As a neuropsychologist and meditation teacher, Dr. Hanson draws from psychology, brain science and the contemplative traditions to support people on their path of well-being and spiritual practice. The premise of his book Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love, and Wisdom, is that if you can change your brain, you can change your life. The Mindful Word spoke with him about how to develop a Buddha brain and the implications of that change.
What is experience dependent neuroplasticity?
It’s the fundamental idea that the brain is a learning organ and it learns through changing its structure at very tiny, microscopic levels. It can also change its structure at a very large scale macro level as is seen on an MRI—the impact of cortisol from chronic stress can visibly shrink the hippocampus, a part of the brain that is involved in making visual-spatial memories as well as new personal memories and creating context for our experience. It can lose up to about 25 percent of its volume in extreme, prolonged stress conditions.
On the other hand, the brain can increase layers of cortical tissue in regions that are involved with mindfulness, such as the anterior (frontal) cingulate cortex, which is involved in the top-down executive control of attention. Deliberately paying attention, including some of the meta-cognitive aspects of being aware of how attentive you’re being, is so central to the practice of mindfulness and meditation.
Meditation will also build up cortical tissue in another part of the brain called the insula, which is on the inside of the temple lobes, and the insula (we’ve got two of them) is very involved in interoception, where we tune in to our own body and also tune in to our deep emotions and state of being, which is of course also very involved in meditation. Interestingly, the insula is also very involved in empathy for the emotions of others.
The brain is in many ways a lot like a muscle. If we use it routinely, we can build it up. Literally, materially, in terms of thicker layers of cortex. And because we’ve built it up, we’re more able to perform the functions that those portions of the brain do. On the other hand, much like a muscle, if it gets torn or wounded or atrophied through disuse, there too it’s less able to perform its functions and by analogy portions of the brain that are damaged through chronic or extreme stress or are physically damaged through a concussion or a tumour will have less capacity to perform their functions.
The updated version of the traditional saying, “The mind takes the shape of what it rests upon” is that, based on experience dependent neuroplasticity, “The brain takes the shape of whatever the mind rests upon.” If we routinely rest the mind on self-criticism or angry grumblings about other people, our brain will gradually take the shape of a worse mood, less resilience—getting upset about things makes us more prone to getting upset about thing.
But if we routinely rest the mind on the wholesome qualities of mind and heart that are inside every being, and the beautiful things around us every day—the flowers are blooming, kids are laughing, ain’t dead yet—the brain will take a shape that has greater resilience, more sense of resources inside so that we can help ourselves and others and make the world a better place. We foster a more positive mood, develop positive emotions and a deepen our insight.
We have tremendous power to sculpt our brain for the better. The brain is continually changing its structure. Now is it for better or worse and who is doing the changing? That’s where mindful attention comes in in particular because while “Neurons that fire together wire together”—the famous saying by the Canadian psychologist Donald Hebb—they do so particularly for what we pay attention to. Attention is like a vacuum cleaner, it sucks whatever it rests upon into the brain so mindfulness is a pre-eminent way to get control over that vacuum cleaner and take control of what’s building the structures in the most important organ in our body, our brain.
How often do you have to practice mindfulness to maintain whatever changes you’ve made to the brain before those changes undo themselves?
No one knows for sure, first of all, because neuroscience is a baby science. It seems clear that once you learn certain things you know them forever. For example, once you know how to ride a bike you know that forever. Once you have a deep insight about the way it is, you can’t unlearn that deep insight, it’s in your bones.
However, the brain is highly efficient at learning from negative experiences but very inefficient at learning from positive ones. This is the idea of the negativity bias, which really helped our ancestors survive and pass on gene copies, but today when most people are living past their 30th birthday and are interested in quality of life, the negativity bias is a bad bargain.
