Category: Neuroscience

Hot off the press!

SiddharthasBrain

My new book about the mind-blowing new “science of enlightenment” – which is stuffed with neuroscience, psychiatry and psychology, but also some wonderful Buddhist stories and guided mindfulness meditations – will be published on 26 April in the US and 2 June in the UK. I received my personal copy through the post yesterday, so I couldn’t resist sharing a few quick thoughts.

One of my principal inspirations for writing the book was a long conversation I had in 2014 with a charming Buddhist monk called Ajahn Amaro, the abbot of Amaravati Buddhist Monastery in the little village of Great Missenden near Hemel Hempstead in the UK. Before his ordination into the Thai Forest tradition he trained as a scientist at the University of London in the 1970s, earning a degree in physiology and psychology. As we chatted it became clear he sees Buddhism as a kind of internalised cognitive psychology formulated in Ancient India by Siddhartha Gautama (the Buddha) – thousands of years before “science” had been invented. He believes that the role of his monastery is to carry on that tradition.

“We don’t run labs and such,” the abbot told me, “but our way of practicing and teaching meditation is very experientially based – it’s what actually helps people. We are working with the mind to understand it better and train it to be more malleable and function in a more balanced way.” He even went so far as to say we are “all mentally ill”. According to Buddhist philosophy, only perfectly enlightened beings can be considered 100% sane. Such people see the world as it truly is, stripped of the greed, aversion and delusion that clouds the untrained minds of more ordinary folk like you and me.

I followed up my conversation with Ajahn Amaro by interviewing many of the leading scientists investigating the neuroscience and potential benefits of meditation, including the two inspirational people who brought this whole new field into existence in the 1980s, Jon Kabat-Zinn and Herbert Benson. The more I learned about Buddhism and meditation, the more at home I felt with them, both as a sceptical (even cynical) science journalist, and as someone with a cranky human mind. I began to meditate myself and attend retreats.

Famously, Siddhartha told his followers:

“Don’t go by reports, by legends, by traditions, by scripture, by logical conjecture, by inference, by analogies, by agreement through pondering views, by probability, or by the thought, ‘This contemplative is our teacher’. When you know for yourselves that, ‘These qualities are unskillful; these qualities are blameworthy; these qualities are criticised by the wise; these qualities, when adopted and carried out, lead to harm and to suffering,’ then you should abandon them.”

In other words, “Take no one’s word for it” or Nullius in verba in Latin, which is the motto of the Royal Society. Stripped of its cultural baggage (there’s plenty of that, of course, after two and half millennia) Buddhism is the anti-dogma religion. You’re not expected to believe in a creator god or follow a creed, just investigate your own experience, carefully, objectively, with an open mind.

Siddhartha’s Brain brings together this ancient philosophy with the discoveries of rigorous, hi-tech modern science. I hope people will enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed researching and writing it.

 

Meditation

Meditation and psychosis

There’s something weird going on in the field of meditation and mindfulness research. On the one hand there are voices warning that meditation can cause psychosis – leading people to lose touch with reality and experience symptoms such as hallucinations, delusions and disturbing thoughts – on the other there are equally persuasive voices claiming that it should be used to treat psychosis. Continue reading “Meditation and psychosis”

Dalai Lama enlightens and enraptures contemplative scientists in Boston

The Dalai Lama at the International Symposium for Contemplative Studies
The Dalai Lama takes part in a dialogue with scientists at the International Symposium for Contemplative Studies. From left to right: Amishi Jha, Richard Davidson, His Holiness, Thupten Jinpa and Arthur Zajonc. Photograph: Jurek Schreiner

When the Dalai Lama began a dialogue with cognitive scientists in 1987 to explore how the insights gained by Buddhist contemplatives could be used to inform research and find new ways to promote human wellbeing, he could not have imagined that businesses and even the US military would one day want to harness some of those insights. (more…)

Is this the brain’s mindfulness switch?

Thalamus small.gif

Journalists adore research that allows them to write stories along the lines of “scientists have tracked down the brain’s love HQ” or “researchers have located the brain’s god spot”. It is very satisfying to imagine that we can divide the brain into neat components with distinct functions like the parts of a car engine. We dream that one day, neuroscientists will be able to lift the bonnet (or the hood if it’s an American brain), point and say “here’s the valve that causes schizophrenia – we can readjust that with this chemical spanner. Here’s the tank that causes OCD when it overflows – we can drain that by turning this tap here. Over there are the spark plugs that we clean up to cure depression …”

Unfortunately the brain is a lot messier and more wonderful than your average motor engine, which is why we’re still standing over it scratching our heads trying to figure out how on earth it all works. It’s a tangle of connections, with myriad networks of components involved in creating thoughts, consciousness, sensations and emotions.

So it is with a mixture of excitement and wariness that I approach a study by researchers at Beijing Normal University in China that seems to point to a particular part of the brain that switches mindfulness on and off. It’s called the thalamus (shown in red on the animated gif), a pair of bulbous structures that sit at the top of the brainstem (yellow) on the midline of the brain. The thalamus plays a pivotal role as the brain’s switchboard, relaying information from all the senses apart from smell to the cerebral cortex, which is the thinking, conscious part of the brain. (more…)

Meditation or medication for depression? A reality check

Prozac (fluoxetine) antidepressant pills
Research has suggested meditation is as effective as taking an antidepressant for mild depression

There was good news last week about the effectiveness of mindfulness meditation for easing anxiety, depression and pain. Mail Online reported that a study had found “meditation ‘works just as well as anti-depressants’: half an hour a day offers as much relief as tablets”, while The Boston Globe said those who took mindfulness classes experienced improvement in mood after eight weeks “on par with the effect seen with prescription medications”.

This was all perfectly true. A review published in JAMA Internal Medicine had looked at all the best studies to date and concluded that there was “moderate evidence” of improved anxiety, depression and pain among patients. The effect on mild depression was indeed equal to that achieved with anti-depressants.

Like me, though, you may be a bit underwhelmed by that phrase “moderate evidence”. It’s hardly a ringing endorsement, but better than “low evidence” – which was what the reviewers concluded about the efficacy of meditation for improving stress/distress and mental health-related quality of life. (more…)

Meditation for pain relief

Candle and Buddha
Pain is relieved by suppressing the “mental narratives” and “self-related processes” that usually exacerbate it

Pain is a fact of life: it can be dulled with drugs, but sometimes it’s just too intense or too persistent. Then we have to learn to live with it.

Buddhist monks are adept at doing this when they sit immobile in meditation, remaining straight-backed in the lotus position for hours on end. They are thought to achieve this by “uncoupling” the sensation of pain from their emotional reaction to it. This is more than just a parlour trick. Monks protesting the Chinese occupation of Tibet have shown they are capable of sitting unflinching as they burn to death. (more…)