The Work of James Austin

A fairly long paraphrase of James Austin’s fairly long book, