Neuroscientists Have a Lot to Learn From Buddhists

Buddhism is a philosophy that has, for thousands of years, taught millions of people how to attain a life free of suffering – mostly through meditation, a training of the mind to cultivate a mental state of tranquility, get rid of negative emotions and enhance desirable qualities.

In the past decade, after realizing its benefits on the brain, Western medical practitioners have started to experiment with Buddhist meditation techniques in the clinical environment. Mindfulness is a meditation practice inspired in Buddhism which has the goal of cultivating awareness moment by moment, detaching oneself from strong emotions and thoughts. Mindfulness techniques, such as Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) and Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) are currently used in the treatment of certain psychological conditions like anxiety and depression.

Two Different Perspectives

In 1972, shortly after completing his doctoral dissertation in molecular genetics, French scientist Matthieu Ricard abandoned his career in science to become a Buddhist monk. He has since been the object of numerous scientific studies and been declared the happiest man in the world. According to an edited excerpt of his new book Beyond the Self, Ricard writes that it does not suffice to ponder how the human psyche works and elaborate complex theories about it (…) Such intellectual constructs cannot replace two millennia of direct investigation of the workings of the mind through penetrating introspection conducted with trained minds that have become both stable and clear.”

Indeed, Buddhists have been studying the mind through first-person experience for 2,500 years. Ricard’s co-author Wolf Singer, prominent neuroscientist and Emeritus Director of the Max Planck Institute for Brain Research, points out that Buddhist meditation is “not unlike scientific endeavor except that the analytical effort is directed toward the inner rather than the outer world.”

Neuroscience, on the other hand, investigates the mind using the traditional scientific method and third-person research viewpoint. Neuroscientists are interested in answering questions such as whether brain structure can be modified through mental practices, whether mental effort can have an effect on the body, and whether mental states can be linked to neuronal changes. Given their experience, meditators make for an excellent study group to look into these questions.

Scientific Findings

For several decades, the claims put forth by meditation practitioners have piqued the interest of neuroscientists studying the connection between mind and body. Using techniques like electroencephalograms to detect electrical activity in the brain, researchers can test these claims in the controlled conditions of the laboratory. They have found that distinct states of mind can be generated through meditation, and that this practice has certain associated brain patterns.

Scientific investigation into the physical effects of meditation is also ongoing. Already in the 1980s it was shown that practitioners of Tibetan Tummo, a meditation technique which results in the generation of heat, could in fact raise the temperature of their fingers and toes by up to 8°C through their mental efforts. More recent studies have found some evidence that mindfulness meditation can have a positive impact on the immune system. In one study, participants who took part in an 8-week meditation program had a higher antibody response to an influenza vaccine compared to the control group.

Many articles have been published about the effects of meditation on brain structure and health. A study published in 2015 found that age-related brain degeneration may go slower for long-term meditators than for non-meditators. In another study, researchers found that participation in an 8-week MBSR program elicited changes in the structure of the participants’ brains. Particularly, they found increased brain matter concentration in areas of the brain related to emotion regulation, learning, memory and self-referential thoughts.

Meditation can also help reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety, possibly by regulating the self-referential thought process. Researchers from Yale University found that the brain of experienced meditators exhibited decreased activation of the default-mode network (DMN) than that of non-meditators. The DMN is a region of the brain associated with mind-wandering and self-referential thoughts, which are associated with unhappiness and anxiety.

Some Dissimilarities

Buddhism and neuroscience are both interested in studying reality, and as they discover truths about the mind, some findings will inevitably converge. However, neuroscience is focused on the study of the natural world, while Buddhism also strives to find the deeper meaning of existence. As a philosophy, it puts forth claims that extend beyond the scope of science.

For the Buddhist, there is a part of consciousness that functions separately from the body, a view with which many neuroscientists disagree. In 2005, when the Dalai Lama was invited to speak at the conference of the Society of Neuroscience, several scientists disagreed and petitioned against it. Jianguo Gu, a neuroscientist from the University of Florida and one of the petitioners, said: “The Dalai Lama basically says the body and mind can be separated and passed to other people. There are no scientific grounds for that. We’ll be talking about cells and molecules and he’s going to talk about something that isn’t there.”

For this reason, Western practitioners have tried to adapt Buddhist meditation by stripping it of its philosophical background. However, separating the practice of mindfulness from the Buddhist moral framework, which teaches compassion, empathy and caring, is a risk, according to Ricard. When asked about the secular versions of mindfulness meditation, he said: “You could have a very mindful sniper and a mindful psychopath. It’s true!”

Furthermore, not everyone is convinced that meditation can be a purely secular practice. Meditation can lead to spirituality by creating feelings of awe, which are a key component of spiritual experience. In fact, some research findings suggest that the spiritual dimension of meditation may partially explain the benefits associated with the practice.

Clearly, Buddhism and neuroscience share a common interest in elucidating how the mind works, but they go about it from fundamentally different perspectives. Although they don’t always agree, both the experiential knowledge of the buddhists and the experimental approach of science have generated interesting insights that are helping to clarify many questions about the inner workings of the mind.

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