The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love & Wisdom
The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love & Wisdom
Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and other great teachers were all born with a brain built essentially like anyone else’s. Then they used their minds to change their brains in ways that changed history.
With the new breakthroughs in neuroscience, combined with insights from thousands of years of contemplative practice, you, too, can shape your own brain for greater happiness, love, and wisdom.
Written with neurologist Richard Mendius, M.D., and with a Foreword by Daniel Siegel, M.D. and a Preface by Jack Kornfield, Ph.D., Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love, and Wisdom joins modern science with ancient teachings to show you how to have greater emotional balance in turbulent times, as well as healthier relationships, more effective actions, and greater peace of mind.
* Buddha’s Brain is now being published in 25 languages, see the Versions and Stores tab for details.
Well-referenced and grounded in science, the book is full of practical tools and skills that you can use in daily life to rewire your brain over time. The brain is the bodily organ that most affects who you are and your experience of living – so learning how to take good care of it, and strengthen and direct it in the ways that will help you the most, is a profound gift to yourself, and to everyone else whose life you touch.
Buddha’s Brain has been praised by leading scholars, psychologists, and meditation teachers – including Sharon Salzberg, Roger Walsh, Joseph Goldstein, Jennifer Louden, Fred Luskin, Tara Brach, Jerome Engel, James Baraz, Phillip Zelazo, Richard Miller, Christina Feldman, Wes Nisker, and many others – and you can read their endorsements.
You’ll learn how your brain creates worry or inner strength, heartache or love, anger or peacefulness, confusion or clarity, and suffering or its end – and how to:
Harvard Vanguard Medical Associates (11/28/11) People often wonder why we seem to remember negative experiences more, noticing how negative thoughts can spiral us down into a deep, dark hole. … Some answers on how to shift to a more positive outlook can be found in Rick Hanson’s book, Buddhaʼs Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love, and Wisdom. Dr. Hanson is a neuropsychologist who has practiced Buddhist Mindful Meditation for many years. Drawing from his personal experience, professional knowledge and research, he shows us how we can shape and change our brain to affect and enhance well-being, reduce suffering, and develop inner peace. By studying the brainwaves of those who maintain a contemplative or meditative practice, scientists have learned a great deal about the brain states that underlie wholesome mental states, and how to activate those states. Research has been able to show us that our mind can change our brain, and vice versa, and in some instances, our genes!
Hanson explains the evolution of our brain, and how the brainʼs attachment to the negative helped to insure our survival as humans. … The good news is that the converse is also true: we can create positive pathways and change our brain by focusing on “the good.” So, what is the good? Remember our brainʼs natural affinity for the negative? Unfortunately, we tend not to register our pleasurable experiences quite the same, so we have to cultivate them! We need to focus on and savor the feelings that come from all of our positive experiences: that cup of coffee in the morning while you are stretched out on your bed, the smell of honeysuckle transported by the gentle breeze that just passed by, or that great hug you got from an old friend you saw on the street. By prolonging your attention of these “good” experiences, and taking in the sensory experience of pleasure or joy, we can build new neural pathways, strengthening the capacity toward self-regulation (peaceful body), compassion (peaceful heart) and wisdom (peaceful mind).
