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Neuroscience Has a Lot To Learn from Buddhism

A scientist and a monk compare notes on meditation, therapy, and their effects on the brain.

The Atlantic

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Can training the mind make us more attentive, altruistic, and serene? Can we learn to manage our disturbing emotions in an optimal way? What are the transformations that occur in the brain when we practice meditation? In a book titled Beyond the Self, two friends—Matthieu Ricard, who left a career as a molecular biologist to become a Buddhist monk in Nepal, and Wolf Singer, a distinguished neuroscientist—engage in an unusually well-matched conversation about meditation and the brain. Below is a condensed and edited excerpt.

Matthieu Ricard: Although one finds in the Buddhist literature many treatises on “traditional sciences”—medicine, cosmology, botanic, logic, and so on—Tibetan Buddhism has not endeavored to the same extent as Western civilizations to expand its knowledge of the world through the natural sciences. Rather it has pursued an exhaustive investigation of the mind for 2,500 years and has accumulated, in an empirical way, a wealth of experiential findings over the centuries. A great number of people have dedicated their whole lives to this contemplative science.

Modern Western psychology began with William James just over a century ago. I can’t help remembering the remark made by Stephen Kosslyn, then chair of the psychology department at Harvard, at the Mind and Life meeting on “Investigating the Mind,” which took place at MIT in 2003. He started his presentation by saying, “I want to begin with a declaration of humility in the face of the sheer amount of data that the contemplatives are bringing to modern psychology.”

It does not suffice to ponder how the human psyche works and elaborate complex theories about it, as, for instance, Freud did. Such intellectual constructs cannot replace two millennia of direct investigation of the workings of mind through penetrating introspection conducted with trained minds that have become both stable and clear.

Wolf Singer: Can you be more specific with this rather bold claim? Why should what nature gave us be fundamentally negative, requiring special mental practice for its elimination, and why should this approach be superior to conventional education or, if conflicts arise, to psychotherapy in its various forms, including psychoanalysis?

Ricard: What nature gave us is by no means entirely negative; it is just a baseline. Few people would honestly argue that there is nothing worth improving about the way they live and the way they experience the world. Some people regard their own particular weaknesses and conflicting emotions as a valuable and distinct part of their “personality,” as something that contributes to the fullness of their lives. They believe that this is what makes them unique and argue that they should accept themselves as they are. But isn’t this an easy way to giving up on the idea of improving the quality of their lives, which would cost only some reasoning and effort?

Modern conventional education does not focus on transforming the mind and cultivating basic human qualities such as lovingkindness and mindfulness. As we will see later, Buddhist contemplative science has many things in common with cognitive therapies, in particular with those using mindfulness as a foundation for remedying mental imbalance. As for psychoanalysis, it seems to encourage rumination and explore endlessly the details and intricacies of the clouds of mental confusion and self-centeredness that mask the most fundamental aspect of mind: luminous awareness.

Singer: So rumination would be the opposite of what you do during meditation?

Ricard: Totally opposite. It is also well known that constant rumination is one of the main symptoms of depression. What we need is to gain freedom from the mental chain reactions that rumination endlessly perpetuates. One should learn to let thoughts arise and be freed to go as soon as they arise, instead of letting them invade one’s mind. In the freshness of the present moment, the past is gone, the future is not yet born, and if one remains in pure mindfulness and freedom, potentially disturbing thoughts arise and go without leaving a trace.

Singer: What you have to learn then is to adopt a much more subtle approach to your internal emotional theater, to learn to identify with much higher resolution the various connotations of your feelings.

Ricard: That’s right. In the beginning, it is difficult to do it as soon as an emotion arises, but if you become increasingly familiar with such an approach, it becomes quite natural. Whenever anger is just showing its face, we recognize it right away and deal with it before it becomes too strong.

Singer: It is not unlike a scientific endeavor except that the analytical effort is directed toward the inner rather than the outer world. Science also attempts to understand reality by increasing the resolving power of instruments, training the mind to grasp complex relations, and decomposing systems into ever-smaller components.

Ricard: It is said in the Buddhist teachings that there is no task so difficult that it cannot be broken down into a series of small, easy tasks.