Its long-term costs are much greater than its short-term benefits. We’ve got a brain that’s like Velcro for negative experiences, but Teflon for positive ones. That why I think its really important to practice meditation, engage in something like mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) or do some kind of spiritual activity like prayer. It’s also particularly intelligent to slow down for just a few moments, literally 10-20 seconds at a time is all it takes, to really register that positive experience.
I’m humbled myself by thinking about all the “money I’ve left on the table” both in my personal practice and in my work as a therapist and meditation teacher, where what we did may as well not have happened, in terms of leaving enduring structures on the brain, because of the brain’s extreme inefficiency at learning from positive experiences. It’s important to continually think about where we rest attention. This does not mean being aversive to the negative. It’s not about overlooking the hard things in life or difficult challenges in the world.
What are the physical benefits to mindfulness practice?
Whatever we do to reduce stress, such as explicit mindfulness practice or something much more informal as you move through the day like taking some breaths or taking a moment to be grateful, is good for the body. Because stress, particularly prolonged stress associated with negative emotions like the stress of being stuck in traffic or being worried about something, are going to kick in gear stress activation that is really bad for us.
The antidote to that is to get the needle out of the red zone. It’s not just to come back to neutral, but to really cultivate positive emotions, both positive emotions that are more towards the subtle and peaceful end of the spectrum like contentment, tranquillity and compassion and those that are more towards the energetic, passionate end of the spectrum like playfulness, exuberance or enthusiasm.
A lot of research shows that health benefits arise both from dialing down the negative, but also from independently increasing the positive states of mind. Doing this strengthens the immune system, improves digestion and builds up neurotransmitters that are involved in the moment-to-moment experience of living, our psychology.
Also, when we do these practices our hormonal system benefits, both in terms of stress hormones and reproductive. It’s hard to feel really in the mood if your body is redlining on stress. I reflect sometimes that if Merck or other large pharmaceutical companies could patent meditation, mindfulness or gratitude practices such as taking in the good, the practice that I particularly talk and write about, we would be seeing ads on prime-time television many times in the evening for any one of these things because the impact of these practices for physical health, particularly long-term physical health, are so extraordinary.
Your book Just One Thing: Developing A Buddha Brain One Simple Practice at a Time offers 52 of your favourite practices to develop a Buddha brain. Do you have any favourites?
Taking in the good
Have a good experience – notice that you’re having a good experience, or deliberately bring your attention to some kind of good fact either in your life today or in your past, or create a fact so you have the basis for a good experience.
Extend that experience – stay with it for 10, 20 or 30 seconds and really let it fill your body, helping it become as intense as possible.
Absorb the experience – really sense that it’s sinking into you as you sink into it.
Those three steps in real life happen mooshed together in a dozen seconds. The benefit of this practice is multiple: One, you will actually be weaving a key positive experience into the fabric of your brain and you can go after positive experiences that are what I call, key antidote experiences, aimed at your particular hole in the heart. If a person is routinely anxious then taking in experiences of feeling protected, safe and strong will be especially helpful for you. If a person feels lonely and disconnected from others and not well-loved they’re looking for little opportunities to feel seen and cared about by others.
A second benefit is implicit because when we take in the good we’re being active—we’re being a hammer instead of a nail, which is very important to prevent learned helplessness—and we’re treating ourselves like we matter, which is especially important for people who have not felt like they’ve mattered enough to others.
A third benefit is that we gradually sensitize the brain to positive experiences and transform it from its evolutionary default of being like Velcro for the negative but Teflon for the positive, and we transform that over time into becoming like Velcro for the positive and Teflon for the negative.
And then in the optional fourth step of taking in the good, which is another practice listed in the book around filling the hole in the heart, we can pair a positive experience with some old negative material in the background of the mind. If we’re having a positive experience today of feeling cared about or liked we can sense the positive experience of caring sinking down into places inside that did not feel sufficiently cherished.
