Mind and Brain – Exploring the Connection Between Buddhism and Neuroscience

The relationship between the mind and the brain is one of the enduring mysteries of science, equal in importance to the quest for a grand unifying theory between general relativity and quantum mechanics. The teachings of Siddhartha Buddha - arguably the most respected of all the contemplative traditions - have recently been found to contain a startling parallel to the functionality of the brain revealed by modern neuroscience. As the neuropsychologist Dr. Rick Hanson explained in his 2009 work, Buddha's Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love, and Wisdom, the Buddhist mental goals of virtue, mindfulness, and wisdom correspond to the core roles of the physical brain. In this article, we will summarize Dr. Hanson's finding that progress along the Buddhist path will bring those physical systems into greater harmony.

Virtue and Regulation
Virtue means regulating your actions, words, and thoughts to do good instead of harm to others and yourself. And regulation is one of the brain's primary functions. The brain regulates itself and other organs through a combination of excitatory and inhibitory impulses, analogous to the green or red lights needed to control desirable and undesirable behaviors. The mechanisms involved are both top-down (the prefrontal cortex) and bottom-up (communication from the limbic system and the parasympathetic nervous system).

Mindfulness and Learning
Mindfulness, as we have explored in companion articles on this website, means careful attention to the present details of our inner and outer worlds. Since the brain learns from whatever enters the mind's field of attention, mindfulness is the means to guide the brain toward acquiring better habits and forging new neuronal pathways. The analogy that is often used in this context is the power of water over the land: our first turn away from fear and negativity is like the first few drops of rain making small patterns in the soil; continued over the long term, a stronger flow of water can carve a canyon through solid rock. The brain can literally re-wire itself, but it is our responsibility to give it the right "circuit diagram" to follow.

Wisdom and Selection
Wisdom means learning from experience to discern what works in life and what doesn't, and then applying that preference. Even simple organisms, after appropriate learning, can select superior options. An earthworm, for example, can be trained to move in a certain direction to avoid an electric shock.

Whether we see spiritual awakening as an uncovering of a purer self within, or simply a process of replacing unwholesome tendencies with wholesome ones, an understanding of how the brain operates - and can get sidetracked - can be tremendously helpful to our progress. And it stands to reason that the brains of advanced practitioners - those who have traveled the furthest along the Buddha's path to enlightenment - may shed much light on the ideal physical conditions we wish to cultivate in the brain.

One of the features we find in such brains, as revealed by several studies of Tibetan monks, is a distinctive pattern of electrical activity. Specifically, when in a deep meditative state, large areas of the brain exhibit high-frequency Gamma waves cycling in the region of 40Hz, unifying and integrating multiple cerebral functions. Gamma waves are the electrical signature of a highly evolved mind, with a correspondingly well-developed brain.

Thankfully, for those of us who have not spent our entire lives undergoing rigorous mental training in Tibetan monasteries, there is an easier way to attain the Gamma state, and expose your brain to its remarkable, harmonizing power. New audio recordings containing special brainwave entrainment technology - finely engineered sounds below the normal range of human hearing - can encourage the brain to better itself. For an intelligent discussion of how to use this technology, and boost your mental evolution, visit Meditation Audio Reviews.

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