study at the University of Wisconsin headed by the neuroscientist Dr. Richard Davidson has generated a lot of buzz in Buddhist circles. Dr. Davidson and his team studied the brains of meditators, both novices and long time practitioners. The full study will be published in "Psychosomatic Medicine" but early press reports indicate that significant new findings were made correlating meditation with specific and long lasting changes in brain activity.
This was not the first time that meditation has been shown to have a significant neurological effect. Evidence has been accumulating for some time now. Part of the excitement around this particular study (a Google search yielded 32,000 hits) may be the celebrity factor. Dr. Davidson collaborated with the well known meditation teacher and advocate Jon Kabat Zinn and even had the co operation of the Dalai Lama and his monks. But more to the point, the study seems to have broken new ground in detailing some of the long lasting effects caused by meditation practise.
In brief, it appears that meditation shifts the brain activity from the right frontal cortex to the left and that this appears to be associated with reduced stress and increased happiness. That side of it is not news to the Buddhist tradition or to anyone who meditates. Nevertheless the objective verification can only be a good thing, encouraging more people to take up this life enhancing practise. The Dalai Lama, in his commentary on the Wisconsin study, stressed the social benefits of greater peacefulness and equanimity for a troubled world.
Caution should be expressed, however, in pushing the scientific evidence too far. One web site with an ax to ground has already proclaimed "The End of Traditional Buddhism." (http://arielife.net/endtimesbud.htm) Like the End of History, it may be a tad premature. The gist of the author's argument is that the various neurological studies demonstrate that mystical experiences are just the results of brain states and that the same effects could be had with drugs or other intervention.
This line of thought is based on a seductive logical fallacy. Correlation is not causation. It is not surprising that brain states are associated with specific subjective experiences, both mundane and mystical. But to use this as a basis for extrapolating a reductive materialism is unwarranted. The modern philosopher Ken Wilber calls this kind of thinking "the flatland." To simplify, a flat land description of the colour "red" would include the wavelength of the light, a description of what happens in the eye and a description of which neurons fire. The "flatlander" would call this description complete and yet it has said absolutely nothing about the subjective experience of seeing a rose. Would it at all help a blind person to understand what we mean by "red?"
The use of the term "flatland" comes from a playful nineteenth century novel about beings in a two dimensional world. Unable to imagine the third dimension they dismissed it as an irrational fiction. This points to a deeper problem with the materialist reductionism approach to meditational experience. It leaves out the higher dimension. Meditation, as taught and understood in the Buddhist tradition, does provide benefits of mental health and happiness. But it goes beyond that and in the end is based on the goal of transcendence. (Nirvana)
To a traditional Buddhist, this transcendence lies outside the realm of cause and effect. It may be the case that a person experiencing this state will manifest particular brain states, it would be very surprising if she did not. However, that in no way demonstrates that these brain states are the cause of the experience. If they were, the state would not be genuine transcendence, as it would still be dependent on material form. This is why Buddhists maintain that the highest experiences will never be replicated with artificial means like drugs.
7. This is Your Brain on Buddha Dharma and Neuroscience / by Erik Davis / First appeared in Feed, June 23, 1999
Anyone studying the mind will soon stumble across a fundamental tension between first person and third person accounts of cognition. On the one hand, you have three pounds of gray matter flowering on top of a post simian spine meat that can be mapped, poked, drugged, and registered. On the other hand, you have your own internal flow of impressions, thoughts, sensations, and memories, a stream of consciousness that includes thoughts like "the stream of consciousness is an illusion." How can we integrate these two worlds? And is it even a good idea?
Celebrated neuro thinkers like Daniel Dennett and Paul and Patricia Churchland are reluctant to give the "inside" of awareness or experience much explanatory weight, insisting that objective accounts of consciousness are far superior if you want to understand how the mind actually works. Such thinkers argue that subjectivity may have an undeniable intuitive appeal, but our own experience is an unreliable source of information, a morass of illusions and myths that cloud the quest to describe reality.
Yet in his 1991 book The Embodied Mind, co written with Evan Thompson and Eleanor Rosch, the celebrated neuroscientist Francisco Varela insists that experience is an irreducible component of the study of the mind. "To deny the truth of our own experience in the scientific study of ourselves is not only unsatisfactory; it is to render the scientific study of ourselves without a subject matter." Varela and crew argue that while cognitive science continues to dig into the material foundations of cognition, researchers should balance their resulting models against the "disciplined, transformative analysis" of experience itself an analysis provided by, in their case, Buddhist meditation and philosophy. A serious student of Chogyam Trunpa, as well as the organizer of a number of formal dialogues between the Dalai Lama and Western scientists, Varela believes that Buddhism provides a sort of finely tuned introspective tool that has been neglected in the West.
