Neuroscience Perspectives on Spiritual Practices

Neuroscience Perspectives on Spiritual Practices

© Rick Hanson, Ph.D., 2008

  • 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.

Dr. Ramani Durvasula is a licensed clinical psychologist, author, and expert on the impact of toxic narcissism. She is a Professor of Psychology at California State University, Los Angeles, and also a Visiting Professor at the University of Johannesburg.

The focus of Dr. Ramani’s clinical, academic, and consultative work is the etiology and impact of narcissism and high-conflict, entitled, antagonistic personality styles on human relationships, mental health, and societal expectations. She has spoken on these issues to clinicians, educators, and researchers around the world.

She is the author of Should I Stay or Should I Go: Surviving a Relationship With a Narcissist, and Don't You Know Who I Am? How to Stay Sane in an Era of Narcissism, Entitlement, and Incivility. Her work has been featured at SxSW, TEDx, and on a wide range of media platforms including Red Table Talk, the Today Show, Oxygen, Investigation Discovery, and Bravo, and she is a featured expert on the digital media mental health platform MedCircle. Dr. Durvasula’s research on personality disorders has been funded by the National Institutes of Health and she is a Consulting Editor of the scientific journal Behavioral Medicine.

Dr. Stephen Porges is a Distinguished University Scientist at Indiana University, Professor of Psychiatry at the University of North Carolina, and Professor Emeritus at both the University of Illinois at Chicago and the University of Maryland. He is a former president of the Society for Psychophysiological Research and has been president of the Federation of Behavioral, Psychological, and Cognitive Sciences, which represents approximately twenty-thousand biobehavioral scientists. He’s led a number of other organizations and received a wide variety of professional awards.

In 1994 he proposed the Polyvagal Theory, a theory that links the evolution of the mammalian autonomic nervous system to social behavior and emphasizes the importance of physiological states in the expression of behavioral problems and psychiatric disorders. The theory is leading to innovative treatments based on insights into the mechanisms mediating symptoms observed in several behavioral, psychiatric, and physical disorders, and has had a major impact on the field of psychology.

Dr. Porges has published more than 300 peer-reviewed papers across a wide array of disciplines. He’s also the author of several books including The Polyvagal Theory: Neurophysiological foundations of Emotions, Attachment, Communication, and Self-regulation.

Dr. Bruce Perry is the Principal of the Neurosequential Network, Senior Fellow of The ChildTrauma Academy, and a Professor (Adjunct) in the Departments of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern University in Chicago and the School of Allied Health at La Trobe University in Melbourne, Australia. From 1993 to 2001 he was the Thomas S. Trammell Research Professor of Psychiatry at Baylor College of Medicine and chief of psychiatry at Texas Children's Hospital.

He’s one of the world’s leading experts on the impact of trauma in childhood, and his work on the impact of abuse, neglect, and trauma on the developing brain has impacted clinical practice, programs, and policy across the world. His work has been instrumental in describing how traumatic events in childhood change the biology of the brain.

Dr. Perry's most recent book, What Happened to You? Conversations on Trauma, Resilience, and Healing, co-authored with Oprah Winfrey, was released earlier this year. Dr. Perry is also the author, with Maia Szalavitz, of The Boy Who Was Raised As A Dog, a bestselling book based on his work with maltreated children, and Born For Love: Why Empathy is Essential and Endangered. Additionally, he’s authored more than 300 journal articles and book chapters and has been the recipient of a variety of professional awards.

Dr. Allison Briscoe-Smith is a child clinical psychologist who specializes in trauma and issues of race. She earned her undergraduate degree from Harvard and then received her Ph.D. in clinical psychology from the University of California, Berkeley. She performed postdoctoral work at the University of California San Francisco/San Francisco General Hospital. She has combined her love of teaching and advocacy by serving as a professor and by directing mental health programs for children experiencing trauma, homelessness, or foster care.

Dr. Briscoe-Smith is also a senior fellow of Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center and is both a professor and the Director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion at the Wright Institute. She provides consultation and training to nonprofits and schools on how to support trauma-informed practices and cultural accountability.

Sharon Salzberg is a world-renowned teacher and New York Times bestselling author. She is widely considered one of the most influential individuals in bringing mindfulness practices to the West, and co-founded the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts alongside Jack Kornfield and Joseph Goldstein. Sharon has been a student of Dipa Ma, Anagarika Munindra, and Sayadaw U Pandita alongside other masters.

Sharon has authored 10 books, and is the host of the fantastic Metta Hour podcast. She was a contributing editor of Oprah’s O Magazine, had her work featured in Time and on NPR, and contributed to panels alongside the Dalai Lama.

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