The neuroscience behind Buddhist enlightenment

by John Hopton, Red Orbit, February 22, 2016

San Francisco, CA (USA) -- To many non-believers, Buddhism is the "good" kind of religion, one that doesn't start wars and has powerful things to say on the mindfulness and mental self control we all seek by one method or another.

RedOrbit spoke to Dr. Rick Hanson, psychologist, Senior Fellow of the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley, and New York Times best-selling author, to discuss the science of what was going on inside Buddha's brain, and how we might just be able to attain a little of his enlightenment for ourselves.
Dr. Hanson begins by stressing that the word "enlightenment" has to be defined carefully.

"The word enlightenment has two kinds of meaning," he says. "One is in an entirely secular frame. In the Buddhist tradition, it's very psychological operationalized as a mind, a nervous system, that's no longer capable of any kind of sustained greed, hatred or delusion."

Pleasant things can still be experienced, he expands, but enlightenment means we don't get attached to the experience. At the same time, we are aware of unpleasantness, but it doesn't result in anger or hatred.

Dr. Hanson is keen to point out that talking about the science behind the thinkings of such a prominent religious figure as the Buddha should not necessarily be seen as a wholesale replacement for ideas of mysticism and transcendence. However, he says: "Buddhism in its roots is very practical, very down-to-earth, and maps very well to modern neuropsychology."

He continues: "There are certain psychological states that seem associated with the upper reaches of human potential, if not enlightenment altogether."

Probably the best example of this is equanimity ("a state of psychological stability and composure which is undisturbed by experience of or exposure to emotions, pain, or other phenomena that may cause others to lose the balance of their mind," as defined by Wikipedia).

Being connected - "at one" with things, to use a Buddhist term - is a better definition of enlightenment than is being aloof from and unaffected by everything. People with great equanimity are fully engaged in life; they are compassionate and loving; they can focus attention extremely well (or withdraw when applying it is not healthy), and have a strong sense of being connected to material reality - to humanity and nature, Dr. Hanson explains.

Such qualities, of course, sound very similar to those supposedly held by many of the great religious leaders, but in his book, Buddha's Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love & Wisdom, Dr. Hanson explains how neuropsychology makes it perfectly possible for regular people to have these qualities even at superior levels, rather than them being the reserve only of a blessed few.

What goes on in an enlightened brain?

So how can regular people improve these qualities in themselves? First, a brief overview of the emotional hardware of the brain, and of biological evolution, is needed.

"The brain is built like a house with three floors, from the bottom up," Dr. Hanson explains. "The reptilian brain stem is at the bottom; on top of that, beginning around 250 million years ago, we have the subcortex, which is loosely associated with the mammalian stage of evolution. And finally we have the primate level," which is the most advanced: the cerebral cortex.

"We are walking around with a vast, ancient zoo and museum inside us," he adds. "We diverged from fish some 350-450 million years ago, but some of the brain similarities are still there, making sound, for example."

Within the subcortex are the two amygdalas, and they are concerned with emotional reactions and threat detection. This part of the brain is also highly identifiable with our ancient ancestors, and yet can be trained to be even more highly developed than it has become in most humans.

"Research shows that while very equanimous people are not numb or apathetic - they can be passionate about their football team or angry about injustice - their emotional responses can be controlled," Dr. Hanson says. "This is marked by the amygdala becoming increasingly regulated from the top down, in the cerebral cortex. The alarm bells don't ring as readily or as loudly, and people recover more rapidly."

This is process is aided by oxytocin, informally referred to as the "love hormone".

Techniques for different aspects of enlightenment

So how do we do make our brains do this?

"Repeated internalization of positive emotions" is important, says Hanson. This doesn't have to be in a "giddy, new age kind of way", but in authentic ways such as taking pleasure from simple things like friendships or time with our family (this is where the oxytocin comes in), or learning a new thing; accomplishing something. Sublime emotions like looking at the stars or nature also do the job, especially for science geeks such as myself!"

Labeling experiences assists internalization, and this applies with negative things too. Jotting down one word about how we are feeling ("angry", "worried", "competitive", for example) helps us to take control of our emotions. This helps to regulate activity in the amygdala.

Staying with a nice moment a little longer, indulging in it, also helps. We shouldn't over-analyze; it's just mental noting.

"It's these little things that add up to big things. It's not a magic cure, which is why it's credible," Dr. Hanson says. "For those who engage in some form of psychological practice and mental training, there is more and more evidence of an underlying neural signature for the results of the practice; an underlying change in the nervous system. People really can become more enlightened."

Could Buddha's purported enlightenment, then, be seen in its most basic definition as extreme brain training?

"Working within the natural frame, yeah, that's how I see it," says Dr. Hanson. "It's important to be clear about the purpose. Brain training could also be used to become the world's greatest sniper. I think the Buddhism journey was motivated by a desire to be free from suffering, as well as emphasizing virtue and kindness."

Enlightenment can't be explained by any one factor, he adds, but the neurological signatures of what today might be better referred to as equanimity certainly go a long way towards explaining it.

Where focus of attention is concerned, the neurological signature is a build up of neuro circuits anterior cingulate cortex. This is where meditation comes in, with the build-up being added by techniques famously associated with it. Breathing techniques, or even concentration on one word of your choice being repeated over and over.

If striving for virtue and kindness, Dr. Hanson says he likes to practice a technique called "hit and run compassion", in which a total stranger is chosen on the street, and is secretly and silently wished well for a few seconds.

The final Buddha-like quality we may wish to try and attain is a sense of connection with all things. This is more complex and profound than the other aspects, Dr. Hanson believes, but plenty of regular people do seem to possess such a quality. It's achieved when allocentric perceptual circuits in the brain gives us an impersonal perspective on things, as opposed to the egocentric perspective. One simple way to develop allocentric neural activity is to lift our gaze to the horizon or up to the sky more often - following the path of a bird, for example - which helps us to get a broader perspective on things.

"The word 'Buddha' just means 'one who knows' or 'one who sees clearly', so we're all capable of having a 'Buddha brain'," Dr. Hanson concludes. "Some of us will be more motivated to achieve it than others, just as some people will be more motivated to become great Olympians or football players, but it is achievable. Buddhist psychology maps the best to modern, Western science of any contemplative traditions, because it tends to be at bottom really quite secular. It's not metaphysical - it's direct experience based."

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