Singer: Your object of inquiry appears to be the mental apparatus and your analytical tool, introspection. This is an interesting self-referential approach that differs from the Western science of mind because it emphasizes the first-person perspective and collapses, in a sense, the instrument of investigation with its object. The Western approach, while using the first-person perspective for the definition of mental phenomena, clearly favors the third-person perspective for its investigation.

I am curious to find out whether the results of analytical introspection match those obtained by cognitive neuroscience. Both approaches obviously try to develop a differentiated and realistic view of cognitive processes.

What guarantees that the introspective technique for the dissection of mental phenomena is reliable? If it is the consensus among those who consider themselves experts, how can you compare and validate subjective mental states? There is nothing another person can look at and judge as valid; the observers can only rely on the verbal testimony of subjective states.

Ricard: It is the same with scientific knowledge. You first have to rely on the credible testimony of a number of scientists, but later you can train in the subject and verify the findings firsthand. This is quite similar to contemplative science. You first need to refine the telescope of your mind and the methods of investigations for years to find out for yourself what other contemplatives have found and all agreed on. The state of pure consciousness without content, which might seem puzzling at first sight, is something that all contemplatives have experienced. So it is not just some sort of Buddhist dogmatic theory. Anyone who takes the trouble to stabilize and clarify his or her mind will be able to experience it.

Regarding cross-checking interpersonal experience, both contemplatives and the texts dealing with the various experiences a meditator might encounter are quite precise in their descriptions. When a student reports on his inner states of mind to an experienced meditation master, the descriptions are not just vague and poetic. The master will ask precise questions and the student replies, and it is quite clear that they are speaking about something that is well defined and mutually understood.

However, in the end, what really matters is the way the person gradually changes. If, over months and years, someone becomes less impatient, less prone to anger, and less torn apart by hopes and fears, then the method he or she has been using is a valid one.

An ongoing study seems to indicate that while they are engaged in meditation, practitioners can clearly distinguish, like everyone who is not distracted, between pleasant and aversive stimuli, but they react much less emotionally than control subjects. While retaining the capacity of being fully aware of something, they succeed in not being carried away by their emotional responses.

Singer: How do you do this? What are the tools?

Ricard: This process requires perseverance. You need to train again and again. You can’t learn to play tennis by holding a racket for a few minutes every few months. With meditation, the effort is aimed at developing not a physical skill but an inner enrichment.

In extreme cases, you could be in a simple hermitage in which nothing changes or sitting alone always facing the same scene day after day. So the outer enrichment is almost nil, but the inner enrichment is maximal. You are training your mind all day long with little outer stimulation. Furthermore, such enrichment is not passive, but voluntary, and methodically directed. When you engage for eight or more hours a day in cultivating certain mental states that you have decided to cultivate and that you have learned to cultivate, you reprogram the brain.

Singer: In a sense, you make your brain the object of a sophisticated cognitive process that is turned inward rather than outward toward the world around you. You apply the cognitive abilities of the brain to studying its own organization and functioning, and you do so in an intentional and focused way, similar to when you attend to events in the outer world and when you organize sensory signals into coherent percepts. You assign value to certain states and you try to increase their prevalence, which probably goes along with a change in synaptic connectivity in much the same way as it occurs with learning processes resulting from interactions with the outer world.

Let us perhaps briefly recapitulate how the human brain adapts to the environment because this developmental process can also be seen as a modification or reprogramming of brain functions. Brain development is characterized by a massive proliferation of connections and is paralleled by a shaping process through which the connections being formed are either stabilized or deleted according to functional criteria, using experience and interaction with the environment as the validation criterion. This developmental reorganization continues until the age of about 20. The early stages serve the adjustment of sensory and motor functions, and the later phases primarily involve brain systems responsible for social abilities. Once these developmental processes come to an end, the connectivity of the brain becomes fixed, and large-scale modifications are no longer possible.

Ricard: To some extent.

