Ask Dr. Rick

Below you will find a rich collection of answers to common questions or issues about meditation, mindfulness, neuroplasticity, and well-being that have been submitted to Dr. Rick Hanson.

The Hardware

The Nervous System
I am a recent survivor of ischemic strokes (where a blood clot stops flow to parts of the brain) to my cerebellum and thalamus. In addition to minor aphasia, vertigo, and noise sensitivity, I now experience an increased alert response. My brain is now like a car alarm constantly blaring! Would you please suggest 2-3 simple practices to "absorb the positive," which would be helpful to me at this early stage in my healing?

In terms of soothing and calming the alarms, there are happily many good things that can really help. They are all practical and simple, and you’ll see the results quickly:

  • Do whatever you can to keep your physical body well-fed and well-slept. Try to avoid things that are inflammatory (a kind of alarm process in the immune system that is connected to the nervous system). Consider supplementing nutraceuticals such as GABA, tryptophan, and/or 5-hydroxytryptophan (talk with an experienced healthcare professional about this).
  • Do some biofeedback with Heartmath’s Inner Balance device, to shift your resting state toward greater calm, and to recover faster from getting alarmed.
  • A couple times a day or more, notice that you are basically alright right now. Really register this feeling, let it sink in. Whatever happened in the past and whatever the future holds, in the present you are basically OK.
  • As you do your various practices, deliberately let go of any anxiety, any uneasiness, any defending against the next moment. Keep reminding yourself that you are strong and basically OK in the present. You can cope with challenges without getting worried or alarmed about it.
  • Accept that sometimes you will feel alarmed. Don’t get alarmed…about getting alarmed. Try to regard the alert/alarm response as a kind of impersonal wave of experiences passing through awareness. Try not to identify with it; it’s there, yes, but kind of at arm’s length in your mind. You don’t have to move through your day afraid of getting triggered; if it happens, it will pass and you will remain.
  • A few times a day, take one or two breaths to marinate in the sense of you caring about others, and others caring about you. This will be calming and supportive.
  • Also a few times a day, look around and notice some of the many things that are working fine. Try to see the big picture, from a bird’s-eye view.
Is it possible to indicate specific brain circuits that make you more resilient?

In the nervous system, low resilience can be the result of several things, including an overreactive amygdala, weakened hippocampus (which helps regulate the amygdala), poor connectivity between the PFC and the amygdala, and low activity of the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS). On the other hand, high resilience can be the result of these parts of the brain operating in opposite ways, such as having high activity in the PNS. Positive changes in these four brain regions or systems can be produced by sustained mental/psychological practices such as those explored in my book Resilient.

Do you know the names of the neurotransmitters and hormones of that are secreted or boosted when: 1) the mind is at peace (equanimity)? and 2) a person behaves mindfully?

These are very interesting questions . . . and as far as I know there are currently very limited answers to them. In equanimity, there would be low levels of neurotransmitter activity associated with stress (e.g., cortisol and other glucocorticoids), or aroused goal pursuit (e.g., dopamine). Depending on what is also present with the equanimity, there could also be increased levels of natural opioids with sukkha (happiness) and increases of oxytocin activity with metta (loving-kindness).

As to “behaving mindfully,” that could mean different things depending on what the behaving is. Daniel Goleman’s Altered Traits offers a good summary regarding scientific research on meditation in particular and mindfulness in general.

You write that you can strengthen certain circuits in the brain to get more resilient. How can these stronger circuits help you in a crisis situation? For example, when you’ve experienced a lot of stress or mental pain?

Much research shows that we can definitely change the brain for the better. As the “hardware” of the brain improves in key regions such as the prefrontal cortex (PFC) behind your forehead, that part of the brain becomes more effective. For example, if a person is being challenged by stressors, improved regulation of the amygdala – sort of the alarm bell of the brain – by the PFC can help a person feel calmer under pressure. Just because there is a stressor does not mean we need to feel stressed, and improved brain function is like a shock absorber between us and the world.

I'm interested in strengthening my anterior cingulate cortex (ACC). I want to know if taking vows (to not do something) has a stronger affect than simply choosing not to do something each time. I speculate that the ACC is activated continuously for the period of vowed restraint. If so, then I speculate that growth of ACC would be enhanced compared to an individual who practices restraint only when presented with object of desire.

For me one of the central teachings of the Buddha is paraphrased as “wisdom is choosing a greater happiness over a lesser one.” In our overarching vows and in our specific choices, there could be a turning away from what is a hindrance, a “poison,” etc., but there also needs to be mainly a turning toward that which is happier for ourselves and often others. So emphasizing the turning toward—feeling the goodness of it, anticipating the (understandable and appropriate) rewards of it, being given over to it like a current drawing you along—is really important . . .  and this aspect can be undervalued, especially in monastic settings that can be a little, ah, grim.

In terms of the ACC, the whole brain works together to motivate us. In this context, the ACC flags divergences from goals (e.g., vows, choices). So it tends to be involved in top-down “sour” alarms about what we are turning away from rather than bottom-up “sweet” rewards in what we are turning toward. Plus there is “willpower fatigue” when we emphasize top-down forms of motivation.

For all these reasons, the ACC is super and worth training . . . . but long-term I think happier and more sustainable motivation comes from a psychology of giving over to the greater happiness and letting it live us, and from a neurology that emphasizes reward systems in the subcortex.

I’ve heard that we only use a small amount of the brain’s capacity. Why is that?

In a general sense, we actually need and use all of the brain’s capacity. The idea that we use just 10% or so is a myth. We would not have evolved an organ that uses 20-25% of the oxygen and glucose in our blood – even though it’s just 2-3% of our bodyweight – if we (and our ancestors) did not need every bit of it. That said, many people do not make the best possible use of their talents, skills, values, and opportunities. To me, that’s the much greater loss.

Can we do anything to increase the amount of the brain we use? If we did, would we unlock special powers?

We can increase the brain’s functional capabilities by protecting it (e.g., avoiding or reducing injuries, toxins, drugs and alcohol, and stress) and by internalizing beneficial experiences – helping them get encoded into lasting changes in neural structure and function – in order to grow more inner strengths such as resilience, gratitude, self-compassion, kindness, insight into oneself and others, and overall well-being.

Unfortunately, this isn’t a process that will give us true “superpowers,” but doing so leads us to being happier ourselves and more helpful to others. To me, that’s a really wonderful superpower! There are also many examples of people who have really gotten the most out of their brain and body through intense training in music, sports, dance, or meditation, and developed some remarkable abilities because of it.

Is there any evidence that just reading the words which describe an experience will bring activity to the corresponding part of the brain?

There is a lot of fMRI research in which the prompt to the subject in the scanner is reading a text. Many of the texts used are emotion words or passages. So there are many examples of reading producing brain activity that is consistent with the experience the subject reports while reading the text.

More specifically, if you mean reading about an experience per se, I don’t know of any specific studies about that, but there well may be. Bottom-line, if you read about an experience – say, a memoir of combat or rock-climbing or bar-hopping or commodities trading . . . or similar passages in fiction – and have a sense of that experience yourself while reading about it in someone else, then apart from the hypothetical influences of transcendental factors, by definition that mental experience must map one-to-one to underlying neural activity, and in the regions of the brain that represent that kind of experience (e.g., right hemisphere for imagery).

A parallel to reading would be imagining different experiences or behaviors. You might be interested in Sharon Begley’s book, Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain, in which she reports a study that piano players who simply imagined playing a certain piece of music for sustained periods grew cortex in motor regions of the brain that handled those particular finger movements.

This article of mine might also be helpful: //

Is the brain still evolving? Even though we have a brain sculpted by Stone Age experiences, is the brain in any way advancing into a more highly evolved version of itself?

Biological evolution in humans takes thousands of years to show effects. On this time scale, the brain is indeed still evolving, but slowly. But cultural evolution can be very very fast (as anyone born in the 20th century has seen!). I am hopeful that our growing understanding of the three pounds of tofu-like tissue between our ears will lead to more evolved ways of treating each other.

What causes goose bumps?

I don’t know much about goose bumps except that they are a vestige – “piloerection” – of ancient sympathetic nervous system (SNS) responses to stress, typically used to have the hair of an animal stand up so as to look larger and more threatening. Thus people get goose bumps sometimes when they are scared. Of course, the SNS can also activate with positive arousal, such as the experience of goose bumps during meditation.