How we feel is not just important for our mental well-being, but also for our physical well-being. Our mind moves information through our nervous system, just like our heart moves blood around our body, and our brain is the “mover and shaper of the mind” (Hanson 2009). The brain and mind interact as a unified system, and intertwine with our immune, cardiovascular and endocrine systems. There is an old saying that pain is inevitable, but suffering is optional; it is our response to the pain that determines our suffering. No human being can get through life without experiencing some physical or mental discomfort, but our suffering is the result of our reaction to it. …
In Buddhaʼs Brain, Dr. Hanson not only provides the information to help us understand how our brain works, he also provides numerous suggestions and exercises on the “how toʼs” of relaxing the body and mind and activating the PNS. Cultivating a daily practice of quiet time, and developing mindfulness has been an important part of my life. I often recommend activities like yoga to help my clients learn how to stay focused in the moment and avoid that downward, negative spiral. –Deb Severo
Chicago Tribune – Things We Love: Self-Help for Smarties (2/14/10) Tired of flaky theories and dubious claims? We found the perfect antidote in Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love and Wisdom by neuropsychologist Rick Hanson and neurologist Richard Mendius. This clear, compelling little gem of a book, currently getting significant buzz at Amazon.com, makes a powerful scientific case for the benefits of meditation and offers simple and highly effective exercises to get you started. — Nara Schoenberg
Library Journal (9/18/09) Hanson and Mendius successfully answer the question: How can you use your mind to strengthen positive brain states and ultimately change your life? Arguing that our ancestors’ brains, flooded with adrenaline and cortisol, were wired for survival, the authors reveal how this neurological propensity for high arousal contributes to our present-day chronic illness, depression, and anxiety. Using Buddhism’s eightfold path as a model, they illustrate how meditation and relaxation can change our brain’s natural tendencies. Pictures illustrate the brain’s functions and practical meditation exercises are found throughout. The authors also discuss the importance of diet and nutritional supplements. Verdict: An excellent choice for readers wishing to take control of their lives and spiritual well-being. Readers will find practical suggestions along with impressive research about the brain. —Phyllis Goodman, West Chester Lib., OH
Consumer Reports on Health (2/10) I sometimes wake up in the middle of the night with my brain rattling with fears. Is that crick in my neck caused by a tumor? Are the kids OK? What will I write for this month’s editor’s note? The worries usually vanish in the morning light and I wonder why I wasted all those good sleeping hours. The new book, Buddha’s Brain, offers an interesting explanation by relating insights from brain research to techniques Buddhist monks use to manage the mind. When you’re awake but not involved in anything, your brain tracks the environment and your body for possible threats, write the authors, Rick Hanson, Ph.D., a neuropsychologist and meditation teacher, and Richard Mendius, M.D., a neurologist. That may have helped our ancestors by not letting them sleep too soundly in hostile environments. But it can take a toll on us when we’re safe in our bed. Research has found that the brain may be drawn to bad news and wired to ignore the good. That negative bias highlights past losses and failures, downplays current abilities, and exaggerates future obstacles. The solution? Learn to enjoy the positive, the authors suggest. Throughout the day, savor the good things that happen by focusing on the positive emotions and sensations for at least 5, 10, or 20 seconds. When random anxieties and negative thoughts arise, counter them by recalling good feelings. And that reminds me of advice my father used to give me: “It will all look better in the morning.” – Ronni Sandroff, Editor
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel (7/3/10) . . . To really know your brain is to appreciate the power you have to be happier, more content and at peace with yourself and the world. And who can’t use more inner peace? . . . A primer to fix our stress isn’t available. But it’s been proven (through MRI brain scans) that we can be more content, happier and at peace if we dig deep within ourselves to practice strengthening our brains . . . Neuropsychologist Rick Hanson has published a how-to manual, Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love & Wisdom . . . This handbook is based on hard science and easy-to-understand contemplative practices such as meditation, deep breathing and “taking in the good.” . . . Perhaps never before has the interface between hardcore brain science and ancient musings been connected with such enthusiasm . . . And now finally, the handbook, based on the latest neuroscience, with user-friendly steps for anyone who wants to create positive change internally . . . —Polly Drew
Inquiring Mind (Spring 2010) If you are intrigued by the latest findings in neuroscience and wondering what they suggest for your spiritual life or meditation practice, then this is the book for you. Buddha’s Brain is a clear, accessible explanation of how our brain and nervous system interface with our experience of life and how the path of Buddhadharma can effect a change for the better. The book not only makes this complex subject understandable, but it offers the reader mindfulness0based exercises that turn the latest scientific discoveries into skillful means. As Rick Hanson writes, “You can do small things inside your mind that will lead to big changes in your brain and your experience of living. . . When you change your brain, you change your life.” We all have Buddha’s brain, and this book is a manual to awaken it. —Wes Nisker
SoundCommentary.com (6/30/11) In Rick Hanson’s Buddha’s Brain we see a coalescence of neuroscience, psychology, philosophy, and contemplative practice. Neuropsychologist Hanson, a practicing Buddhist, emphasizes that meditation or contemplative practice is found in all religious traditions and is completely available to atheists as well. Many analytical westerners have found a comfortable home in Buddhism because of its non-theism. It has been long noted that Buddhism is more psychology than religion. And, in recent years, scientific studies on the effects of meditation have revealed that meditative practices can physically alter brain patterns and, thus, emotional states.