Singer: To some extent, yes. The existing synaptic connections remain modifiable, but you can’t grow new long-range connections. In a few distinct regions of the brain, such as the hippocampus and olfactory bulb, new neurons are generated throughout life and inserted into the existing circuits, but this process is not large-scale, at least not in the neocortex, where higher cognitive functions are supposed to be realized.

Ricard: A study of people who have practiced meditation for a long time demonstrates that structural connectivity among the different areas of the brain is higher in meditators than in a control group. Hence, there must be another kind of change allowed by the brain.

Singer: I have no difficulty in accepting that a learning process can change behavioral dispositions, even in adults. There is ample evidence of this from reeducation programs, where practice leads to small but incremental behavior modifications. There is also evidence for quite dramatic and sudden changes in cognition, emotional states, and coping strategies. In this case, the same mechanisms that support learning—distributed changes in the efficiency of synaptic connections—lead to drastic alterations of global brain states.

Ricard: You could also change the flow of neuron activity, as when the traffic on a road increases significantly.

Singer: Yes. What changes with learning and training in the adult is the flow of activity. The fixed hardware of anatomical connections is rather stable after age 20, but it is still possible to route activity flexibly from A to B or from A to C by adding certain signatures to the activity that ensure that a given activation pattern is not broadcast in a diffuse way to all connected brain regions but sent only to selected target areas.

Ricard: So far, the results of the studies conducted with trained meditators indicate that they have the faculty to generate clean, powerful, well-defined states of mind, and this faculty is associated with some specific brain patterns. Mental training enables one to generate those states at will and to modulate their intensity, even when confronted with disturbing circumstances, such as strong positive or negative emotional stimuli. Thus, one acquires the faculty to maintain an overall emotional balance that favors inner strength and peace.

Singer: So you have to use your cognitive abilities to identify more clearly and delineate more sharply the various emotional states, and to train your control systems, probably located in the frontal lobe, to increase or decrease selectively the activity of subsystems responsible for the generation of the various emotions.

An analogy for this process of refinement could be the improved differentiation of objects of perception, which is known to depend on learning. With just a little experience, you are able to recognize an animal as a dog. With more experience, you can sharpen your eye and become able to distinguish with greater and greater precision dogs that look similar. Likewise, mental training might allow you to sharpen your inner eye for the distinction of emotional states.

In the naïve state, you are able to distinguish good and bad feelings only in a global way. With practice, these distinctions would become increasingly refined until you could distinguish more and more nuances. The taxonomy of mental states should thus become more differentiated. If this is the case, then cultures exploiting mental training as a source of knowledge should have a richer vocabulary for mental states than cultures that are more interested in investigating phenomena of the outer world.

Ricard: Buddhist taxonomy describes 58 main mental events and various subdivisions thereof. It is quite true that by conducting an in-depth investigation of mental events, one becomes able to distinguish increasingly more subtle nuances.

Take anger, for instance. Often anger can have a malevolent component, but it can also be rightful indignation in the face of injustice. Anger can be a reaction that allows us to rapidly overcome an obstacle preventing us from achieving something worthwhile or remove an obstacle threatening us. However, it could also reflect a tendency to be short-tempered. If you look carefully at anger, you will see that it contains aspects of clarity, focus, and effectiveness that are not harmful in and of themselves. So if you are able to recognize those aspects that are not yet negative and let your mind remain in them, without drifting into the destructive aspects, then you will not be troubled and confused by these emotions.

Another result of cultivating mental skills is that, after a while, you will no longer need to apply contrived efforts. You can deal with the arising of mental perturbations like the eagles I see from the window of my hermitage in the Himalayas. The crows often attack them, even though they are much smaller. They dive at the eagles from above trying to hit them with their beaks. However, instead of getting alarmed and moving around to avoid the crow, the eagle simply retracts one wing at the last moment, letting the diving crow pass by, and extends its wing back out. The whole thing requires minimal effort and is perfectly efficient. Being experienced in dealing with the sudden arising of emotions in the mind works in a similar way. When you are able to preserve a clear state of awareness, you see thoughts arise; you let them pass through your mind, without trying to block or encourage them; and they vanish without creating many waves.