What is the role of the heart in our experiences?

To begin with, I think it’s easy to make category errors in confusing the metaphorical and the physical heart. The heart sounds warm and fuzzy while the brain sounds gushy or “head-y.” So it’s tempting to ascribe heartfelt feelings/inclinations to the physical heart even though it’s actually the brain that (still somewhat mysteriously) constructs those feelings and inclinations as experiences in our field of awareness.

As to the physical heart and the brain, there is interesting research on heart rate variability from Dacher Keltner, Heartmath, and other sources. I think sometimes there is an overemphasis on the heart’s influence on the brain and thus our experience of things like warm and loving feelings. Still, clearly there are feedback loops in which cardio-pulmonary processes regulate neural and thus mental activity. In effect, through Heartmath or related methods (e.g., metta practice in Buddhism, devotional practices in Hinduism), one can use the mind to affect the brain to affect the physical heart, which in turn affects the brain, which causes the mind to feel more peaceful/loving/happy. I have not seen research to this effect, but it is certainly plausible that changes in a person’s mental state – such as becoming more loving – involve functional and structural changes in the neuro-fabric of the heart.

Polyvagal theory is also a tremendous resource that indicates linkages between the heart and lungs and the “social engagement system.”

After years of mindfulness meditation, my brain is being evaluated for a neurodegenerative disease. You say "neurons that fire together wire together" and mine are misfiring!

I am sorry to hear about the possibility of a neurodegenerative disease.

With respect, I’d offer that multiple things can be true side by side: mental activity changes the brain, mindfulness practice has many benefits including altering brain structure and function, and sometimes illness or dysfunction still comes our way. For me, acquiring an illness is nothing to be guilty about! Instead of the self-criticism implicit in guilt, self-compassion is called for, and gladness and self-respect for all the good practices you have been doing over the years.

Last, I am not aware of any research on this (though there might be some I don’t know about), but to me it is plausible that repeated mental training focused on what might be deteriorating (such as memory or motor control) could have benefits, at least in slowing the progression of illness or in strengthening compensatory factors or processes.

Do you have advice for those with Parkinson’s, strokes, or Alzheimer’s?

Unfortunately, I can’t give any specific advice. But I could offer these general ideas:

  • Focusing on having and internalizing enjoyable experiences might help sensitize your dopamine receptors so that as dopamine reduces over time, your receptors might be able to compensate some.
  • If you can, take essential fatty acids (tell your doctors because they can act as mild blood thinners) as supplements.
  • Avoid toxins as much as possible (e.g., insecticides).
  • Avoid allergens as much as possible (e.g., mold, certain foods perhaps)
  • Practice mindfulness in a serious way. There are indications it can exert a protective influence even if people start to dement.
  • Perhaps explore neurofeedback to help with post-stroke recovery.
  • Check out the work of Dale Bredesen, MD:
    • //
    • //
    • //

It seems plausible (without any research evidence) that training in the mindful discernment and internalization of increasingly subtle experiences of various kinds of reward (e.g., gratitude, beauty) just might help to sensitize dopamine receptors and related activity so that as dopamine supplies diminish as Parkinson’s progresses, a person might still be able to experience positive mood and the sense of reward, or at least reduce the rate of decline.

What can be done about "neural reductionism" when that seems to be our default mode of operation?

I’m not sure what is meant by “neural reductionism” here, but if it includes the popular notion of “reducing consciousness to brain processes”, then I think there are different levels of analysis and different categories of causes that need to be explored. I don’t think the behavior of mice and hawks in a meadow “reduces” to the chemical processes in their bodies, let alone the quantum processes, but there is certainly a relationship between one and the other. Absent a resort to supernatural or transcendental factors, of course immaterial mental activity including consciousness – whether in humans, monkey, mice, or lizards . . . even spiders – must “reduce” to underlying material phenomena in the sense that the latter are necessary enabling and constructive conditions. But this does not mean that powerful ideas such as cultural helplessness or profound feelings such as love are “merely” electrochemical processes any more than the hunting behaviors of hawks are “merely” molecular processes. If you’re interested, check out some articles on Neurodharma in the Wise Brain Bulletin, which try to get at this; also my article The Mind, the Brain, and God.

Do you have any information on post-concussion syndrome (PCS) following a mild traumatic brain injury (TBI), particularly related to long term continuing symptoms and brain recovery?

While I’m not a specialist in this area, the one thing I have heard is the potential value of neurofeedback – especially from someone who has a lot of experience with it. Perhaps you could find a good person in your area. I presume you are working with medical professionals, too.

When using mindfulness as a recovery tool from an TBI, remember that persistence, gentleness, and curiosity are important factors. Persistence means a steadily increasing capacity for cognitive exertion. This will take effort and stamina but in the end it pays off. Maintain a gentleness towards yourself throughout the recovery process, with patience and perseverance, and keep curious about new possibilities or practices that will maintain your momentum towards recovery.

Meanwhile, to me common sense would include good brain health practices in general: try to disengage from stress as much as possible, look for opportunities for positive emotions, avoid toxins, and take high quality fish oil – and avoid any blows to the head.

For the past ten years I have developed an unconscious lip tick when I'm concentrating or talking and listening to someone. I believe it has gotten worse, especially in times like texting, when I'm really concentrating, and if I'm stressed. Is this a brain/nervous system issue and is there anything I can do to correct it?

It sounds like you have a tic – and the medical fact is that almost everyone, me included, has these little motor habits. The most important thing is to try not to be anxious, stressed, or self-conscious about them. This secondary “collateral damage” cost of the tic is usually the worse thing about them, so try to relax, accept yourself, and keep things in perspective.

Additionally, if you want, you could talk with a therapist specifically about it. Perhaps it increases when you feel tense or there is some other trigger you could be mindful of. Then, as you notice the trigger, you could deliberately bring attention to that part of your body and interrupt the pattern of the tic, and perhaps also disengage from the trigger itself.

From a brain science perspective, tics are perfectly normal, simply a motor habit that gets accidentally acquired. The key to changing them is to disrupt them and acquire a different motor habit such as simply speaking in a normal way without the lip movements.

I suffered a head concussion recently (no loss of consciousness). It's been almost two weeks and while I am better (dizziness and headache have subsided), I still experience loss of concentration, difficulty reading, feeling overstimulated by lights, noise, etc. What suggestions do you have for this next stage of recovery?

I am no specialist in head injury, but what I have seen myself or heard from people with more experience includes:

  • Take a concussion really seriously.
  • Avoid any further blows to head, even seemingly minor ones.
  • Work with licensed, experienced professionals who really listen to you and take the concussion seriously.
  • Explore neurofeedback.
  • Overall, treat your brain with kid gloves, such as minimize stress, prevent or reduce inflammation in general, eat brain health foods (e.g., refined fish oil or flax oil), avoid toxins (e.g., stand upwind when pumping gas), and encourage authentic emotionally positive experiences.
You state that if a person experiences continued stress the brain wears down, which impacts regulation and erodes the hippocampus (due to recurrent cortisol releasing). Is there a way to repair damage to the brain and hippocampus? Or is prevention the only option (learning techniques to be more resilient to stress and therefore not incur more damage to the brain and hippocampus)?

The hippocampus seems to be the key site in the human brain for neurogenesis (new baby neurons), though a recent study has raised questions about this finding. If neurogenesis in the hippocampus is indeed the case, exercise/activity stimulates neurogenesis, and complexity and stimulation help keep those new neurons alive and promote them getting wired into neural nets.

Existing neurons in the hippocampus can make new connections with each other, and with other parts of the brain. Other parts of the brain can help out to compensate for, say, a less-than-optimal hippocampus. For example, if a person knows that stress and trauma have made them prickly, presumably related in part to wear and tear on their hippocampi (two of them in the brain), then that person could draw on an intact prefrontal cortex to slow down and buy time and be less reactive.

Meanwhile, do mindfulness to disengage from negative reactions, and focus on taking in the good to replace them with resilient well-being.

Can we use the HEAL method during movement practices? And will this have greater and more lasting benefit?