The production functions as a practical “how to” – suggesting various styles of meditation and mindfulness practice. Hanson gives an overview of regions of the brain, what each controls, and how, paradoxically, as the brain creates the mind, the mind can control the brain. Brain evolution and human evolution go hand-in-hand but, he notes, some adaptations that are favorable for survival can also be a source of unhappiness. The sting of the Novocain needle in the gums cannot be avoided. With practice in meditation and mindfulness, however, the anxiety of the anticipated pain on the commute to the dentist can be at least mitigated. Thus, the famous Buddhist dictum, pain is unavoidable, suffering is optional.
Hanson also gives an excellent overview of the concept of ego or “the self” as it is explored in Eastern philosophy. He makes a convincing case for the well being that can be found in relaxing the concept of self but does not go overboard. A self concept is vital for practical organization as well as for strengthening human bonding. As Hanson says, we want to hear our partner’s say, “I love you” not “love is arising here.”
This is a practical, well-written guide that contributes to other scholarly works that are purging the fuzzy new-ageism that used to surround meditative practices. This melding of science, spirituality, and other scholarly disciplines is, for me, one of the most positive and fascinating aspects of our time. –Alan Bomar Jones.
Eden Prairie News (7/28/10) Summer has brought a more relaxed pace in our household what with the demands of homework and school activities gone – and it feels wonderful. I’ve actually been able to carve myself a cherished morning time for spiritual reflection while the kids sleep in.
Reading Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love and Wisdom has filled some of that time and been a very gentle, informative reminder of how important it is to make time to nourish one’s brain, mind and spirit.
The authors, Rick Hanson (neuropsychologist) and Rick Mendius (neurologist), are both Buddhists, but speak to the importance of “contemplative traditions” among all faiths. A major premise of their book is that the human brain has evolved to be much more adept at scanning for and focusing on negative or threatening circumstances, primarily as part of our critical fight-or-flight response that helps keep us out of harm’s way and maximize our survival.
While they acknowledge the value of this ability to shift rapidly into such a hyper-aware state, the book focuses more on the importance of cultivating greater mindfulness of the good and beauty in our lives. And not just for the purpose of creating a positive state of mind, but beyond that, of actually restructuring our brain. They note, “What flows through your mind sculpts your brain.”
Evidence is cited of how neurotransmitters are released in response to different stimuli, such as dopamine when one mindfully focuses on how comforting a particular hug feels. Information is also offered on how nutrition and nutritional supplements can enhance brain health. Research is presented which confirms via MRI’s that certain areas of the brain become strengthened through development of stronger connections as a result of frequent use of that part of the brain. An example given of this is the more developed left frontal lobe of those who regularly meditate.
Through the evidence, it becomes apparent that every thought we think, every emotion we feel, releases chemicals within our system which travel between neurons, strengthening existing neural pathways and forging new ones as necessary. It truly is empowering to think that we have the ability to restructure our brain and that, in turn, we can influence how incoming stimuli are received and processed.
We are left with a stronger sense of how important prayer, meditation, faith, greater mindfulness and positive thoughts are. These are not just words or thoughts that go nowhere. We see their power, their energy, their connection to the life force of our universe. We come to more fully understand their power as they manifest through and out of us and emerge as new consciousness, new behaviors, a new way of being.