Singer: That reminds me of what we do when we encounter severe difficulties that require fast solutions, such as a complicated traffic situation. We immediately call on a large repertoire of escape strategies that we have learned and practiced, and then we choose among them without much reasoning, relying mainly on subconscious heuristics. Apparently, if we are not experienced with contemplative practice, we haven’t gone through the driving school for the management of emotional conflicts. Would you say this is a valid analogy?

Ricard: Yes, complex situations become greatly simplified through training and the cultivation of effortless awareness. When you learn to ride a horse, as a beginner you are constantly preoccupied, trying not to fall at every movement the horse makes. Especially when the horse starts galloping, it puts you on high alert. But when you become an expert rider, everything becomes easier. Riders in eastern Tibet, for instance, can do all kinds of acrobatics, such as shooting arrows at a target or catching something on the ground while galloping at full speed, and they do all that with ease and a big smile on their face.

One study with meditators showed that they can maintain their attention at an optimal level for extended periods of time. When performing what is called a continuous performance task, even after 45 minutes, they did not become tense and were not distracted even for a moment. When I did this task myself, I noticed that the first few minutes were challenging and required some effort, but once I entered a state of “attentional flow,” it became easier.

Singer: This resembles a general strategy that the brain applies when acquiring new skills. In the naïve state, one uses conscious control to perform a task. The task is broken down into a series of subtasks that are sequentially executed. This requires attention, takes time, and is effortful. Later, after practice, the performance becomes automatized. Usually, the execution of the skilled behavior is then accomplished by different brain structures than those involved in the initial learning and execution of the task. Once this shift has occurred, performance becomes automatic, fast, and effortless and no longer requires cognitive control. This type of learning is called procedural learning and requires practice. Such automatized skills often save you in difficult situations because you can access them quickly. They can also often cope with more variables simultaneously due to parallel processing. Conscious processing is more serialized and therefore takes more time.

Do you think you can apply the same learning strategy to your emotions by learning to pay attention to them, differentiate them, and thereby familiarize yourself with their dynamics so as to later become able to rely on automatized routines for their management in case of conflict?

Ricard: You seem to be describing the meditation process. In the teachings, it says that when one begins to meditate, on compassion, for instance, one experiences a contrived, artificial form of compassion. However, by generating compassion over and over again, it becomes second nature and spontaneously arises, even in the midst of a complex and challenging situation.

Singer: It would be really interesting to look with neurobiological tools at whether you have the same shift of function that you observe in other cases where familiarization through learning and training leads to the automation of processes. In brain scans, one observes that different brain structures take over when skills that are initially acquired under the control of consciousness become automatic.

Ricard: That is what a study conducted by Julie Brefczynski and Antoine Lutz at Richard Davidson’s lab seems to indicate. Brefczynski and Lutz studied the brain activity of novice, relatively experienced, and very experienced meditators when they engage in focused attention. Different patterns of activity were observed depending on the practitioners’ level of experience.

Relatively experienced meditators (with an average of 19,000 hours of practice) showed more activity in attention-related brain regions compared with novices. Paradoxically, the most experienced meditators (with an average of 44,000 hours of practice) demonstrated less activation than the ones without as much experience. These highly advanced meditators appear to acquire a level of skill that enables them to achieve a focused state of mind with less effort. These effects resemble the skill of expert musicians and athletes capable of immersing themselves in the “flow” of their performances with a minimal sense of effortful control. This observation accords with other studies demonstrating that when someone has mastered a task, the cerebral structures put into play during the execution of this task are generally less active than they were when the brain was still in the learning phase.

Singer: This suggests that the neuronal codes become sparser, perhaps involving fewer but more specialized neurons, once skills become highly familiar and are executed with great expertise. To become a real expert seems to require then at least as much training as is required to become a world-class violin or piano player. With four hours of practice a day, it would take you 30 years of daily meditation to attain 44,000 hours. Remarkable!

Matthieu Ricard is a Buddhist monk, an author, and the French interpreter for the Dalai Lama. Wolf Singer is the emeritus director of the Max Planck Institute for Brain Research in Frankfurt.

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This post originally appeared on The Atlantic and was published December 17, 2017. This article is republished here with permission.

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