The appearance of the dharma in a work of cognitive science should not be altogether surprising. For over a century, Buddhism has been interpreted by many Westerners as a "scientific" religion, though a lot of deities and popular rituals must be swept under the carpet to make this image stick to say nothing of the doctrine of rebirth. But the core intuition makes sense. With no belief in a Creator God or an eternal soul, the Buddha and his early followers used meditation as a kind of psychological microscope, investigating and deconstructing our deeply habitual sense that the first person "I" truly exists. An early Buddhist work known as the Abhidharma, which reached its final form in 400 CE, chops up the comfortable shapes of ordinary consciousness into a mind numbing catalog of mental and sensory factors that only a third person cognitive philosopher could love.
For their part, the old yogi scholars would probably get a kick out of the recent Zen and the Brain, a massive, 800 page tome written by the neurologist James Austin. With extraordinary intelligence and breadth of spirit, Austin explores the interaction between neurophysiology and the experiential core of Zen practice. A bench researcher rather than a cognitive theorist, Austin avoids the abstractions of brain based philosophy and gets down to nitty gritty detail. Summarizing an enormous amount of material on current brain science, and especially on the study of altered states of consciousness and meditation, Zen and the Brain stands on solid ground. Austin's basic theory is that the occasional moments of insight known in Zen as kensho or satori essentially "re boot" the brain, allowing stale and habitual structures of mind especially those centered on "I, Me, Mine" to dissolve and reform along suppler, more responsive, and more compassionate lines. To these ends, Austin offers a number of explicit, testable hypotheses, though he admits that studying advanced practitioners can be tough. "It might be very difficult to enter into authentic practice surrounded by all those wires, tubes, and electrodes," says Austin, who is now retired from the University of Colorado. "Then again, for a strong adept, it shouldn't matter."
Along with serving up more information on the brain than most brains can possibly assimilate, Austin weaves in thoughts and experiences drawn from his own quarter century of devoted Zen practice. "We in the West come to religion from a Judeo Christian perspective, which generally means a lot of thoughts, doctrines and assumptions," says Austin from his home in Moscow, Idaho. "The Zen approach is a little bit more like learning how to ride a bicycle, as opposed to, say, taking a coarse of astrophysics. It means getting your bottom on a cushion, learning to trust your body and to let go." But Austin also goes against the usual grain of Zen texts by providing explicit and methodical descriptions of his own visions and mind blowing awakenings. At once dispassionate and glittering with spirit, these discussions make Zen and the Brain a spiritual autobiography for the 21st century. As Austin himself says, "We will all be neurobiologists to some degree in the next millennium."
When he lectures on Zen and the brain, Austin sometimes shows slides of early statues of the Buddha. Commonly, the heads of many of these statues feature a strange protuberance, often identified as a top knot, but which Austin sees as sign of increased brain power. "I read it as a metaphor for an expansion of faculties," he says. "But these new capacities are no more magical than the fact that the brains of Homo sapiens are larger, more convoluted and efficient than the brains of Neanderthals. Biological brain evolution is a fact, and I hope that in another 200,000 years there will be a Homo sapiens sapiens."
Despite the enormous accomplishment of Zen and the Brain, Austin regrets that he didn't start his Buddhist practice earlier in his career. Christopher deCharms, a cognitive neuroscientist currently working at the Keck Center for Integrative Neuroscience at the University of California, San Francisco, was perhaps more fortunate. Having studied Asian philosophy in college, deCharms visited a Tibetan monastery in India just before entering graduate school in neuroscience. Two years into his Ph.D., he got a grant from the National Science Foundation to go to Dharamsala and study Tibetan theories of mind, a highly unorthodox move for a budding member of the brain elite. "To a person, I don't think anyone in my department was positive about my going, and some were very negative," says deCharms, who also practices Sri Lankan style vipassana meditation. "It was almost over a couple of dead bodies."
Once in Dharamsala, deCharms realized that both he and the lamas brought something valuable to the table. "I could tell them about electron micrographs of individual neural pathways and connections that were made within the brain. By the same token, they have this very rich and highly elaborated catalog of the various internal things that you can find through personal meditation." It's this kind of mutual illumination that convinced deCharms that such dialogues are useful, for scientists and Buddhists alike. "It's very intellectually stimulating to test the vision of mind you are proposing, not just against extremely similar counter proposals, but against a whole other way of thinking. It fosters whole new kinds of questions, questions that you might not have realized even were questions before."