The HEAL process and the practices within it can be applied to any experience – including somatic and emotional experiences during movement, yoga, dance, Chi Gung, etc. – to increase its registration in the nervous system and thus the lasting gain from it. People may understandably value certain states such as those had while moving compared to other states, such as those had while sitting, and thus look for ways to have them. But once that more beneficial state is occurring, the question remains as to how much durable value it will leave behind in the body in the acquisition of beneficial traits. Just because a state of being is more somatically or emotionally rich – such as during yoga or somatically oriented psychotherapies – does not necessarily mean that it will lead to more lasting beneficial changes in the body. We need to add the installation phase of learning, which produces lasting change for the better. The installation phase of learning is like the forgotten step-child in psychology, coaching, and human potential trainings – which is why it’s been a primary focus on mine: getter better at installation is where the greatest opportunity lies for steepening the growth curves of most people.

Can neurofeedback help a hyperactive, far too easily agitated amygdala?

Neurofeedback can indeed sometimes be helpful. The key is to find an experienced practitioner and then give it one or a few sessions to see if it makes a difference.

You might like Heartmath’s Inner Balance program, biofeedback-oriented to train a calm and resilient heart-lungs system.

I'm interested in knowing more about neuroplasticity and the way our brains would rewire after stopping alcohol consumption.

I am not a specialist on substance abuse and dependence. The thoughts expressed here are informal and tentative, and I encourage you to explore these topics with true experts.

A lot depends of the total history of alcohol consumption, and personal factors such as age, weight, and gender. The long-term effects of mild consumption (in terms of weight, gender, etc.) on the brain may be fairly limited and relatively quickly reset after sobriety. Then the effects of no longer drinking would be felt more through psychosocial pathways (e.g., experiencing a loss of “fun” or stress relief) than through physiological pathways – though this is a very informal tentative uneducated view.

Long-term moderate to severe drinking (defined relative to the particular individual) could affect neurochemistry in a variety of ways, as discussed in these articles:

I doubt there is any particularly clear information about how long it takes to return key neurotransmitter systems back to their original healthy activity. It’s hard to assess neurotransmitter activity in humans . . . and how informative are invasive studies of rats?

The practical takeaways from the neural implications of alcohol consumption would be in sobriety to:

  • Find other ways to relax and lower stress (compensating for the desensitization of GABA receptors).
  • Find forms of enjoyment and “stimulation” that are both rewarding and relatively mellow (compensating for the hypersensitization of glutamate receptors and the disruption of dopamine activity).
  • Through exercise and engaging complex mental activities, encourage neurogenesis in the hippocampus (compensating for the ways that high alcohol consumption damages and kills neurons).
  • Through social support and other means, find ways to stay sober . . . one day at a time (compensating for the ways that alcohol consumption, especially intermittent high consumption, can alter the nucleus accumbens and other reward-seeking systems in the subcortex to crave alcohol even months or years into sobriety)

Of course, there are other useful actions in sobriety besides the neurally-informed ones noted above.

The Mind
Can you explain what you mean by “ego proximal and ego distal?”

This is a general notion in psychology. The short explanation is: Imagine your psyche/mind as like a big field with “you” – the central core of your sense of I and me – at the center. In this field are all kinds of sub-personalities, tendencies, qualities . . . such as friendliness, cruelty, fascination with motorcycles, role as a parent, craving for chocolate, mysterious deep wellsprings of wisdom, sexual kinkiness, enjoyment of cooking, commitment to exercise, fear of spiders…on and on and on it goes.

We are multitudes! (adapted from Whitman) In the field, the closer that psychological quality is to the core “you,” the more you are identified with it, and the more it feels like “me.” This is “ego proximal.” The farther away the quality is in the field, the more it is “ego distal.”

A good way to help yourself to heal and function and grow is to nudge some of your qualities more toward the periphery so they don’t have so much power in your life, like regarding a harsh inner critic as “not-me, I have this but it’s not that I am this.” And to draw some of your qualities closer to yourself so you are more identified with them, given over to them, integrating them, lived by them.

What are the limitations of visualization and “harnessing the power of the mind” for health? My understanding is that there are no magical powers of the mind controlling biological or physiological processes in the body that are not networked with the brain through nerves and hormones. Is that correct?

As a psychologist, I am not giving medical advice. In that context, as a general statement, it is clear that mental factors such as stress on the one hand and gratitude or feeling cared about on the other can play a significant role in a person’s health journey . . . much as purely physical factors such as infection or cancer or effective medications can play a significant role as well.

Speaking personally, I try to approach my own health issues on both levels, mental and physical, based on sensible and individualized methods that have reasonable evidence, including the evidence of whether they are actually producing results for me.

Additionally, as an individual choice, I also include what could be called the spiritual level, distinct from the natural processes within our big bang universe, which include our thoughts and feelings, hopes and dreams . . . as well as our organs and DNA. Others may not want to do this, and I respect that choice.

I have no problem with people who include the possibility of spiritual factors in their healing of a medical condition. I do think it is foolish to do this in a way that excludes or minimizes the role of the physical level in our healing. We have real bodies, they are full of real cells and molecules and microbes, and this physical stuff really matters, and modern medicine has many effective ways to deal with it. Sure, doctors can make mistakes, and we need to be aware of the financial incentives such as from pharmaceutical companies that tilt medical treatments toward certain approaches and away from others. I turn to doctors who listen carefully, don’t patronize, individualize their approach to me rather than “one size fits all,” and recognize the potential usefulness of complementary and holistic methods. But I would not want to use the spiritual level to crowd out sensible, standard medical interventions.

You start your book, Buddha’s Brain, by saying “When your mind changes, the brain changes.” Can you explain the difference between the mind and the brain?

I use the word “mind” the way it is essentially used, most of the time, in neuroscience, to refer to the entirety of the information represented within the nervous system. We are surrounded by examples of different materials representing immaterial information: the physical hard drive of your computer stores and operates upon the non-physical information in your documents, music, and pictures; physical sound waves carry the intangible meanings of the words we use; and so on. In the same way, the brain represents, stores, communicates, and transforms the information that comprises the mind. Most of this information is forever outside awareness.

In effect, the mind is what the nervous system does, headquartered in the brain.

There may be a transcendental X factor – call it God, Spirit, or by no name at all – at work in awareness, in the mind in general, or in the universe altogether. Personally, I experience and believe that this is the case. But even without this possibility, the dots that connect mental activity and neural activity are getting clearer and clearer – giving us many opportunities to develop and use increasingly precise and powerful ways of using targeted mental activity to stimulate and therefore strengthen the neural substrates of wholesome states of mind.

What are your thoughts about the possibility that one way consciousness may be located in the body could be the fascial system?

In reflecting on the super and perennial question of the nature of consciousness, it helps me to bring this lofty topic down to earth in our close kinship with other animals with a nervous system, such as the birds and squirrels I see out the window of my home office. They are clearly seeing and hearing, feeling pain and pleasure. They are aware of their surroundings, and thus conscious in that sense. The fact that their experiences are simpler than ours does not mean they do not exist. So we can ask of them, what is the basis – the causes and conditions – for their experiences? (By “consciousness” I mean simply the combination of experiences and the field of awareness in which they occur.)

Experiences are intangible. We cannot touch or weigh or box up an experience of the color red. But they still exist. Since they are intangible, they do not have a location per se (a huge and useful point). But their causes and conditions do.

Within the ordinary universe – the “natural frame” – there are many causes and conditions that enable, foster, and shape the experiences of a squirrel . . . or a human typing now on a keyboard. Everything that keeps the body going (food, air, water, etc.) is a factor, plus the environment, culture, society, and all the way back to the Big Bang. Causes and conditions located all over the place.

Within the body, what is happening in various systems such as musculoskeletal tissue certainly affects the experiences a squirrel or person is having. In particular, what is happening in the nervous system, especially its headquarters the brain, strongly influences our experiences – and thus our consciousness.

In fact, the immediate physical basis of experiences such as hearing, seeing, remembering, imagining, thinking, sensing, feeling, wanting, suffering, and awakening is the nervous system. It is a necessary condition for experiences such as these. Without the nervous system, there would be no natural experiences.

As long as it is intact and metabolically active, the brain is the necessary and sufficient basis for experiences.

Taking all this into account, in my view, while experiences and consciousness do not have a location, their causes do. We can assess the influence of different kinds of causes in various ways. Science is certainly not currently able to measure quantitatively and “weight” the influence of various causes on experience. Still, it seems obvious that the primary location of the causes of the consciousness of a squirrel is its brain. And the same is true for every human.

