Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love and Wisdom
By Rick Hanson with Richard Mendius
Publisher: Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications, 2009.
In Buddha’s Brain, Rick Hanson and Richard Mendius offer practical advice on developing positive states of mind. Hanson is a clinical psychologist and a meditation teacher, and Mendius is a neurologist teaching at the University of California Los Angeles and Stanford University. Both are long-time practitioners of Buddhist meditation. Drawing on insights both from Buddhist teachings and from psychology and neuroscience, they offer a lucid discussion of the causes of human suffering and methods for developing happiness, loving kindness, and wisdom. Neuroscientist Daniel Siegel, in his foreword to the book, calls Buddha’s Brain a “guide to intentionally creating these positive changes in ourselves.”
The authors posit that the ancient teachings of Buddhism, including certain meditation practices designed to overcome the mind’s tendencies to lead human beings toward states of suffering, find a parallel in the discoveries of neuroscience on how the brain affects and is affected by mental activity. The authors have tried to make their book accessible to readers not well-versed in psychology, neuroscience, or meditation. They explain the Buddhist teachings simply, and present the findings of neuroscience succinctly and clearly with many charts and illustrations.
Along with Buddhist teachings and modern scientific theories, the authors also suggest some mental exercises. These include practices as simple as taking the time to notice the benefits one is enjoying instead of rehashing one’s complaints. They also include “guided meditations”, short texts of evocative and poetic imagery meant to be read and pondered at depth. As the foreword puts it, such exercises are “well-established steps”, which have been shown to “make us more focused, resilient, and resourceful” as well as to “enhance our empathy for others, widening our circles of compassion”.
The authors briefly describe some of the latest findings of brain science, giving references to other sources for those wishing to study them at greater depth. However, as Hanson says, their book is not a textbook, and their descriptions of brain functions are intentionally simplified and far from comprehensive. They focus instead on showing how certain mental exercises, such as deliberately practising mindfulness – staying present to what is happening now rather than getting lost in memories of the past and fears or hopes about the future – “have a plausible scientific explanation for how they light up your neural networks of contentment, kindness, and peace.” Hanson notes that psychology and neuroscience are both relatively recent fields, and there is much that we do not know. “But what is increasingly known is how to stimulate and strengthen the neural foundations of joyful, caring, and deeply insightful states of mind.” Based on his work as a psychologist and meditation teacher, he says, “if there is one thing I know for sure, it’s that you can do small things inside your mind that will lead to big changes in your brain and your experience of living.”
The book is divided into four sections. The first is on “The Causes of Suffering”. Here the authors note that in this world pain is inevitable but suffering is optional. Suffering arises from our reaction to and attitude toward events. In fact, we cause our own suffering through habitual mental patterns, which we have the power to change. As Tibetan Lama Yongey Mingur Rinpoche writes, “Ultimately, happiness comes down to choosing between the discomfort of becoming aware of your mental afflictions and the discomfort of being ruled by them.”
The second section, “Happiness”, deals with developing gratitude, cooling the fires of anger and greed, and awakening joy. Happiness begins with what Hanson calls “taking in the good”. Humans have a tendency to ignore the many blessings and comforts they have and to focus instead on the negative. Neuroscience confirms this pattern, observing the mind’s bias for capturing and preserving negative impressions, rather than positive ones. Hanson explains that through the process of evolution and due to the survival instinct, the brain has a highly developed capacity to detect negative information from the environment. In order to protect ourselves from the tiger in the forest, for example, we had to actively look for the tiger. Our ancestors who “lived to pass on their genes paid a lot of attention to negative experiences”. Consequently, we have an innate tendency to focus on the negative rather than the positive, the stick rather than the carrot.
The brain typically detects negative information faster than positive information. Take facial expressions, a primary signal of threat or opportunity for a social animal like us: fearful faces are perceived much more rapidly than happy or neutral ones, probably fast-tracked by the amygdala. In fact, even when researchers make fearful faces invisible to conscious awareness, the amygdala still lights up. The brain is drawn to bad news.
When an event is flagged as negative, the hippocampus makes sure it’s stored carefully for future reference. Once burned, twice shy. Your brain is like Velcro for negative experiences and Teflon for positive ones – even though most of your experiences are probably neutral or positive.
The bias of the brain toward negativity can be mitigated, however, with a committed effort to sustain a regular meditation practice and to focus on positive experiences.
Given the negativity bias of the brain, it takes an active effort to internalize positive experiences and heal negative ones. When you tilt toward what’s positive, you’re actually righting a neurological imbalance.… In terms of spiritual practice, taking in the good highlights key states of mind, such as kindness and inner peace, so you can find your way back to them again.
The brain’s hard-wired negative bias is aggravated by the brain’s propensity to manufacture and project something akin to “mini-movies” -brief clips which “are the building blocks of much conscious mental activity”. These clips, constructed from memories and imagination, reflect our beliefs, most of which are not explicitly verbalized. Buddhist teachings have always declared that our perceptions of the world are flawed, affected by our subjective desires and beliefs. Neuroscience has also discovered that what we think we know is actually virtual reality simulated by the brain.
In fact, much of what you see “out there” is actually manufactured “in here” by your brain, painted in like computer-generated graphics in a movie. Only a small fraction of the inputs to your occipital lobe comes directly from the external world; the rest comes from internal memory stores and perceptual processing modules. Your brain simulates the world – each of us lives in a virtual reality.
The third section, “Love”, discusses engendering compassion, ultimately leading to “boundless kindness” for all. The fourth section, “Wisdom”, focuses on mindfulness – defined as the ability to direct and manage one’s attention – and on reaching a state of “blissful concentration”.
Being mindful simply means having good control over your attention: you can place your attention wherever you want it and it stays there; when you want to shift it to something else you can. When your attention is steady, so is your mind: not rattled or hijacked by whatever pops into awareness, but stably present, grounded, unshakeable.
Neuroscience has discovered that the brain has the capacity to learn and to change, and that mental activity reshapes the brain. “Neurons that fire together wire together.” In other words, whatever experience we focus our attention on actually alters the brain’s physical structure.
Attention is like a spotlight, and what it illuminates streams into your mind and shapes your brain. Consequently, developing greater control over your attention is perhaps the single most powerful way to reshape your brain and thus your mind.
Book reviews express the opinions of the reviewers and not of the publisher.