Ego is the connecting link between consciousness "the soul" and the identity of consciousness as the living (human) manifestation. How it is programmed is how it filters information between the two points. What it is capable of is limited only by what is believed as "real" and "illusion".
From the book "Evolving Dharma" by Jay Michaelson
The Science of Brainhacking
Brainhacking works. By following a few simple instructions, you can, over time, change the nature of your brain to make it more resilient, more resistant to aging, and more capable of happiness, compassion, and clarity. The data is in, and it matters.
It matters, in fact, in two distinct ways. First, as this hard data filters through the U.S. healthcare industry, the educational System, the military, and the corporate world, to name just a few examples, it will become clear that mindfulness is among the most cost-effective methods ever for reducing hospital stays, advancing educational opportunity, and improving the functioning of organizations. This will be a game-changer. Second, the science changes how the dharma is even to be understood. This hard data is the opposite of soft spatiality. Meditation and mindfulness are tools, not a set of spiritual exercises whose merit depends on faith or some unknown forces. This is why I've used the word "technology" in describing the work of meditation, why Kenneth Folk calls it a form of "contemplative Fitness," and why I like the term "brainhacking". We're not referring here to actual, physical technologies like electrodes or vibrating plants or special sounds that put you into an altered state (although all of these exist). Rather, when I say "technology” I'm thinking how meditation and mindfulness are tools—processes that lead predictable results.
When people go to the gym, for example, they know pretty much what's going to happen, and how it's going to happen. Lifting weights causes muscles to stretch and even tear a little, causing lactic acid to build up, causing the muscles to rebuild themselves bigger and with more capacity than they had before. It's a physical process, and while trainers will debate the best methods until end of time, the basic operation is clearly understood. Meditation is similar. If you do the work, predictable changes in the mind (experience) and the brain (neuroscience) tend to result, in a fairly reliable way. This, in a sense, is the very opposite of spirituality—and it’s certainly not religion either. It's more like working out: Each time I come back to the breath, I'm strengthening very specific neural networks. This perspective has already informed how millions of people around the world are enhancing their mental and emotional capacities. And the revolution has only just begun.
The Monk in the Machine
"Contemplative neuroscience”. The term, and the field, didn’t exist twenty years ago, but now it is changing how we understand the brain and how to optimize its function. In 1980, not a single article was published in a scientific journal on the effects of meditation and mindfulness. In 1990, there were five. In 2000, twenty-one. But in 2010, there were 353; in 2011, 397; and in 2012, there were 526.2 Scientists have measured mindfulness's capacity to reduce stress, improve immune response, and so on; they have detected activation in different parts of the brain during meditation; and they’ve conducted long-term studies of experienced meditators, beginning meditators, and even children practicing mindfulness in hospital settings.3
In the last ten years, there's been a small raft of books explaining how meditation changes the brain and specifically increases its capacities for calm, compassion, generosity, and other virtues. Richard Davidson's The Emotional Life of Your Brain, Norman Dodge’s popular The Brain That Changes Itself , Rick Hanson's books including Buddha’s Brain and Meditations to Change Your Brain, Allan Wallace's Buddhism and Science: Breaking New Ground, Jeffrey Schwartz and Sharon Begley's The Mind and the Brain: Neuroplasti4 the Power of Mental Force, Daniel Siegel's The Mindful Brain, John Arden's Rewire Your Brain, and a dozen other such volumes describe, often in usefully meticulous detail, the ways in which neuroscientists have been able to measure the increases in brain activity n capacity in areas correlated with positive mental capabilities. Fortunately for both of us, we will not be reviewing all of these findings here. But I do want to focus on two general types: clinical/ behavioral and neurological. The first data set tells us what meditation does clinically, as measured by changes in behavior and mental health, the second set tells us how this happens in the brain.