Similarly, we become more conscious of what thoughts and images we are taking in via our surroundings, be it friends, media, the beauty we surround ourselves with, the reflective time we make for ourselves, etc. Our entire being is impacted, physically and spiritually. The authors speculated, “In fact, the relaxation response may actually alter how your genes are expressed, and thus reduce the cellular damage of chronic stress.” —Lauren Carlson-Vohs
Science of Mind Magazine (5/11) Have you ever wondered if anything physical really happens when you put into practice the popular Science of Mind slogan “Change Your Thinking, Change Your Life”? In Buddha’s Brain, Drs. Rick Hanson, PhD, and Richard Mendius, MD, provide us with fascinating insights into the neurological mechanisms that underlie and control the thinking patterns and practices that bring us joy, sorrow, elation, satisfaction, discouragement, calm, compassion, and a myriad of other emotional states. As the authors note in the Introduction, we are at an historically unprecedented period when the fields of psychology, neurology, and contemplative practice have intersected to bring us a deeper understanding of the workings of the mind.
The authors are co-founders of the Wellspring Institute for Neuroscience and Contemplative Wisdom. Their writing demonstrates a firm background in neuropsychology and modern science, as well as experience in many techniques such as meditation, visualization, and mindfulness exercises. Although scientific references and information are plentiful, the real value of this book is the practical advice that is offered to stimulate and strengthen positive brain states and how conditions originate and can be altered.
By focusing the mind, we find we can harness the power of attention to enhance life and our relationships with others. Hanson and Mendius have combined scientific findings with insights from the contemplative practice of many adepts over a period of thousands of years to help us gain the ability to more easily use our minds to achieve greater happiness, love, and wisdom. This book is a valuable addition to the literature on mental science.
Chapters are devoted to “Taking in the Good” and “Cooling the Fires” to achieve more happiness; practicing “Compassion and Assertion” and “Boundless Kindness” to deepen in love; and using “Blissful Concentration” and “Relaxing the Self” to gain more wisdom. Meditations are sprinkled throughout. An appendix is devoted to “Nutritional Neurochemistry” and gives information on diets and food supplements to use and avoid. –Roger Juline
YogaBasics.com (12/20/09) . . . Hanson uses neuroanatomy, physiology and psychology to explain how the brain works in creating specific feelings and states of mind. The bad news is that the brain and the body seem to be hardwired to create suffering. The good news is that current research is showing that the brain is malleable and changeable, and it is changed by how we use it. Likewise, the structure and biochemistry of the brain determines what types of thoughts and emotions can be created in our minds. Citing scientific research, Hanson shows how we can consciously work to re-wire our brains to produce peace, happiness, kindness and compassion through time tested . . . practices. This is a great book for anyone . . . who wants to understand what is physically and chemically happening in the brain during different states of meditation, thought, and emotion. —Timothy Burgin
ZacharyBurt.com (5/25/10) . . . my most recent read was Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love & Wisdom by Rick Hanson and Richard Mendius. I really enjoyed it, and recommend it to anyone who wants a neuroscientific breakdown of important concepts in spirituality, Buddhism, meditation. . . Many helpful concepts are detailed alongside their neuroscientific mechanisms. You’ll get a great explanation of how the Prefrontal Cortex, Basal Ganglia, Anterior Cingulate Cortex, Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Adrenal Axis, and autonomic nervous system all operate in concert to create your experience of consciousness. If you enjoy the hand-wavey feel good books like Eckhart Tolle’s The Power of Now but get frustrated when grandiose claims of peacefulness are invoked without any material grounding, you’ll LOVE Buddha’s Brain. It explains the theory and then uses the theoretical framework to produce practical tips that anyone can use – even if you are a regular person living a hectic life and don’t have the luxury of a monastery. . . —Zachary Burt
Spirit of Change (2011) Revolutionary findings in neuroscience prove what contemplatives such as the Buddha taught over two thousand years ago: you can actually train your brain to experience greater mindfulness, loving kindness and inner peace. Buddha’s Brain combines stimulating exercises and easy to understand hard science for re-wiring the brain to intentionally create positive changes. The physical consequences of our evolutionary past is that we’ve evolved to pay great attention to unpleasant experiences. The brain actually has a negative bias. “It is like Velcro for negative experiences and Teflon for positive ones,” quip the authors. Yet when we’re upset we don’t ponder over the biochemical details happening in our brain. The key is not to suppress the negative, but to seek out and foster positive faces and turn them into positive experiences. Focusing on positive experiences for 5, 10 or 20 seconds, and even beyond their momentary impact, causes neurons to fire and wire together, dopamine to be released and actually changes the structure of your brain.
