Neuroscience Perspectives on Spiritual Practices

Neuroscience Perspectives on Spiritual Practices

© Rick Hanson, Ph.D., 2008
www.RickHanson.net

  • Simply localizing function in the brain may add little information of practical use to an already adequate psychological or spiritual account – even if there’s a picture.
  • Neural networks are extraordinarily interdependent and dynamic; linking complex mental activity to isolated and static “circuits” is a simplifying heuristic, but also potentially reductionistic and reifying.
  • Neuroscience is a young science; the links from neural activity to conscious experience could take centuries to work out fully; materialist claims that the “obvious” default view is that mind is only the brain at work are unfounded.
  • Nonetheless, while it’s natural to think an extraordinary phenomenon like the mind requires an extraordinary cause, lots of ordinary causes can be enough for an extraordinary result. Ordinary DNA molecules – across billions of years, and countless organisms and environments – enabled extraordinary humanity. Similarly, ordinary synapses – 100 trillion of them, most firing dozens of times a second – may be sufficient to enable extraordinary mind.
  • In any case, mind does not causally reduce to brain: when its patterns of information can be represented by any suitable neural network (like a song can be recorded on any CD), they are causally independent of the neurons they “ride,” and then mind causes mind.
  • Further, when twin studies are corrected for homogeneity of environments, most genetic factors account for a third at most of intelligence, happiness, success, or spiritual growth. The normal brain can hold both horrible and wonderful thoughts. It’s the contents of mind that are primary, not the organ that enables them.
  • Vast numbers of people have progressed on their chosen path without neuroscience.
  • Neuroscience is useful for “Transforming the Embodied Mind” when it:
    • Fosters conviction, both about spiritual teachings and the fruits of practice
    • Helps “unpack” the beneficial elements of a spiritual practice through understanding the multiple neural structures and activities that correlate with the practice.
    • Supports the skillful individualization of practice, based on a growing understanding of the natural diversity of brains (e.g., the neural mechanisms underlying temperamental differences)
    • Clarifies the common neural underpinnings of seemingly disparate practices . . . and the differing neurology of practices with similar names
    • Draws attention to the cultivation of general-purpose skills and personal attributes that are implicit in spiritual practices
    • Enables a kind of reverse engineering: (1) pick a mental state of interest, (2) identify plausible neural substrates of the mental state, and (3) find methods for stimulating and strengthening that neural substrate to support and deepen the desired mental state.
  • Explicit and implicit aspects of spiritual practices:
    • Explicit usually gets most attention, as a matter of doctrine or tradition
    • But implicit often matters most through its general effects, such as a training in using frontal lobe based capacities to manage uncomfortable emotional reactions, developing more supple control over the parasympathetic nervous system, cultivating positive emotions, and even expanding the amount of neural real estate routinely allocated to the global workspace of consciousness.


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