This does not mean ignoring other causes and conditions located elsewhere. It is not either-or, it’s yes-and. And it does not mean conflating the physical location of the brain with metaphors like “heady,” “Spock-like,” “in your head,” “top-down,” etc. The primary location of the causes and conditions of sensations in the big toe as well as experiences of tender lovingness . . . is the brain. So if we care about tender lovingness and other important experiences, well, it’s useful to learn about the brain!

Although it’s often said that the brain is the hardware and the mind is the software that it might be more accurate to say that the brain is both the hardware and software (ala operating system) and the mind is or are the data elements. Does this sound accurate to you?

For me, the mind/brain (nervous system) distinction is at bottom the distinction between immaterial information and a material substrate that represents it. I think information is real and natural while being immaterial – but information requires a material substrate. And in the nervous system, unlike a chalkboard, information in turn shapes neural structure; the mind changes the brain.

In ways that remain mysterious, somehow the realm of immaterial information becomes experienced phenomenology – for octopi and cats as well as people.

And there could be transcendental X factors at work as well.

Is your work considered a part of Positive Psychology?

People sometimes loosely locate my work under the umbrella of territory. Still, the way I would describe it is that I emphasize building psychological resources, based on using positive neuroplasticity to change the brain for the better, that people can use for healing old pain, being more effective in daily life, having more satisfying relationships, experiencing more well-being, and – if they like – growing in their own chosen spiritual practice. This approach is always grounded in realistic thinking, not “positive thinking,” and a fundamental self-reliance.

Where would I find the science that forms Rick's concept about the “Leading Edge of Now”?

From a third person perspective, one can observe that there is a continuous “when something first happens” in any material process (which includes both matter and energy), such as the moment when the bat strikes a baseball, or the position of the ball in flight at any instant of time. One can also have a sense of the mathematics of calculus related to the instantaneous position and vector of the ball. And one can have some understanding of the complex neural processes underpinning any moment of consciousness. In other words, as processes occur, there is a (metaphorical) “front edge” to them, that instant when something first happens.

From a first person perspective, one can be mindful of experiences as they appear and then change, and in their changing, how they end in some sense. Here, too, there is that instant when something first appears in consciousness. There are many studies of perception related to this. More generally, this aspect of phenomenology seems inherent and obvious, that there is an ongoing “appearing” in awareness of the next perception, thought, image, desire.

So, putting the third and first person perspectives together, it seems that both objectively and subjectively, there is a “front edge of now.” Perhaps the entirety of time has already been made and our perceptions simply “slide” along it. Nonetheless, at every moment in that sliding there is always the next thing that is encountered – as something that is happening or experienced – and that next thing is in effect the front edge of the sliding.

Check out this book for some more on the physics.

What exactly do you mean by “proximally sufficient condition”? You must have a brain to have a mind – that is a sufficient condition. Please help me understand the usage of “proximally” here.

I was trying to say that the brain is “close” (i.e. proximal) to the mind . . . while also nodding in the direction of the fact that a brain is sufficient for a basic kind of mind – such as the experiences and information processing of, say, a monkey or a lizard – but for a truly human mind one also needs other enabling and facilitative conditions, such as exposure to language and other aspects of human culture.

I’ve found the work of Evan Thompson, specifically his book Mind in Life, to be deeply useful both intellectually and personally on this issue.

Green Brain, Red Brain
Why is it important to know about the Responsive and Reactive settings of the brain?

Taking in the good is a foundational practice that compensates for the brain’s preferential encoding of negative experiences and builds inner resources. More fundamentally, I am interested in naturalizing Buddhist psychology in a frame of evolutionary neuropsychology and operationalizing states and factors of non-craving (broadly defined in the Buddhist sense) in neuropsychological terms.

I’m using a conceptual framework that draws on polyvagal theory, Higgins work on promotion/prevention, and other work to posit three core motivational systems in the brain – Avoiding harms, Approaching rewards, and Attaching to others – which have two primary “settings.”

When a person experiences that his or her core needs are met for safety, satisfaction, and connection (tracking the three motivational systems), the related system tends to default to its Responsive setting, in which there is little or no basis for craving in that system; in this state, the body refuels and repairs itself and the mind rests in a basic sense of peace, contentment, and love (again, tracking the systems).

On the other hand, when the person experiences that one or more core needs are not being met, the related system shifts into its Reactive setting, there’s a fight-flight-freeze stress response cascade, the body burns resources, and the mind shifts into a basic sense of “hatred,” “greed,” and heartache (using two of the traditional Buddhist mental “poisons” in broad terms and tracking the three motivational systems).

While Reactive bursts can be adaptive, especially under the conditions in which our ancestors evolved, chronic Reactive states create significant allostatic load as well as a lot of unnecessary anxiety, irritation, frustration, drivenness, envy, interpersonal disturbances, and shame. Consequently, repeatedly taking in the good both down-regulates Reactivity and increases Responsivity in the moment plus gradually internalizes a felt sense of needs met as well as inner resources that together help stabilize a person in the Responsive mode even during challenging conditions, thus over time undoing many of the underlying neuropsychological causes of craving and thus suffering (broadly defined).

Where does the “fight or flight” response come from? Does it have to do with the primitive/reptile brain or the emotional brain?

These distinctions about the brain – fight or flight response, primitive/reptile brain, emotional brain – are used a lot these days, but they’re inherently fuzzy.

The amygdala does initiate the fight or flight response through inputs into the hypothalamus (triggering the hormonal part of that response) and to brainstem control centers of the sympathetic nervous system (triggering the neural parts of that response). Some aspects of this response are emotional but some are not; and, complicating the distinctions further (among the fight or flight response, primitive/reptile brain, and emotional brain), some emotional shadings the amygdala is involved in don’t activate the fight or flight response. For example, the amygdala is involved in positive emotion processing. Some parts of our emotional life don’t involve the amygdala at all. See the complexities, here, in terms of the categories?

Plus, reptiles have a functioning basal ganglia, which is part of the subcortex on top of the brainstem and very involved in motivation, and to some extent, emotion. In the brainstem, there are nodes that can produce rage and fear, as well as nodes with oxytocin receptors (social system). The brainstem participates in emotion, and the so-called reptile brain is more than the brainstem: so, more complications. Also, the cortex is very involved in emotion, it’s not just the subcortex and brainstem: complications cubed!

“Amygdala hijack” just means that the thalamus inputs into the amygdala with sensory information (like positive “carrots” and negative “sticks”) arrives before those inputs get to the prefrontal cortex. So the amygdala gets a second or two head-start over the cooler reasoning processes coming down from the prefrontal cortex. Also, more generally, the brain as a whole participates in “emotional hijack” that goes beyond the amygdala alone. The amygdala part of the emotional hijack is often overstated: it’s just a small head start. Still, in cases of prior sensitization of the brain due to trauma, that head start could make a big difference.

Overall, I think there is a natural and fine flow in the culture in which there is an initial enthusiasm for a subject and overstatement and blurring of distinctions, and then a second wave comes through to clarify things. That’s what’s happening with these fields now.

Negativity Bias
You write about “Grit”: “It typically takes many experiences of agency to compensate for a single experience of helplessness, another example of the brain’s negativity bias.” Is there an explanation for this bias?

You are speaking here of our vulnerability, shared with other mammals such as dogs, to acquire what is called “learned helplessness.” There is much research, pioneered by Martin Seligman, on this topic that has established the fact of this phenomenon. You ask a very interesting question: Why do we and other animals have this vulnerability – including to the sense of hopelessness, futility, and defeat? It could just be an inadvertent side effect of evolution. On the other hand, I can imagine ways that the acquisition of helplessness after a single painful experience of it could in fact help keep our animal and hominid/human ancestors alive in the wild by discouraging them from venturing out and exposing themselves to predators or aggression from others in their band.

I've read that it takes either 5 or 10 positive inputs to offset every negative one. Is there a clear winner: 5 or 10?

I think the 5:1 (or 3:1) ratio idea comes from the work of the Gottmans, in which they found that couples with less than a 5:1 ratio of good to bad interactions were at heightened risk for divorce. A related idea comes from Barbara Fredrickson, that people really start to thrive when they have more than a 3:1 ratio of good to bad experiences over time.