One way in which studies have obtained the first type of data is to measure the effects of MBSR, the meditation and relaxation regimen that we discussed in the last chapter. Its effects have been measured by hundreds of research papers, more than forty projects at the national Institutes of Health,4 and by mainstream scientists at mainstream universities, including UCLA's Mindful Awareness Research Center, the University of Wisconsin's Center for the Investigation of Healthy Minds, and labs at Yale, Brown, Duke, and elsewhere. In one long-term study, for example, Jon Kabat-Zinn showed that 25 chronic pain patients who were taught MBSR reported improvements in symptoms and mood, as well as fewer hospital visits.5 (Interesting, the study showed no diminishment of pain intensity; in other words, the patients were experiencing the same degree of pain but coping with it better.) MBSR has been shown to reduce stress and anxiety by a number of measures: heart rate, cortisol levels, a shift in the left frontal activity of the brain, and course people reporting that they're not as stressed out as they used to be.6 More broadly, here are some of the things mindfulness is been shown to do:
• Cut the relapse rate in half for patients suffering from depression7
• Reduce loneliness among elderly people8
• Quadruple the speed of healing from psoriasis9
• Improve overall immune function10
• Lower the rate of relapse among recovering addicts11
• Improve attention, planning, and organizational skills among grade-school students12
• Lower stress among breast cancer survivors13
• Reduce the side effects of organ-transplant surgery14
• Reduce ADHD symptoms in children15
• Relieve anxiety and depression in people with social anxiety disorder16
• Help patients manage chronic pain17
• Improve memory in older adults, with attendant neural correlates (increased symmetry in the thalamus) measured by brain scans18
• Counter age-related declines in brain function and fluid intelligence (problem-solving, reasoning, and similar abilities)19
This really is just the tip of the iceberg. The entire remainder this book could be taken up with findings of this nature and the rate of study continues to increase. Perhaps most remarkably, any of these benefits begin accruing after short periods of time. In one study, just two weeks of meditating just a few minutes each day was shown to be more effective than simple relaxation at lowering stress responses.20 Even beginning mindfulness practitioners reported subjective improvements in awareness and nonreactivity21 Such findings have potentially huge societal and financial impact; imagine the value of a corporation improving its aging executives' mental abilities, or the impact of arresting memory loss in older adults. It’s no wonder some of the hype about this new science is so breathless, why Silicon Valley types gather at conferences like Wisdom 2.0 to talk about how to adapt mindfulness to the workplace and market it to consumers everywhere. (More on that in Chapter Seven.) Meditation may be the ultimate disruptive technology.
Until very recently, however, it was not known how these changes in resilience and behavior came about. That has begun to change with the advent of contemplative neuroscience, and, in particular, our (only) fifteen-year-old understanding of neuroplasticity22 . Neuroplasticity is the brain's ability to change itself, to paraphrase Norman Doidge,23 in response to learning, experience, and other stimuli. Scientists used to think that brain development more or less ended at adolescence. Now we know that isn't true, and that, just like building muscles, you can build capacity in various regions of the brain throughout your life. This is true when you meditate, when you learn a new skill, and when you habituate yourself to various stimuli. A favorite example of neuroscientists is the study done on the brains of London taxi drivers, which found that the regions of the brain associated with visual memory (essential for memorizing London's rabbit warren of streets) were significantly more developed among the taxi drivers than among the general public. Neuroplasticity can also have negative consequences: one example Doidge discusses is how the overuse of pornography rewires the brain's pleasure centers, causing it to need ever-more-exotic visual stimuli to generate the responses associated with arousal.24 As the saying goes (possibly coined by Doidge himself), neurons that fire together, wire together—for better or for worse.25
The myriad details of how Neuroplasticity works in different contexts are quite complicated; it’s not as simple as building up one part of the brain when you meditate, since various regions of the brain are involved in most activities.26 They are also exhaustively discussed in some of the volumes I listed above, and as a non-scientist I'm not inclined to reinvent that particular wheel here. Instead, I want to bullet-list out some of the neurological changes that have been found to result from extended meditation, to give a sense of what we are beginning to understand:
• While meditating, meditators show enhanced frontal brain activity, enhanced gamma power in the occipital cortex, and decreased frontal reactivity to distracting and unexpected stimuli.27
• When MBSR students focus on body parts, alpha waves increase in the areas of the brain corresponding to the areas of the body under attention.