What we have here is an acronym: HEAP. Have a positive experience, Extend that experience, Absorb the experience, Pairing the experience (optional). I think that’s what we do, we gradually build up heaps of positive experiences inside and so we have a growing pile of flowers in the garden of the mind that start crowding out the weeds of negative experiences that the brain is extremely efficient at fertilizing.
How does taking in the good have an impact on stress?
I recommend taking in the good as a very important method both for the immediate impact of stress and also for building up resources over time to prevent stress down the road. In the moment when you take in the good you reduce stress through multiple pathways including a focus on positive experiences that calm the body, activate the parasympathetic nervous system and immediately turn down the dial on stress even when you’re having even a mildly positive experience, even if it’s arising in your mind alongside other feelings of tension or anxiety. If you take in the good and really register the positive experience for 10, 20 or 30 seconds you will be building up resources inside you that will deal with stress in the long haul so that you’ll be harder to knock off base.
To me this gets to the traditional notion of bhavana or equanimity. Because as we gradually cultivate wholesome causes in our mind and body we’re building those resources up inside, which is like deepening a keel in a sailboat that gives us more equanimity in dealing with the worldly winds that blow all the time so they don’t knock us over so easily and even if they do we recover much more quickly because now we have a deepened keel in the water.
Equanimity as far as I know is acceptance of the “good” and the “bad,” whatever comes. Isn’t taking in the good training people to see a duality of good and bad, which is actually the opposite of equanimity?
I think that’s not true. In other words, equanimity certainly is to have a non-reactivity to good or bad. But how do we acquire that equanimity? In Buddhism and modern psychology and brain science we largely acquire that equanimity through the gradual internalization of positive experiences. The problem is that the acquisition of equanimity is very inefficient in the brain. The brain is really bad at internalizing positive experiences. So it’s hard to cultivate equanimity.
The kind of equanimity I’m talking about is not philosophical, it’s bottom up. It’s a deep embodied quality of non-reactivity to the pleasant, unpleasant and neutral feelings in life. There is a distinction on the relative level between feeling peaceful, relaxed and content versus feeling angry, anxious and inadequate. I think there’s a distinction between those experiences as much as there’s a distinction between the telephone and my head. The Buddha was utterly dualistic at the relative level otherwise how could we possibly have a distinction between one person’s karma and another person’s karma. Both karma in this life and those between lives.
So I have no problem with dualism. For me the take-away point to be skilful about dualism includes having the embodied wisdom which recognizes that at the ultimate level there’s only one allness that encompasses all seeming dualities in all the realms.
Can you explain how positive experiences actually rewire the brain?
In Buddhism there are the five jhana factors, the non-ordinary states of absorption and concentration that constitute the right concentration element of the noble eightfold path. It’s interesting that two of the five jhana factors involve intense positive emotion. One is called rapture or bliss. The other is joy, which runs on a spectrum from happiness to contentment to tranquillity.
Those positive states of mind came out of a tradition that was utterly prepared to be enormously uncomfortable. So this was not a recommendation from someone who was hedonistic or attached to feeling good. These were seen as skillful means. Why are they skillful? When we’re experiencing positive experiences we have high levels of the neurotransmitter dopamine, which tracks experiences that are rewarding. Dopamine helps us concentrate because when we have sustained levels of dopamine we rest our attention on some particular object because it’s rewarding to us and very high levels of dopamine correlate with high levels of positive experiences like being absorbed in rapture or joy. When that happens dopamine is at the top of its range so it will not spike and that enables us to really steady the mind.
So that’s an example of how a positive experience, in terms of a mindfulness application, can really help us steady the mind temporarily. In terms of lasting structures of the brain, over time positive experiences make the amygdala, which is the alarm bell of the brain, less reactive to negative experiences; increase resting state levels of serotonin, which is the neurotransmitter that’s very important for regulating mood; and also increase levels of the brain’s natural opulates, the so-called pleasure molecules that associate with a positive mood; and motivate us to sustain practice whether that practice is keeping our temper with our spouse or staying motivated to do an hour of yoga every day or to continually return to a felt sense of the unconditioned, the stillness that’s underneath everything that’s always moving and changing.
