Introducing the Plastic Brain

walnutsHis Holiness the Dalai Lama keeps a plastic brain with detachable labelled components on the desk in his office in Dharamsala, India. It was a gift from his friend the late Robert Livingstone, a neuroscientist at the University of California, San Diego, whom he credits with opening his eyes to the findings of modern biology. Livingstone founded the world’s first department of neuroscience at UCSD in 1965 and dedicated his career to linking the anatomy of the brain to the workings of the mind.

That, in a nutshell, is why I’ve called my new blog Plastic Brain. For me, the model brain sitting on the Dalai Lama’s desk symbolises the way ancient contemplative practices and science have come together over the past three decades as the gulf between the intangible mind and the inscrutable brain has narrowed. These are exciting times for neuroscience and psychology.

Of course, “plastic brain” also recalls the brain’s plasticity – its wonderful capacity to create new nerve cells and new connections in response to experience. Who would have thought, for example, that a course of mindfulness meditation could subtly change the structure of the brain?

So I’ll be writing about research that catches my eye, books I’ve been reading and, well, anything else that I feel moved to write about.

In the past week or two there has been a backlash against “neuromania”: the tendency of journalists and university press officers to exaggerate the implications of fMRI scans, pointing to different parts of the brain and saying things like “this is the love spot”, “this is the god spot”, “this is the right-wing ideology spot”. It’s right and proper to be sceptical about what brain scans tell us about the mind. After all, what the scan shows is only a proxy of brain activity. When particular regions light up while the person in the scanner is thinking about her loved one, her god, or is meditating, those are correlations – flags indicating potentially fruitful areas for future research. There’s still a long way to go, but what a fascinating journey it’s going to be.

2 thoughts on “Introducing the Plastic Brain

  1. Dear James,

    I am reading with much interest, Siddhartha’s Brain. I just finished Chapter 8, A Drunk Elephant. I have a question. How did Siddhartha stop the elephant? you suggest that it’s a mistake to say that he felt no fear. Then exactly what did he feel and how did he stop the elephant?

    I’m suggesting that Siddhartha did not feel fear. In fact, his brain was in another state that he had conditioned over time to be a default state of love. How do I know this?

    I know the answer because I’ve twice experienced charges similar to that experienced by Siddhartha. I’ve been charged by two rhinos in South Africa and by a Doberman pinscher in California. My experience with the dog was like that described by neuroscientist James Austin . Only my brain did not go through what Dr. Austin describes as “normal’. Why? I described my experience to another neuroscientist. He thought for a moment and replied, “Fred your brain knew you were safe before the dog attacked. What I can’t tell you is how your brain knew that.”

    What does this mean? I’m suggesting that there is another process besides meditation that makes fear obsolete. I know it sounds absurd. But what if I’m right? I’l like to discuss this further with you.
    fred

    1. Dear Fred

      I’m so glad you’re finding the book interesting. I may be wrong to say the Buddha felt fear when he stood in the path of the charging elephant. Who knows. The point I wanted to make was that his mental training may have allowed him to transcend it (and recover more quickly afterwards) – to feel the fear but not be ruled by it. Instead he was motivated by compassion for the creature. I see the story as a metaphor for the human mind, which can run amok like an enraged animal but can be tamed by compassion.

      Did you feel any fear when you faced the rhinos and the dog? Either way, standing immobile may have been the crucial factor. Rhinos have very poor eyesight so keeping still may have saved your life. And predators instinctively attack fleeing animals, so standing your ground could have helped. It might not have worked for a charging lion but I once saw a TV documentary where three African bushmen managed to steal the prey from several feeding lions simply by striding confidently towards them. The bushmen were probably terrified but their unexpected behaviour and body language spooked the lions and they ran off.

      I’m sure you’re right in the final point you make. There are times when we feel no fear, for whatever reason – protecting a child, anger, some drug-induced states, psychosis. But I would argue that 9 times out 10 fear is adaptive and keeps us safe.

      James

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