There’s been some pushback against these exact numbers, but the basic idea is solid: during evolution (and still today), negative experiences tend to have more urgency and impact than positive ones. In the wild, if you don’t get a “carrot” today, you’ll have a chance to get one tomorrow…but if you don’t avoid that “stick” today, ulp, no more carrots forever. So we are naturally more affected by negative experiences in the moment, plus naturally designed to internalize them. Positive experiences have a quantity effect in the lives of most people, but negative experiences have a quality effect: they are generally more powerful.

So for me the bottom line is:

  • Deal with the bad – Recognize injustice, turn off the stove, assert yourself, etc.
  • Turn to the good – See what is working amidst what is not; see the good in yourself and others.
  • Take in the good – Don’t waste it on your brain. Slow down to stay with the experience for a breath or longer, feel it in your body, and focus on what feels good about it.

Meanwhile, recognize your impact on others. Try to make sure that their good moments with you outnumber the bad ones by at least 3…or 5…or 10! (a good way to stay married…)

I read your work on the lizard, mouse and monkey. I noticed at work I have this very negative reaction when I have minor pushbacks or resistance. In my mind I have a defensive reaction, like “I hate you” or “I’ll just quit.” Where does that come from?

There is a common but mistaken idea these days: there is no particular neural “center” or “region” of emotional reactivity, including the brainstem. And reactivity is not restricted to the safety needs that are also managed by the whole brain, though the primal roots of safety management (including literally keeping the heart beating) are grounded in the brainstem.

You’ll see this conflation of emotional reactivity with the “reptilian brain” slash safety issues a lot in the culture and it’s just wrong . . . and weirdly prejudicial toward our little inner lizards! TONS of reactivity involve satisfaction/reward-seeking systems in the subcortex and connecting/attaching systems in the neocortex.

There’s also in the culture a simplistic conflation of neocortex/cognition/cool/thinking slow/reasonable/good, along with a related conflation of subcortex/emotion/hot/thinking fast/reactive/bad. Yes the neocortex enables conceptualizing and complex formal reasoning . . . . but it is full of crazy ideas and perspectives that makes us suffer and harm. Yes the subcortex enables the experience and effects of emotion . . . . but it also is the primary source of a background feeling of basic bodily well-being in the wallpaper of the mind.

In addition to the value of accuracy in its own right, another reason I try to flag these matters is because the frequent framing of the more ancient, nonverbal, and emotional aspects of the brain that we see in the culture sends us down a slippery slope toward the old views that emotion (and, um, women) is primitive and problematic while reason (and, um, men) is modern and civilized.

You state, “The brain is like Velcro for negative experiences and Teflon for positives ones.” Can you explain this in more detail?

As the brain evolved, it was critically important to learn from negative experiences – if one survived them! “Once burned, twice shy.” So the brain has specialized circuits that register negative experiences immediately in emotional memory. On the other hand, positive experiences – unless they are very novel or intense – have standard issue memory systems, and these require that something be held in awareness for many seconds in a row to transfer from short-term memory buffers to long-term storage. Since we rarely do this, most positive experiences flow through the brain like water through a sieve, while negative ones are caught every time. Thus my metaphor of Velcro and Teflon – an example of what scientists call the “negativity bias” of the brain.

The effects include: a growing sensitivity to stress, upset, and other negative experiences; a tendency toward pessimism, regret, and resentment; and a long shadows cast by old pain.

You say that the brain has evolved to keep us alert and therefore there is an undercurrent of unease at all/most times. You also say that without pain or fear, the brain defaults to a setting of calm and contentment. How do I mesh these two different things?

Basically, I think the evidence is that both are true: there is an ongoing trickle of background anxiety to keep us vigilant, and there is also a strong inclination to default to the “responsive mode” of being peaceful, happy, and loving when we are not disturbed. Putting these two apparent facts together, I think the trickle of anxiety prompts us to scan for threat, but if we find that all is well for now, then we default to the responsive mode, and then this cycle repeats itself a moment later. For me the pragmatic point is to discern real threats and address them, while also recognizing the strong bias from evolution to look for threats behind every bush and thus appreciating the importance of exerting compensatory influences in a variety of ways, from inner practices such as I focus on to social support and (hopefully) decent health insurance.

What is one practice we can adopt in our everyday lives to overcome our negativity bias?

Several times a day, take in the good by really savoring a positive experience for 10-20 seconds or more. (The second chapter of Just One Thing is about this.)

Over time, much as repeated negative experiences make the brain more sensitive to them, I believe that repeatedly savoring positive experiences can train your brain to internalize them increasingly rapidly – in effect, making your brain like Velcro for the positive and Teflon for the negative.

Do you know whether brains of people raised in non-western, cultures like Bhutan or Tibet have the Velcro/Teflon wiring?

Great question!

I don’t think there are any scientific studies on this particular topic – though there is a lot of general research on the universal nature of the fundamental properties of the human brain, that cross cultures. Interestingly, there is much less genetic variation among the members of the human species than among the other primates; apparently, there were several “choke points” in our evolution when less than 100,000 thousand (and at one point around only 15,000 “Java Men” lived: in effect, they were an endangered species at that time). So we all have pretty similar brains, which all do have an evolved tendency toward threat scanning/reaction/memory storage. Then psychological factors shape the expression of those tendencies, including the loving and positive culture of Bhutan and Tibet. In a nutshell, two things are both true: we have strong tendencies toward negativity and craving, but we also have strong capacities to develop peacefulness, happiness, and love – and I believe these are in fact much stronger! But we must use them, as so clearly the Dalai Lama and others have done.

Why do people 'beat themselves up'? Does it serve any hidden purpose? I read that a person can become fearful forever after they experience fear because of someones anger. What process is behind that?

I think people beat themselves up – which is different from healthy guidance of oneself (which includes appropriate winces of remorse or shame) – for two reasons: too much inner attacking, and too little inner nurturance. These two forces in the mind are out of balance. Why? Multiple reasons, including individual differences in temperament (some people are more prone to anxiety or grumpiness). But for most people the primary sources are what they have internalized (especially as a child) from their family, peers, and culture. Then, once harsh self-criticism has been internalized along with insufficient internalization of self-nurturance, beating oneself up can take on a life of its own, both as simply a habit and as a way (that goes much too far, at considerable cost) to avoid the possibility of making mistakes or looking bad in front of others.

Whole networks of neurons and related and complex physical processes (e.g., neurotransmitter activity, epigenetic processes) are the basis for acquiring fears, including because a person has been on the receiving end of much anger from others. In other words, learning occurs: emotional, social, somatic, motivational, attitudinal learning: enduring changes in neural structure or function due to a person’s experiences. Check out Joseph LeDoux and the learning of anxiety and fear.

The amygdala also flags experiences as personally relevant, with a bias in most people’s brains toward flagging what is negatively relevant. Then the hippocampus gets involved, tagging that relevant experience for storage. (I’m simplifying a complex process, that also involves other circuitry in the brain.) The amygdala and hippocampus have receptors for various neurochemicals, including oxytocin, and over time these subcortical parts of the brain (two of each, on either side of the brain) can be modified by our experiences; in effect, they “learn,” too.

How can one express, feel and process "negative" emotions associated with an experience thoroughly and not create and strengthen "negative" neural pathways associated with those experiences at the same time?

Basically, three things are simultaneously true:

• Being with and letting go of an experience – in a mindful way, spacious, disidentified way – does not reinforce it and in fact helps to release it. “A healthy cry” is a beautiful, vastly important thing

• Being identified with our negative reactions and marinating in them reinforces them

• Positive experiences are not “learned” efficiently so it’s useful to deliberately sustain and internalize them

The points you raise are right at the intersection of key questions in working with trauma: does revisiting the material reinforce it or release it?

Check out my slides and texts about “the three major ways to work with the mind.” That’s where I try to get at these questions.

Changing for the Better

Neuroplasticity and Learning
Can you explain what you mean by “Learning?” Do you mean that ’learning’ is the basis for all the inner strengths? That you can use the principles of learning to get more grit, more calm, more courage, et cetera?