How do we motivate ourselves to sustain that practice? We can do so by appreciating rewarding wholesome experiences associated with the practices we want to encourage. And that becomes a means to the end because as we do these practices those practices also change the brain in lasting ways.
With rewards come desire and attachment. Are there any potential negative outcomes to focusing on positive experiences?
I personally think that the Buddha and all the great teachers thought above all else, be in down-to-earth reality. Recognize red lights: the consequences of being 50 pounds overweight and not exercising, that we are heating up the planet; that if you routinely mistreat your partner they will not want to stay in a relationship with you.
I also think it’s important to recognize that some important life learning comes through unpleasant experiences. Remorse helps keep us on the high road morally. Experiences of being upset, even traumatized, which we then get through can build up inner strength.
It’s also true that if we are aversive to the unpleasant, hedonic tones, or in Buddhist psychology, the feeling tones, the vedanas of life, that just creates suffering and harm for ourself and others.
Additionally, it is a fact that the brain is very efficient at learning from negative experiences and that it has a bias in which it continually scans for bad news. That’s the bias of the brain. There are some individual exceptions to that but that’s the generalization that we’ve inherited from evolution. That’s the nature of the caveman brain. It looks for bad news, it locks onto the bad news and ignores the larger context. It overreacts to the bad news, it fast tracks that bad news reaction into immediate emotional memory storage and it sets up that record in storage for immediate access and retrieval based on anything that’s remotely similar. That’s the brain we’ve got, which is very effective for survival, but lousy for every day quality of life, spiritual practice and world peace because we’ve got a bunch of cavemen and cavewomen running around this world who are extremely reactive to each other, stuck in a lifeboat with seven billion other people jammed together and armed with nuclear weapons.
As individuals it behooves us to see the bad news in the world very clearly, but also to compensate for the bias of the brain towards the negative and to make up for the weakness of the brain at learning from positive experiences.
So for me both things are true. To see the bad news in the world and deal with it in a moral and virtuous way. To not resist negative experiences, because that’s just more negative. That’s just a violation of true equanimity and to absorb the learnings that are available to us through negative experiences. Yes, do all that, but also help yourself see the whole picture with a brain that’s biased towards ignoring most of what’s positive and locking on to what’s negative. And when you do see the positive facts out there help your brain register them so that you gradually cultivate wholesome factors of mind and heart.
I think there are fundamentally two wings to healing, personal growth, the upper reaches of human potential and spiritual practice. One wing is mindfulness and acceptance where we be with what’s there. And we hold it in a vast space of awareness in non-reactivity. The other is to work with what’s there—in Buddhism, the right effort element of the noble eightfold path, which essentially is a matter of pulling the weeds and planting flowers in the garden of the mind. The bird needs both wings to fly.
I know many people who err on one wing or another. I myself erred for a long time on the working with wing. I grew up in the human potential movement. I’m a practicing therapist. I’m really good at the working with, taking action wing. I had to really learn through my own background in contemplative practice now over 35 years about the importance of the being with what’s there wing, the mindfulness wing.
On the other hand, I know a lot of people who have over-strengthened the being with wing. They’re really good at being with what’s there, mindful awareness, the non-dual perspective that accepts everything as it is, and they’re not very good at actively engaging a process of dealing directly with the negative and unwholesome tendencies that we all have and also cultivating the positive ones.
My own opinion is that in both western psychology and in western Buddhist practice in the last several decades there’s been far too much emphasis on the being with wing of practice and an underemphasis on the working with wing. And in fact a problematic dismissal that the working with wing is egoic or dualistic. I think there are pitfalls with any powerful tool whether it’s mindfulness or right effort. But that doesn’t mean we should not use the tool. You can kill somebody with a hammer, but that does not mean we should not get a hammer if we need to pound some nails. It just means avoid the pitfalls. So I say yes, avoid the pitfalls of right mindfulness alone, but also avoid the pitfalls of right effort alone and instead use both wings to fly.