Publisher’s Weekly (9/14/09) The brain physiology associated with spiritual states has been fertile ground for researchers and writers alike. Neuropsychologist and meditation teacher Hanson suggests that an understanding of the brain in conjunction with 2,500-year-old Buddhist teachings can help readers achieve more happiness. He explains how the brain evolved to keep humans safe from external threats; the resulting “built-in negativity bias” creates suffering in modern individuals. Citing psychologist Donald Hebb’s conclusion that “when neurons fire together, they wire together,” Hanson argues that the brain’s functioning can be affected by simple practices and meditation to foster well-being. Classic Buddhist concepts such as the “three trainings” — mindfulness, virtuous action and wisdom — frame Hanson’s approach. Written with neurologist Mendius, the book includes descriptions and diagrams of brain functioning. Clear instructions guide the reader toward more positive thoughts and feelings. While the author doesn’t always succeed at clarifying complex physiology, this gently encouraging “practical guide to your brain” offers helpful information supported by research as well as steps to change instinctive patterns through the Buddhist path.
ADR Times (3/12)
“Want to know how our brain validates mindfulness practice and how they interrelate? In Buddha’s Brain Rick Hanson presents clear documentation. Much more he presents clear and simple practices, their neuroscience basis, and understandings on vital topics ranging from awareness to empathy and equanimity. Here is an outstanding guide — practical, thoughtful, and compassionate. This remarkable book is a must read for all of us on the path of development.”
-David Daniels, Clinical Professor Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, Stanford Medical School and author of The Essential Enneagram
“A wonderfully comprehensive book. The authors have made it easy to understand how our minds function and how to make changes so that we can live happier, fuller lives.”
-Sharon Salzberg, author of Lovingkindness
“Solidly grounded in the latest neuroscientific research, and supported by a deep understanding of contemplative practice, this book is accessible, compelling, and profound-a crystallization of practical wisdom!”
-Philip David Zelazo, Ph.D., Nancy M. and John E. Lindahl Professor, Institute of Child Development, University of Minnesota
“This is simply the best book I have read on why and how we can shape our brains to be peaceful and happy. This is a book that will literally change your brain and your life.”
-Jennifer Louden, author of The Woman’s Comfort Book and The Life Organizer
“Buddha’s Brain is a significant contribution to understanding the interface between science and meditation in the path of transformation. Illuminating.”
-Joseph Goldstein, author of A Heart Full of Peace and One Dharma
“Buddha’s Brain is compelling, easy to read, and quite educational. The book skillfully answers the central question of each of our lives-how to be happy-by presenting the core precepts of Buddhism integrated with a primer on how our brains function. This book will be helpful to anyone wanting to understand time-tested ways of skillful living backed up by up-to-date science.”
-Frederic Luskin, Ph.D., author of Forgive for Good and director of Stanford Forgiveness Projects
“I wish I had a science teacher like Rick Hanson when I went to school. Buddha’s Brain is at once fun, fascinating, and profound. It not only shows us effective ways to develop real happiness in our lives, but also explains physiologically how and why they work. As Dr. Hanson instructs us to do with positive experiences, take in all the good information this book offers and savor it.”
-James Baraz, author of Awakening Joy and cofounder of Spirit Rock Meditation Center
“With the mind of a scientist, the perspective of a psychologist, and the wise heart of a parent and devoted meditator, Rick Hanson has created a guide for all of us who want to learn about and apply the scintillating new research that embraces neurology, psychology and authentic spiritual inquiry. Up-to-date discoveries combined with state-of-the-art practices make this book an engaging read. Buddha’s Brain is at the top of my list!”
-Richard A. Heckler, Ph.D., assistant professor at John F. Kennedy University, Pleasant Hill, CA
“Buddha’s Brain is a brilliant tapestry that weaves together the strands of neuroscience, Buddhism and psychology in the service of helping people in their quest for personal freedom. It is both relentlessly positive and ardently scientific. Rick Hanson is a master at taking complex concepts and both explaining them in easily understandable ways and providing useful methods to implement them immediately.”
