Actually, I’d put this a little more broadly: my work – and that of many other scholars and clinicians – is grounded in the general fact of “experience-dependent neuroplasticity,” which is the capacity of mental activity to change neural structure.
For example, researchers studied cab drivers who must memorize London’s spaghetti snarl of streets, and at the end of their training their hippocampus – a part of the brain that makes visual-spatial memories – had become thicker: much like exercise, they worked a particular “muscle” in their brain, which built new connections among its neurons. Similarly, another study found that long-term mindfulness meditators had thicker cortex in parts of the brain that control attention and are able to tune into one’s body.
In the saying from the work of the Canadian psychologist, Donald Hebb: “neurons that fire together, wire together.” Fleeting thoughts and feelings leave lasting traces in neural structure. Whatever we stimulate in the brain tends to grow stronger over time.
A traditional saying is that the mind takes the shape it rests upon. The modern update would be that the brain takes its shape from whatever the mind rests upon – for better or worse. The brain is continually changing its structure. The only questions are: Who is doing the changing: oneself or other forces? And are these changes for the better?
In this larger context, my focus is on how to apply these new scientific findings: how to use the mind to change the brain to change the mind for the better – for psychological healing, personal growth, and (if it’s of interest) deepening spiritual practice. I’m especially interested in:
- How the brain has been shaped by evolution, giving us problematic tendencies toward greed, hatred, heartache, and delusion (using traditional terms) as well as wonderful capacities for happiness, peace, love, and wisdom. For example, we have a brain that makes us very vulnerable to feeling anxious, helpless, possessive, fixated on short-term rewards, angry, and aggressive. These qualities helped our ancestors survive and pass on their genes, but today they lead to much unnecessary suffering and conflict on both personal and global scales.
- “Neurologizing”, the deep Buddhist analysis of the mind: what is going on inside the brain when a person is caught in the craving that leads to suffering? Alternately, what is happening in the brain when a person is experiencing equanimity, lovingkindness, meditative absorption, or liberating insight?
- Using neurologically-informed methods to help overcome our ancient inclinations to fear, dehumanize, exploit, and attack “them” so that 7 billion of us can live in peace with each other on our fragile planet.
In sum, this brain stuff can sound exotic or esoteric, but in essence the approach is simple: find the neural processes that underlie negative mental factors, and reduce them; meanwhile, find the neural processes that underlie positive mental factors, and increase them. Less bad and more good – based on neuroscience and Western psychology, and informed by contemplative wisdom.
Of course, much is not yet known about the brain, so this approach is necessarily an exploration. But if we remain modest about what we don’t know, there are still many plausible connections between the mind and the brain, and many opportunities for skillful intervention for ourselves, for our children and others we care for, and for humankind as a whole.