Yes, my material on “Learning” explains how the nervous system is changed by our experiences, and how we can use this neuroplasticity in positive ways to hardwire inner strengths such as grit, gratitude, and compassion into the brain. “Learning” is a broad term that includes healing, becoming more skillful with the inner and outer world, and developing happiness, love, resilience, and wisdom. Learning is thus the strength that grows our other strengths, so learning how to learn could be the most important learning of all.

What does “positive neuroplasticity” look like on a practical level? For instance, let's say you have memories surfacing of being bullied when you were in junior high. When those come up, do you start thinking about bunny rabbits, green meadows, trips to Six Flags, etc.? Or do you tell yourself stuff like, "Bullies don't really prosper," "You were brave to survive that experience," etc.? I would just like some practical tips on exactly how to implement your advice.

This is a great question about one of the most powerful ways to heal and transform psychological material—including emotionally charged memories of being bullied in junior high school. I call it the Link step in my HEAL framework for turning passing experiences into lasting inner strengths such as self-worth, happiness, and resilience. You can learn more about this in my TEDx talk or my book Hardwiring Happiness.

The essence is simple. Be aware of two things at the same time: the “negative” material such as old feelings of hurt and fear and embarrassment off to the side of awareness, and the “positive” material such as feeling protected or respected by people who truly care about you in the foreground of awareness.

Each time you do this will take just a few breaths or longer. But since “neurons that fire together, wire together,” the positive will gradually associate to the negative, and soothe and ease and potentially over time replace it.

This fundamental method—linking positive to negative—is used in many therapies and other forms of healing and growth. Like any psychological method, it can be used in a variety of ways for a variety of issues. But the essence is simple and we can all do it. Just be careful not to get sucked in to the negative and keep the positive bigger and more vivid in your mind. (So it’s smart to work with a skilled professional if you are dealing with trauma.)

It’s most effective if the positive is matched to the negative. In Hardwiring Happiness and also in Resilient, I use a model of our three basic needs—for safety, satisfaction, and connection—as a roadmap for finding positive material that is well-matched to the negative.

For example, being bullied mainly challenges our needs for safety and connection, so gratitude—sweet as it may be—is not a matched resource since it addresses our need for satisfaction. Better matched positive experiences for safety would be the sense of grit, feeling protected, or recognizing that you are alright right now (and now and now and now); better matched for connection would be feeling appreciated, liked, or loved.

It’s also most powerful if the positive material emphasizes feelings and sensations rather than ideas. You can get the sense of the positive kind of going into the negative, like a warm soothing balm sinking down into wounded hurting places inside.

Last, none of this is about positive thinking, rose-colored glasses, glossing over what happened, or minimizing the impacts on you. You will always remember what happened, but with repeated Linking it won’t bother you so much and you won’t get so triggered by it. This is about facing our pain squarely and honestly, accepting it as it is . . . with compassion for ourselves and with the skillful use of wise efforts inside the mind.

In fact, as we heal over time and grow strengths inside, we become more able to see and bear the pain of ourselves and others, and more able to do something about it and meet the challenges of life with an unshakable core of resilient well-being.

How did you get interested in your work?

Probably like many people, I had a sense as a young child that there was a lot of unnecessary unhappiness in my school, my family, and out in the world. But I didn’t know what to do about it. Then as I got older and learned about psychology, brain science, and contemplative wisdom, I became excited about the practical tools they offered for using the mind alone to change the brain for the better.

The brain is the final common pathway of all the causes streaming through us to make us happy or sad, loving or hateful, effective or helpless – so if you can change your brain, you can change your life. I have personally gained from these methods (my wife of 30 years says I have become nicer – which could be the toughest test!), and have seen many others get many benefits as well.

Can we hardwire our brains to be grittier the same way we can hardwire them to be happier?

My hyper succinct two word answer is: “You bet!”

And to expand a bit: any kind of learning – including emotional, social, motivational, and character learning – must involve changes in the brain. This means that grit – resilience, determination, persistence, hardiness, courage – gets developed through changes in neural structure and function.

We develop more grit through having repeated experiences of determination, endurance, resolve, perseverance, and sheer survival that get woven into the fabric of the brain – and thus one’s life.

What changes take place in our brains when we make the decision to repeatedly focus on the way we think about and react to situations in our lives?

In practical terms, learning – brain change – is a two stage process in which an activated experience must be installed through some kind of lasting change in neural structure or function. We become happier through having repeated experiences of happiness and related factors that get encoded – installed – into the brain.

Without installation, there is no learning, no change: in effect, the experience is wasted on the brain. This is the dirty little secret in most psychotherapy, human resources training, coaching, addiction recovery, and character education: most hard-won beneficial states of mind are momentarily positive but have no lasting value. That’s why many efforts to develop deep inner strengths in people are largely if not completely ineffective: they are indeed being fostered – but without deliberate mindful attention to sustaining them, feeling them in the body, and intentionally absorbing them into oneself, they just don’t get encoded much into the brain. The person may have a memory of a harrowing sailing trip or an intense week with Outward Bound, but is still basically just as vulnerable to stress, loss, or setbacks as ever because they didn’t “take in” those experiences.

Here is the key takeaway: it is commonplace to activate experiences of love, support, determination, endurance, and tenacity. What is rarer and more important is to bring skillful attention to installing these experiences in the brain so that they have enduring benefit for the person.

The good news is that this skillful attention can be readily developed, as we found in the research on my training in positive neuroplasticity, and as explored in Hardwiring Happiness. But we have to do the work 5, 10, 20 (usually enjoyable) seconds at a time. Then we know in our hearts that we have earned the results – which makes the strength that we develop even sweeter.

Your work is based on the idea that meditation and mindfulness can change the brain. Can you expand on this?

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.

What is 'experience-dependent neuroplasticity'?

Great question. Fundamentally, experience-dependent neuroplasticity is the capacity of mental activity to change neural structure. In other words, it’s the brain’s ability to change based on what you experience.

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?

Why is neuroplasticity important, and how do you use it in your work?

My focus is on how to apply the new scientific findings around neuroplasticity: 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

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.

Can anyone develop a “buddha brain” — even people struggling with mental illness or depression?


First, a “buddha brain” is simply one that knows how to be truly happy in the face of life’s inescapable ups and downs (I don’t capitalize the word “buddha” here to focus on the original nature of the word – which is “to know, to see clearly”  – to distinguish my general meaning from the specific historical individual known as The Buddha). The possibility of this kind of brain is inherent in the human brain that we all share; any human brain can become a buddha brain. Therefore, a buddha brain is for everyone, whatever their religious orientation (including none at all).

Second, we all must begin the path wherever we are – whether that’s everyday stress and frustration, mental illness, anxiety, sorrow and loss, or depression. In any moment when we step back from our experience and hold it in mindful awareness, or when we begin to let go of negative feelings and factors, or when we gradually turn toward and cultivate positive feelings and factors we are taking a step toward developing a buddha brain. Each small step matters. It was usually lots of small steps that took a person to a bad place, and it will be lots of small steps that take him or her to a better one.

Third, mental anguish or dysfunction can help us grow. They teach us a lot about how the mind works, they can deepen compassion for the troubles and sorrows of others, and, frankly, they can be very motivating. Personally, the times in my life when I have been most intent on taking my own steps toward a buddha brain have been either when I was really feeling blue – and needed to figure out how to get out of the hole I was in – or when I was feeling really good, and could still sense that there had to be more to life than this, and more profound possibilities for awakening.

How could you measure clinical interventions that encourage new cell growth and happiness?

This question gets at the remarkable fact under our noses all day long: our ineffable thoughts and feelings are making concrete, physical, lasting changes in the structure and function of our brains. Neurons that fire together, wire together. This is learning, including the emotional, motivational, attitudinal and skills learning that is our focus in therapy. In other words, the making of memory – especially implicit memory, the storehouse of emotional residues of lived experience, knowing “how to,” expectations, assumptions, models of relationship, etc. distinct from explicit memory, the much smaller storehouse of specific recollections and knowing “about” – the gradual change of the structure and function of the brain.

In this context, any kind of mental change is evidence of neural change. Since neuroscience is a baby science, our current, noninvasive, imaging technologies have limited capacities to measure neural change in human beings – especially given how physically fine, fast, and complex these changes are. You could put five of the cell bodies of a typical neuron side by side in the width of just one of your hairs, and five thousand of the synapses, the connections, between neurons in the width of just one hair.