• When Richard Davidson measured Tibetan monks doing compassion meditation, he measured gamma activity - "the high-frequency brain waves that underlie higher mental activity such as consciousness"—greater than ever recorded in scientific literature.28
• An fMRI scan on the same meditators showed heightened activity in the insula, also associated with emotion and consciousness.29
• When Davidson tested meditators after a three-month retreat in 2005, he found their "attentional blink"—the brief gap all of us experience when we try to pay attention—to be much less than that of ordinary people.30
• Long-term meditators were shown to require less brain activity to perform cognitive tasks than non-meditators.31
• Mindfulness revealed activation in the anterior cingulated cortex (ACC), a "crucial node in the attentional network”32
• Dr. Eileen Luders, in a series of studies, measured regional volumes in different parts of the brain, gray matter concentration, white matter fiber integrity, callosal thickness, hippocampal distances, and cortical gyrification—and found that meditators exceeded control subjects in every one of these measures.34
• One example in Luders' study: long term meditators' fractional anisotropy (FA) —basically, the degree of connectivity in the brain's white matter fibers—was higher than control groups' in twenty fiber tracks. This is important because FA decreases with age, causing (scientists think) many of the symptoms of senility. Yet Luders found that FA decreased much less for long-term meditators than for other people.35
• Long-term meditation increases cortical thickness in parts of the brain36 and increases gray matter volume.37 These long-term results Davidson analogizes to "measuring the strength of the biceps of a bodybuilder when he's not doing curls'38
As before, these neuroscientific data are but a sliver of a large and growing scientific literature. Let me try to put this into a lay person's terms, focusing on how one region of the brain, the amygdala, interacts with others. (Interestingly, this description of the amygdala has been taught to high-schoolers as part of the MindUP curriculum, funded by Goldie Hawn's charitable foundation.39) The amygdala is the part of the so-called "reptilian" brain, the brainstem, that reacts quickly to threats, that has saved your life dozens of times by instinctively getting you out of a dangerous situation, and by firing off quick "fight or flight" responses. We all depend on our amygdalas, but if we're controlled by them, we're apt to be their marionettes, jumping when they say jump, fearing whenever they perceive a threat. (Indeed, you can see how the amygdale can be manipulated during any political campaign.) Animalistic impulses to anger, desire, fear – this is what the amygdale produces. How does meditation affect the amygdala? Davidson found that after two weeks of training in loving kindness practice, there was less activity in the amygdale when subjects were shown distressing images.41 In other words, they didn't react as strongly. Meanwhile, other parts of the brain moderate the impulses of the amygdala are strengthened by meditation, including the medial prefrontal cortex, adjacent precuneus, and other areas necessary for self-regulation. For example, the prefrontal cortex is associated with body regulation, communication, emotional balance, response flexibility, empathy, insight, self-knowing awareness, and fear modulation—the last of which it accomplishes by releasing an inhibitory neurotransmitter (GABA) that actually counters the impulses of the amygdala.41 In a study of MBSR practitioners, left side prefrontal cortex activation tripled after four months of practice.42
In other words, activity in the reactive mind—the impulsive, want-it-don't-want-it, have-sex-with-it-or-kill-it parts of the brain- decreases with meditation, while activity in the reflective, regulatory, mind increases. (By way of comparison, it's generally understood that when limbic activity in the amygdala and hippocampus dominates prefrontal activity; the result is a psychopathology.) Anecdotally, this model does seem to correlate with the experiences many meditators, including this one, have had. A stimulus is present that normally causes aversion: a difficult family member, a perceived threat. Yet rather than immediately react, meditators sometimes report a "spaciousness" around the negative stimulus. I want to lash out, but ok I don't have to. It seems to me that the physical processes these neuroscientists are describing do correlate to the mental-experiential processes I experience. There's no way to know, as yet, exactly what physical processes accompany or cause these mental events, and certainly no way to know that through introspection. But “feeling fear but not acting on it" is a physical, chemical process, even if it is experienced subjectively as purely mental in nature. As Freud is reported to have said, "all our provisional ideas in psychology will presumably someday be based on organic substructure.”43
Why does all this matter? First, as Richie (as everyone calls Professor Davidson) said to me,
The neuroscientific work provides a foundation that has enabled the incorporation of these practices in a wider swath of our culture. I see the work as creating openings in certain segments of healthcare and education that might not otherwise have been as receptive, by providing mechanisms, in modern scientific language, through which these dharma practices may actually be producing various effects. I think this has been extraordinarily helpful in these domains.