—Daniel Ellenberg, Ph.D., co-founder of the Authentic Leadership Institute and co-author of Lovers for Life
“An illuminating guide to the emerging confluence of cutting-edge neuropsychology and ancient Buddhist wisdom filled with practical suggestions on how to gradually rewire your brain for greater happiness. Lucid, good-humored, and easily accessible.”
-John J. Prendergast, Ph.D., adjunct associate professor of psychology at California Institute of Integral Studies and senior Editor of The Sacred Mirror and Listening from the Heart of Silence
“Buddha’s Brain will show you how mental practices, informed by the contemplative traditions, can increase your capacity for experiencing happiness and peace. This book provides a scientific understanding of these methods, and clear guidance for practices that cultivate a wise and free heart.”
-Tara Brach, Ph.D. author of Radical Acceptance
“This book enables us to understand the whys and hows of our human operating system so we can make more informed actions that allow us to live our lives more fully, compassionately, and with greater well-being and kindness towards others and ourselves. What I find exciting about Buddha’s Brain is Rick Hanson’s ability to clearly delineate the root causes of suffering and explain pertinent ways we can actually change these causes and effect lasting change on all levels of our mind, body, and interpersonal relationships. His informative, relaxed and easy-to-read style of writing made me want to pick this book up again and again and dive ever more deeply into the complexities of our human engineering. Buddha’s Brain is now on my recommendation list for all my students and teachers-in-training.”
-Richard C. Miller, Ph.D., founding president of Integrative Restoration Institute
“Numerous writings in recent years have exacerbated the traditional rift between science and religion; however, there has been a refreshing parallel movement in the opposite direction. Neuroscientists have become increasingly interested in using first-person introspective inquiries of the mind to complement their third-person, Western scientific investigations of the brain. Buddhist contemplative practices are particularly amenable to such collaboration, inviting efforts to find neurobiological explanations for Buddhist philosophy. Stripped of religious baggage, Buddha’s Brain clearly describes how modern concepts of evolutionary and cognitive neurobiology support core Buddhist teachings and practice. This book should have great appeal for those seeking a secular spiritual path, while also raising many testable hypotheses for interested neuroscientists.”
-Jerome Engel, Jr., MD, Ph.D., Jonathan Sinay Distinguished Professor of Neurology, Neurobiology, and Psychiatry and Biobehavioral Sciences at the University of California, Los Angeles
“Buddha’s Brain makes a significant contribution to the current dynamic dialogue among neuroscience, psychology, and Buddhist disciplines of mind training. Drawing on the wisdom born of their own meditation practice and their scientific backgrounds, the authors point again and again to the possibilities of the deep transformation of our minds and lives.”
-Christina Feldman, author of Compassion and The Buddhist Path to Simplicity
“Recent developments in psychology and the neurosciences have led to clear and powerful insights about how our brains work and how these neurological functions shape our experience of the world. These insights are profoundly congruent with the wisdom that has been developed over thousands of years in the contemplative traditions. The authors of Buddha’s Brain have given us a concise and practical guide to how these two currents of knowledge can be used to transform our capacity to engage both ourselves and others with wisdom, compassion, and mindfulness.”
-Robert D. Truog, MD, professor at Harvard Medical School, executive director of the Institute for Professionalism and Ethical Practice, and senior associate in critical care medicine at Children’s Hospital, Boston
“A clear introduction to some basic principles of neuroscience and dharma.”
-Roger Walsh, MD, Ph.D., professor at the University of California, Irvine, and author of Essential Spirituality
“Buddha’s Brain brilliantly reveals the teachings of the Buddha in the light of modern neuroscience. This is a practical guide to changing your reality. This is your brain on Dharma!”
-Wes ‘Scoop’ Nisker, author of Essential Crazy Wisdom and editor of Inquiring Mind
Here are selected excerpts from Buddha’s Brain:
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