Nonetheless, even though the ethics of animal research trouble and even alarm many, including me, it is the case that more invasive research on animal learning – including emotional, motivational learning, that has some parallels to therapy – has established many fine-grained details of the ways in which experiences of stress, frustration, and trauma, as well as experiences of caring, success, and safety change the nervous system.

So we presume that neural change must be occurring if there is mental change. In this light, there are now many studies with human beings that show structural and functional changes after interventions such as training in mindfulness, compassion, body awareness, and psychotherapy. The cortex – the outer shell or “skin” of the brain – gets measurably thicker due to new synapses and greater infusion by capillaries for blood flow; key regions are more readily activated; there is also greater connectivity between regions, so they are more integrated and work better together; there are even changes in the expression of genes – tiny strips of atoms in the twisted up molecules of DNA in the nuclei of neurons.

And as your mind changes your brain for the better, these changes in your brain feed back to change your mind for the better as well. As these positive structural and functional changes in the brain occur, people become more capable and happy. For instance, training in mindfulness increases activation in the left prefrontal cortex, which supports a more positive mood.

As to new cell growth, I assume this is a reference to neurogenesis, the birth of new baby neurons, primarily in the hippocampus. We can encourage the birth of these neurons through exercise, and encourage their survival and wiring into memory networks through engaging in complexity and stimulation.

Here’s the takeaway: we can be confident in our own lives, and in our work with clients, that our efforts are bearing fruit in actual, physical changes in the nervous system. And since motivation is one of the primary factors shaping outcome in psychotherapy – and in life as a whole – this is heartening, wonderful news.

In your understanding, what are the limits of brain plasticity? To what extent does our base genetic programming, and inherent personality traits, limit what we can change?

As you imply, most neuroplasticity is subtle and local, and does not change the overall architecture of the brain. I also think it is possible that there are individual variations in organic capacity for changing the brain, though I haven’t seen any studies on that (though they may exist).

I think a good starting point is to consider the vast diversity of human cultures, and the many individual examples of vast psychological changes – for better or worse – over the course of one person’s life. These illustrations of great mental plasticity are evidence for great neural plasticity in high impact ways, even if the vast majority of the synapses and circuits of the brain are unchanged.

The takeaway for me from this line of thinking is to appreciate the importance of hard work, of making little efforts each day that add up over time, to change your brain and thus your life for the better. And there’s a takeaway in terms of never betting against human potential and the human heart. Most of us have no idea how much we could grow psychologically or spiritually if we really gave ourselves to it, and put at least as much effort into it as we put into our occupation – or even our golf game!

Can we actually change our personalities in major ways?

The basic features of a person’s temperament or personality tend to endure over time. I’m still a fundamentally watchful, introverted, and calm sort of person – just like I was in grade school.

But how we relate to our core personality can change dramatically over time. For example, shyness around new people may still arise, but alongside it we can cultivate self-confidence, an internal sense of allies, self-acceptance, distress tolerance, dis-identification from the shyness, and other resources so that how we feel and how we act in a socially challenging situation would be much better.
If you could design a program to create a major psychological/personality change, what would it look like?

If I was going to take your challenge and design a program for a major psychological makeover, it would have these elements:

Understanding, accepting, and fully experiencing whatever it is that the person wanted to change. Otherwise, what you resist, persists.

Releasing, working through whatever was significantly extreme, pathological, or neurotic in what they wanted to change.

Growing the “and also” aspects of their personality that are natural antidotes for or resources for the thing they wanted to change. My framework of three needs/systems addressed through antidote experiences has been very helpful to me here. For example, let’s say with shyness, I think of this as involving both the safety and the connection needs we have – and thus involving both the Avoiding and Attaching systems of the brain. So I’d look for ways to cultivate “and also” strengths inside such as feeling protected, determined, relaxed, loved, and worthy.

Can you tell me how the brain is changed specifically by doing the practices you suggest? What parts of the brain change, and how do your practices support brain function over time?

As a broad principle, the brain regions or processes that are activated by an experience are the ones whose structure or function is most likely to be changed by the activation.

Neuroscience is a baby science, with much that’s not known. There’s much that may be plausible that doesn’t yet have a specific study to back it up.

This said, the conceptual, perspective aspects of the practice of reminding yourself mentally that everything is impermanent would tend to engage prefrontal areas that do conceptual processing, and with repetition and conviction, produce lasting changes there, i.e., learning, adopting, developing the habit of a new view.

Also, the physical and emotional relaxation that would come with accepting transience would likely involve decreased sympathetic nervous system activity, increased parasympathetic nervous system activity, decreased stress hormones, and increased reward- and pleasure-related neurotransmitter activity (e.g., dopamine, natural opioids). With repetition, duration, and intensity of the experience, there would tend to be gradual changes in the resting state and responsiveness of these neural processes.

Last, evidence of mental change is evidence of neural change. Otherwise we are left with supernatural explanations. So if a person feels different or acts differently, something must have changed at the level of the body, particularly the brain.

I've recently discovered neuroscience, and in the process, someone promoted brainwave optimization to me. Does this work or is it a scam? Is it the lazy man's way to work on neuroplasticity?

Regarding brainwave optimization, brainwaves just track what is happening, they are not causally beneficial themselves. This said, personal practices (e.g., taking in the good, meditation, relaxing while walking the dog) can optimize brainwaves. I think you are referring  more specifically on neurofeedback and things like Holosync that are essentially biofeedback devices/programs aimed at the brain. Generally, I think they are great IF they work for a person. Sometimes they do and sometimes they don’t.

From a pragmatic standpoint, bottom-line, does something help or hurt, including compared to alternatives. And of course, once a practice of any kind, including with brainwave devices, has induced a beneficial state (thought, feeling, etc.), be sure to internalize it so it has lasting value, woven into your nervous system.

I was a student at the Art and Science of Mindfulness course at Esalen last month. I am wondering if you have a recording available of a guided meditation of your HEAL framework like you led us through in the workshop?
In the Foundations of Well-Being the Learning Pillar has several practices that cover the steps of HEAL. Here are the links of the audio for those:
Also, I have extended guided practices in the audio version of my book, Hardwiring Happiness, that you might like (chapter 10 is pretty much three chapters worth of guided practices).
It has been found that when some people with high levels of self-criticism are exposed to compassionate imagery, instead of the insular and the anterior cingulate cortex being engaged (which would create a soothing response) the amygdala is activated and the threat response is experienced. What can be done to elicit the desired response and inhibit the undesired one, for those experiencing the reaction described above?

1. The direct way to grow a psychological resource is to experience (“activate”) it in order to “install” it. But sometimes that is challenging or upsetting. So we grow factors of this resource through experiences of these factors that are more accessible. Let’s say the direct experience of self-compassion is hard for the reasons you very insightfully identify. But the experience of a factor of self-compassion – such as the concept that justice applies to oneself as well as to others, or the capacity to calm the body when upset – might be within reach.

2. In order to tolerate resource experience Z, we may need to grow resource Y . . . but perhaps experiencing Y is also reactivating and challenging. So then we grow resource X that enables us to experience and grow Y so that . . . we are now able to experience Z and thereby grow it. For example, training in mindfulness (X) could promote the capacity to experience body sensations in general without being flooded (resource Y), and developing this Y could enable a person to experience self-compassion (Z) more directly.

The distinction between 1 and 2 blurs in practice. The main difference is that 2 is more deliberately and planfully sequential, and is a road map for therapists and also for people in general.

You make a pretty big statement: "But a few times each day . . . day after day after day . . . will change your life. Really." What evidence or experience do you have to support this claim?

There is tremendous evidence in published studies on psychological practices or interventions of various kinds – including the kinds I mention, notably relaxation and positive emotion practices – that they do lead to significant improvements in mental health indicators of various kinds: improvements that do change lives for the better in meaningful ways.

  • There is also tons of evidence in research studies about the effects of frequency of spaced practice and the effects of personal effort. One implication is that for people who do not experience a benefit that changes their life in a meaningful-to-them way, are exceptions to that rule because they did not actually practice whatever it was (e.g., mindfulness, gratitude) a few times a day, day after day after day.
  • Distinct from published research, I’ve received many anecdotal reports that my statement was true for them. This is evidence of a kind.
  • I have personally experienced that my statement is true. An N of 1, for sure, but still definitely the evidence of my own experience.