The science legitimizes the expansion of the dharma. It supports an overall view of the dharma not as religion, not as spirituality, but as a technology for upgrading the mind to be more resilient - "brainhacking,” if you like. Appearances notwithstanding, it is helpful to regard the zendo more like a gym than like a church or a synagogue. In addition to its efficacy in talking about the dharma with others, I have found this outlook to be profoundly liberating, and will discuss it in more detail in just a moment.
Now, as with all such findings, there remains a significant gap between the scientific data—couched, as it usually is, in cautious terms—and its inevitable oversimplifications. Davidson again:
There's a lot we don't know. People often think that we know that meditation has certain kinds of health impacts, but I think we know preciously little about that, and even less about how it may have those impacts. We know very little about the most effective ways of teaching these practices in a secular way... . We know almost nothing about what the optimal dosage, if you will, might be, and how that may vary across different kinds of individuals . . . we know a lot less in those domains than we think we know.
Even within the bounds of contemplative neuroscience, several methodological challenges remain: finding adequate control and comparison groups (there aren’t so many people with 10,000 hours of meditation experience out there – my own number is around 3,000.
1. See Richard Davidson, The Emotional Life of Your Brain (New York: Hudson Street Press, 2012), 183-97, describing the (very) rough early days of the field.
2. Black, "Hot Topics," 1-2; Tang, "Advances in Meditation Research."
3. Some of the recent studies include Judson Brewer et al., "Meditation Experience Is Associated with Differences in Default Mode Network Activity and Connectivity," Proceedings of the National Academy of Arts and Sciences 108, no. 50 (2011); Willoughby Britton et al., "Mindfulness Training Improves Polysomnographic and Subjective Sleep Profiles In Antidepressant Medication Users with Sleep Complaints," Psychotherapy and Psychosomatics 81, no 5. (2012); B. Rael Cahn and John Polich, "Meditation States and Traits: EEG, ERP, and Neuroimaging Studies," Psychological Bulletin 132, no. 2, (2006); A. Chiesa, A. Serretti, Jakobsen A.C., "Mindfulness: Top-down or Bottom-up Emotion Regulation Strategy? Clinical Psychology Review 33 no. 1 (2013); Veronique Taylor, et al. “Impact of Meditation Training on the Default Mode Network During a restful state,” Social Cognitive and Effective Neuroscience 8 No 1 (2013); Britta K Holzel, Et al, “How Does Mindfulness Meditation Work? Proposing Mechanisms of Action from a Conceptual and Neural Perspective” Perspectives on Psychological Science 6, no. 6 (2011); Zoran Josipovic et al., "lnfluence of Meditation on Anti-correlated Networks in the Brain,” Frontiers of Human Neuroscience 5, no. 183 (2011); Joseph Loizzo et al., "The Effect of a Contemplative Self-healing Program on Quality of Life in Women with Breast and Gynecological Cancers,” Alternative Therapies 16, no. 3 (2010); Eileen Luders, "Enhanced Brain Connectivity in Long-term Practitioners,” Neurolmage 57, Issue 4 (2011); Andrew B. Newberg et al., "Meditation Effects on Cognitive Function and Cerebral Flow in Subjects with Memory Loss: A Preliminary Study," Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease 20, no. 2 (2010); Aleeze Sattar Moss et al., "Effects of an Eight-Week Meditation Program 011 Mood and Anxiety in Patients with Memory Loss,” Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine 18, no. 1 (2012); Fox K.C.R. Zakarauskas P. Dixon M. L. Ellamil, M., Thompson E., and Christoff, K. (2012), "Meditation Experience Predicts Introspective Accuracy," PLoS ONE, 7(9), e45370.