A section of Buddha Brain is devoted to explaining the workings of the brain. Do you recommend mindfulness practitioners understand the mind scientifically?
I think there are both benefits and pitfalls in bringing brain science into psychotherapy and spiritual practice. The benefits are first that it really is motivating to appreciate that what you are doing is changing the brain from the inside out. That it is physical. The second is that it really helps create a unified organizing structure for the 10,000 psycho-spiritual tools that are out there. At the end of the day, insofar as psycho-spiritual practice is changing the brain, distinct from that it might hypothetically be engaging levels beyond this material universe, we only have one brain. The human brain. By understanding it it puts these various psychological or spiritual tools on common footing so we can evaluate them in terms of their impact on the brain for better or worse. The third benefit is that knowing something about the brain can enhance traditional methods of practice. It can really deepen insight to appreciate the ways in which coalitions of synapses form in a second and then cohere together for another few seconds as a kind of eddy in the stream of consciousness and then always disperse. Understanding that can really help deepen a sense of insight into impermanence, interdependence and emptiness.
Knowing something about the brain can improve traditional methods in other ways, such as enhancing concentration or helping people who have different temperaments, some of whom are more spirited, who I think of as jackrabbits, distinct from turtles. I think most contemplative practices have been created by turtles for turtles in turtle pants to make a better turtle. But the problem is there aren’t just turtles out there, there are a lot of jackrabbits out there. Plus, we have a very jackrabbit, ADDish kind of culture and we need to adapt methods for people that understand their underlying neurology.
I also think that traditional methods can be enhanced with neuroscience by appreciating the power of certain things that are going to have a big impact such as interpersonal practices which engage the bulk of the cortex that is devoted to relational life, to love, to a positive mind.
Another benefit is suggesting new methods. I’m very interested in how methods like neurofeedback or other kinds of brain devices, will be seen as augments to practice. Not to replace traditional methods. The Buddha did not need an MRI to become awakened. Neuroscience can offer some enhancements to existing methods and will be suggesting some additional methods as well.
Those are the benefits. The pitfalls though are, one, being reductionistic and reducing the great mystery somehow bound to the brain. Neuroscience is a baby science and there is so much that we don’t know. There is certainly no proof that the mysteries of human consciousness, particularly consciousness of subtle, esoteric or profound spiritual experiences can be reduced to the movements of the meat inside the 3 pounds of tofu like tissue in the skull.
The second pitfall has to do with claiming authority. It’s important to be very careful because science is the secular religion of the West and brain science is the crown jewel in a lot of ways, certainly in the biological sciences. As soon as you start talking about the brain or rattling off some brain lingo it gives you a lot of authority. And I think it’s important to be careful about that, particularly for writers and teachers. And I count myself among them.
The third pitfall is oversimplifying. The brain is a very complex system and to oversimplify some aspect to one particular part of it, like, “My amygdala made me do it,” is problematic.
The last pitfall is underestimating the power of the mind. At the end of the day the amount of change you can have on the brain is fairly small. I’m all for exploiting that range, skillfully and virtuously for one’s own welfare and that of others, but a healthy brain can hold an effectively infinite range of thoughts. And so at the end of the day the insights that we have, the intentions that we hold, the perceptions moment-to-moment in our own stream of experiencing have vastly more plasticity than the underlying hardware does and so I think that it’s important for people like myself as a therapist or people who are spiritual teachers to hold fast to and have faith in the majesty and profundity of what we and our own teachers already know without knowing a darned thing about the brain.
Dr. Hanson recently spoke at the UCSD Center for Mindfulness Bridging Hearts & Minds of Youth conference. Watch videos and listen to audio clips from the event. You can also visit Dr. Hanson’s website at www.rickhanson.net.