As a personal detail, I worked for a year for a mathematician who did probabilistic risk analyses, and it was a fascinating consideration of levels of evidence for propositions about reality. As is increasingly noted in the scientific community, including the life sciences and social sciences, the dichotomous true/false distinction of “statistical significance/non-significance” is mathematically silly. The crux is how much uncertainty we have about propositions. Then the question becomes, to what extent do certain kinds of evidence reduce uncertainty. By the definition of information, relevant information of any kind reduces uncertainty. Information comes from many sources, most of which are not randomized control group double-blind studies. For example, roughly half of the methods used routinely in medical settings do not have a study behind them, but they are within the standard of care because there are other kinds of evidence for their legitimate use.

What do you see as the difference in using the word “installation” and “instillation” when referring to the process of bringing positive experience into implicit memory & shifting from state to trait?

I use the word “installation” – my own term, not in common use – as a general term for the process of turning passing experiences into lasting changes in the body, especially changes of neural structure or function. Terms that include installation implicitly (but have larger meanings that include the activation phase of learning) are “learning,” “growth,” “skills acquisition,” “healing,” “development,” and “memory making” (memory in the broadest sense, including implicit memory).

I call out “installation” to highlight its distinction from “activation” – the temporary mental/neural process that is the basis in the natural frame (distinct from whatever is transcendental) for the contents of the stream of consciousness. This distinction is typically blurred in the use of the terms “learning,” etc., which enables an overlooking of the fact that experiencing does not equal learning, and that most experiences lead to no learning, no lasting change.

Personally, I use “installation” because of its information processing, computer-ish, mechanistic, hardware-ish associations. I have found that those connotations are a plus for many people, but for some it sounds too techy, too mechanistic. Other terms could be used as long as we stay clear that there are two necessary and sufficient stages of learning – activation and installation, however we call them – and the first stage alone, experiencing, is necessary but not sufficient for learning.

We also need installation – which many methods do implicitly, and sometimes explicitly, engage but which the fields of psychotherapy, coaching, human resources training, and also mindfulness and compassion training have not focused on in any deliberate and comprehensive way. As a result of this omission, the gain from experiences is much less than it could be, and the learning/healing/growth curves of individuals are much flatter than they could be – which has lots of implications.

Let Be, Let Go, Let In
I would like to motivate myself to let go of the "what ifs" & let be what I cannot change, but it’s hard. Any help?

You’re right, it’s ironic but true that we can nudge (= change) ourselves to accept what cannot change. In some ways the most fundamental motivation is to choose where to rest our attention. There’s a saying that the mind takes its shape from what it rests upon. (The modern update from neuroscience is that your brain takes its shape – aspects of its structure and function – from what your mind rests upon.) I think about what is in our heart . . . and where our heart dwells . . . and how where our heart dwells is what gradually fills it. So it is wise to disengage attention from ruminations or preoccupations with regrets and what-if’s (though of course it’s appropriate to mourn and grieve and learn from the past), and to rest attention on the feeling of acceptance, letting be, and whatever authentic sense of peace you can find. Gradually as you rest in these feelings, they will become the habit of your heart.

We can rest our mind on what calls our heart, filling our heart with it and dwelling there increasingly.

What are the different ways we can work with our mind?

Fundamentally, in my view, there are just three kinds of ways to engage the mind, to practice with it productively:

1. Be with it – Observe the mind, experience the experience, feel the feelings, etc. without trying to change anything in the stream of consciousness. Hopefully one does this with an attitude of curiosity, kindness toward oneself, and a certain stepping back – “dis-identification” – from whatever one is experiencing. One could also explore more vulnerable, fundamental, or younger material “beneath” the surface of experience, such as the hurt underneath anger or the old pain from childhood that amplifies or distorts one’s reactions. Through being with one’s experience it may change, but one is not directly making efforts to change it.

2. Decrease the negative – Here is where we make efforts in the mind to relax tension from the body, vent or otherwise release emotions like sadness or anger, challenge and let go of wrongheaded thoughts, or resist or abandon problematic desires (e.g., wanting to get hammered or to yell at the kids).

3. Increase the positive – Here is where we make efforts in the mind to take skillful actions (e.g., sitting up straighter to be assertive, calling the doctor for an overdue check-up), to encourage feelings like gratitude and compassion, to develop useful perspectives and other thoughts, and to strengthen and commit to beneficial desires such as exercising or not interrupting one’s partner.

In effect, if the mind is like a garden we can observe it, pull weeds, and plant flowers. In a nutshell: let be, let go, and let in.

The three ways to engage the mind work together. For example, we need to make efforts to grow capacities to be with the mind, such as self-acceptance, observing-ego functions, or distress tolerance. And we be with the results of our efforts to reduce the negative and grow the positive.

Of the three, the first one (which approximates the conventional definition of “mindfulness”) is primary. You can always be with the mind, but you can’t always reduce the negative or grow the positive.

What’s the difference between mindfulness and the way you teach engaging the mind (let be, let go, let in), which is more experiential?

There’s definitely a place for the common advice people give to just “be mindful.” Still, it is important to do more than simply observe the mind.

What happens in the mind depends on what happens in the brain, and the brain is a physical system that does not change unless it gets changed (usually by oneself, if at all). The brain does not generally erase negative patterns simply because we observe them; if anything, its evolved negativity bias makes it retain negative learning. And the brain does not generally develop determination, compassion, gratitude, forgiveness, or most any other positive qualities simply because someone is witnessing the stream of consciousness.

Even the Buddha – someone who profoundly valued mindfulness – allocated most of the elements of the Noble Eightfold Path to the second and third ways to engage the mind (i.e., the release of greed, hatred, and delusion, and the cultivation of wise view, intention, speech, action, livelihood, effort, and concentration).
When we are bothered or upset about something, there is a natural trajectory in which we start by being with our experience. Then, at some point, it feels right to start releasing it. Then, at some point, it feels right to start replacing what we’ve released with something useful and positive. The timing of this trajectory depends on the person and situation. Sometimes you realize quickly what is bugging you, and you shift into letting go of it and moving on to something happier within a minute or two. Other times, something hits you really hard – such as a shocking loss – and it could be months and even years before it feels right to shift into letting go, and then letting in.

Some people err on the side of jumping too quickly into letting go and letting in, but if you do that, those efforts don’t have much traction. Other people get stuck in letting be, in just feeling their painful feelings, and not making skillful efforts within their own mind to release the negative and replace it with something appropriately beneficial. I would like to think that my approach balances these elements in a positive way.

Mindfulness and my work on cultivation (let in – the skillful development of inner resources) are completely complementary. One needs to sustain mindfulness for effective cultivation: to turn passing mental states into lasting neural traits (the biological basis for psychological resources). And through cultivation, one develops the mental factors that support mindfulness. Additionally, mindfulness has benefits unrelated to cultivation (e.g., coming into the present moment) and cultivation has benefits unrelated to mindfulness (e.g., developing caring for others, self-respect, gratitude, positive mood, grit, hardiness).

Mindfulness and cultivation are both “experiential” in that both of these are ways of relating to our experience. Of course, our experience includes our thoughts – both verbal and non-verbal – and one can be mindful of thoughts, can have thoughts about mindfulness, and can cultivate beneficial thoughts (such as a sense of perspective on the hassles of daily life).

Which of the three steps of let be, let go, let in is most important?

That whole process is very important, but my own work focuses on the third way to engage the mind: let in. This is the active cultivation and internalization of beneficial states of mind – in the context of the other two ways to engage it.

My view is that there has been a lot of development in both clinical psychology and the spiritual traditions of the first two ways to engage the mind, but not as much development of how to do cultivation skillfully. In particular, we have not really taken into account the implications of the fact that the brain changes – learns – in two stages (from short-term buffers to long-term storage, from state to trait, from activation to installation), and without really doing the second stage (installation), there is little or no learning, little or no lasting value.
So here is where there is good opportunity: developing ways to more skillfully “install” everyday experiences in the brain as lasting inner resources, such as resilience, kindness, happiness, and wisdom.

Thinking about the past or future, or categorizing self or other are four major ways our mind takes us away from experiencing the fullness of the present moment. What are the neurophysiological correlates of these distracting (and potentially helpful) states of mind ie; is there a ‘judging’ ‘comparing’ ‘planning’ centre of our brains?