4. See Boyce, Mindfulness Revolution, xiv.
5. Jon Kabat-Zinn, L. Lipworth, R. Burney, and W. Sehers, 'Four-year Follow-up of a Meditation-based Program for the Self-regulation of Chronic Pain; Treatment, Outcomes, and Compliance," The Clinical Journal of Pain, 3 no. 1(1987).
6. See Susan L. Smalley and Diana Winston, Fully Present, 105; Siegel, "Proven Benefits," in Boyce, Mindfulness Revolution, 138; Richard J. Davidson, The Emotional Life of Your Brain (New York: Hudson Street Press, 2012), 204.
7. Smalley and Winston, Fully Present, 108; Jeffrey M. Schwartz and Sharon Begley, The Mind and the Brain (New York: Regan Books, 2002), 249-50.
8. See Mark Wheeler, "Meditation Reduces Loneliness” UCLA Newsroom (website), August 14, 2012, http://newsroom.ucla.edu/portaI/ucla/meditation-reduces-loneliness-237463.aspx.
9. Siegel, "Proven Benefits' 138; Jon Kabat-Zinn, "Indra's Net at Work: The Mainstreaming of Dharma Practice in Society” in Watson, Batchelor, and Claxton eds., Psychology of Awakening, 225-49, 241-44.
10. Richard J. Davidson "Alterations in Brain and Immune Function Produced by Mindfulness Meditation," Psychosomatic Medicine, Vol. 65 No. 4 (2003).
11. Lawrence Peltz, "Mindfulness and Addiction Recovery' in Boyce, Mindfulness Revolution, 159-165.
12. Smalley and Winston, Fully Present, 219.
13. Davidson, Emotional Life, 201
15. Smaley and Winston, Fully Present, 155.
18. Andrew Newberg, "Meditation and Neurodegenerative Disease" (lecture, Advances in Meditation Research Conference, New York, January 17, 2013). Remarkably, Newberg's study showed changes in brain function after only eight weeks of practice.
19. Tim Gard, "Meditation Effects on Protecting against Age-related Deficits in Cognition and Associated Neuroimaging Measures" (lecture, Advances in Meditation Research Conference, New York, January 17, 2013). Lifestyle factors such as cognitive training, exercise, social engagement, and diet can also modify the rate of decline. Brenda L. Plassman et al., "Systematic Review: Factors Associated With Risk for and Possible Prevention of Cognitive Decline in Later Life," Annals of Internal Medicine 153, no. 3 (2010).
20. Yi-Yuan Tang, et al. "Central and Autonomic Nervous System Interaction Is Altered by Short-Term Meditation," PNAS, Vol. 106 No. 22 (2009).
21. R. A. Baer, et al, "Using Self- Report Assessment Methods to Explore Facets of Mindfulness." (2006) Assessment 13 (1), 27-45. See Siegel, Mindful Brain, 91-95.
22. See Jeff Warren, The Head Trip (New York: Random House, 2007), 300.
23. Norman Doidge, The Brain That Changes Itself (New York: Penguin, 2007).
24. Doidge, Brain That Changes, 109-12. Plasticity also accounts for how brains can become addicted. See www.beinghuman.org/article/interview-eric
25. Doidge, Brain That Changes, 114.
26. See Doidge, Brain That Changes, 113-14.
27. Rael Cahn, "Cultivation of Awareness: Neural Correlates to the Enhanced Clarity and Decreased Automated Reactivity During Vipassana Meditation" (lecture, Advances in Meditation Research Conference, New York, January 17, 2013).