DeCharm's questions and some answers led to a book, Two Views of Mind. A collection of interviews and rather arcane discussions concerning the science and philosophy of perception, the book goes out of its way to avoid the superficiality that poisons many cross fertilizations of science and Eastern thought. "It's very easy to look at the language of science and the language in some Eastern traditions and say, 'Boy, these sound the same.' That sells both traditions short. The meditative tradition is speaking about something that has been directly realized in the contemplative state of a yogi of some sort. That's just plain very different than something that somebody has measured on an oscilloscope in a laboratory."
DeCharm's Tibetan research, coming so early in his training, transformed his attitude as a scientist, broadening his perspective on topics his colleagues continue to see through much narrower lenses. At the same time, he endured enough mockery not to bother pushing his colleagues to read his book, which was published through a Buddhist press. DeCharms chalks up some of their resistance to ingrained skepticism, and occasionally to the greater sin of arrogant ignorance. "But I think the main resistance is simply parochialism. People are very caught up in being specialists these days. If you come to them and say, 'Hey, I have this interesting book comparing neuroscience with Tibetan Buddhism,' they're going to say, 'Yeah, well there's a two foot high pile of articles I have to read on substance P receptors in the spinal cord.'"
There are good reasons for these folks to keep poring through their technical journals. According to Bill Press, a Zen practitioner who is pursuing a postdoc in the psychology department at Stanford, "Our knowledge base in neuroscience is not at the point where we are actually able to say many intelligent things." Though Press studies visual processing in the human cortex, one of the most researched areas of cognition, he remains quite humble about scientific achievements to date. "Our understanding of the brain is so rudimentary that we are barely able to describe how signals are transformed from the retina to the very first stages of the visual cortex, let alone describe what's happening during an enlightenment experience."
As a practitioner, Press also questions whether science can make much difference on the sitting cushion. "As an intellectual puzzle, it's kind of a cool question, how the brain relates to meditation. But I think that when you are doing this kind of practice, it's easy to distract yourself by trying to figure everything out. In the dharma, they use the image of the finger pointing at the moon. If you want to look at the moon, you look at the moon. You don't stare at the finger."
Other long time dharmaheads have a different take. Wes Nisker, the editor of the Buddhist journal Inquiring Mind and a well known teacher of vipassana meditation, recently published a popular book called Buddha's Nature, which integrates Darwinian and neuroscientific notions into meditation practice. "What the Buddha was really interested in was not so much cosmic consciousness but biological consciousness," says Nisker from his Berkeley home. "He said, go in and see how your perception happens, see how your reactive mind is functioning. What the biological sciences are doing is giving great support to that practice of self awareness and liberation. The basic truths that come out of neuroscience and biology are accessible in our own experience."
One of Nisker's strongest points is that an evolutionary perspective can help pry our attention away from our personal conditioning and shift it towards our conditioning as a species. "We've become obsessed with psychologizing in our culture. But a lot more of who we are and how we behave depends on the structure of our brain and nervous system than on how we were toilet trained." When Nisker teaches weekend retreats, he often rolls out neuroscience lore for precisely this reason, and he's found the tactic particularly helpful with beginners who are unmoved by the traditional Buddhist rap. "It helps people depersonalize what's going on in their minds. Those thoughts aren't really theirs, its just the way the mind is constructed. The mind is constructed to worry and to make sure the organism survives."
Ultimately, the kind of mindfulness practice that Nisker teaches can lead folks to personally realize one of the core insights of Buddhism: that the self we think we are, the self we coddle and trumpet and worry about, doesn't essentially exist. On this point, the vast majority of neuroscientists would agree, arguing that the solitary "I" is really a society of mind, or an emergent property, or an illusion fostered by some narrator module lodged in the left hemisphere. Nisker even jokingly suggests that neuroscientists set up little brain imaging booths that would allow people to personally see the pictures of their own noodles at work. "Then we could believe it. There's nobody home."
In her recent book The Meme Machine, the British psychologist Susan Blackmore argues that the self is simply a complex of memes, those competitive mind viruses first described by Richard Dawkins. But at the end of her book, Blackmore suggests that we might learn to live fully and freely without the burden of a singular and illusory self anxiously holding the reigns a suggestion rooted partly in the author's own Zen practice. For his part, Nisker argues that Buddhism takes a step beyond science by working towards the radical transformation of our largely reactive minds. "You don't even have to call it spiritual. It's like this: this is what we inherit, this is the given. But here are these practices, this ancient method of examining and seeing clearly your human conditioning. When you see it clearly, you can actually increase consciousness of the whole process, and thereby find more freedom in it. That's not only hopeful for our personal liberation, but maybe for the species as well. Maybe we're learning how to take evolution into our own hands."
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