28. Davidson, Emotional Life, 213-14.
29. Davidson, Emotional Life.
30. Davidson, Emotional Life, 208-09.
31. Smalley and Winston, Fully Present, 157.
32. Siegel, Mindful Brain, 111-114, citing Cahn and Polich, "Meditation States and Traits'
33. Davidson, Emotional Life, 216, citing Davidson (2007). Interestingly, the most experienced meditators showed less activity, suggesting the concentration practice was easier for them.
34. Eileen Luders, "Exploring Age-related Brain Degeneration in Long-Term Meditation Practitioners" (lecture, Advances in Meditation Research Conference, New York, January 17, 2013).
35. Eileen Luders et al., "Enhanced Brain Connectivity in Long-term Practitioners” Neurolmage Vol. 57, Issue 4 (2011). The subjects of Luders's used a variety of different practices, primarily Samatha, Vipassana, and zen, and had an average of twenty-three years of meditation experience.
36. Sara Lazar, et al, "Meditation Experience Is Associated with Increased Cortical Thickness' Neuroreport Vol. 16, No. 17 (2005).
37. Giussepe Pagnoni and Milios Cekic, "Age Effects on Gray Matter Volume and Attentional Performance in Zen Meditation' Neurobiology of Aging Vol. 28, Issue 10 (2007).
38. Davidson, Emotional Life, 184.
39. Ryan, Mindful Nation, 75-77.
40. Davidson, Emotional Life, at 222, citing Davidson 2007.
41. See Siegel, Mindful Brain, 337-362.
42. Davidson, Emotional Life, 204.
43. Quoted in Terence Gaussen, "The Development of Personhood and the Brain" in Watson, Batchelor, and Claxton, eds., Psychology of Awakening, 123-34.
44. On the methodological challenges, see Yi-Yuan Tang, Mary K. Rothbart, and Michael I. Posner, "Neural Correlates of Establishing, Maintaining, and Switching Brainstates," Trends in Cognitive Sciences 16, no. 6 (2012), On the limitations of small-scale research studies in general, see John P.A Ioannidis, "Why Most Published Research Findings are False," PLoS Med 2 no. 8 (August 2005): e124. On the limitations of self-reporting, Baer, et al "Using Self-Report Assessment Methods;" Willoughby Britton, "Mindful Binge Drinking and Blobology” Buddhist Geeks, www.buddhistgeeks
45. See Britton, "Mindful Binge Drinking and Blobology"
46. See David R. Vago and David Silversweig, "Self-awareness, Self-regulation and Self-transcendence (S-ART): A Framework for Understanding the Neurobiological Mechanisms of Mindfulness" Frontiers of Human Neuroscience, Vol. 6 No. 296 (2012).
47. Alissa Quart, "Neuroscience Under Attack' New York Times, Nov 23, 2012. www.nytimes.com/2012/11/25/opinion/sunday/neuroscience
-under-attack.html. But see Gaussen, "Development," in Watson, 8 and Claxton, Psychology of Awakening, 124-25, noting that material-neurological and psychological accounts describe different levels of phenomena, and one need not reduce to the other.
48. Bernard Faure, "A Gray Matter: Another Look at Buddhism and Neuroscience” Tricycle, Winter 2012, 73. Unfortunately, Fauer himself overgeneralizes as well, describing mindfulness as "usually regarded as a rudimentary practice,” for example. This may be true of Vajrayana practitioners, but the Buddha described it as “the direct path to realization” – hardly rudimentary. Faure also alleges that the neuroscientific studies are in the service of a dark, pharmaceutical conspiracy. Since I am sure Faure knows as many of the researchers personally as I do, I am not sure how he can possibly make that charge. The ones I have met are sincerely motivated by curiosity and an optimism that the dharma can reduce suffering. If they wanted to make money from drug companies, they could have sold out long ago. Unfortunately, must of Faure’s article is a rant by an Orthodox Buddhist and Buddhist scholar who is unhappy that dharma has evolved beyond its traditional containers and contexts.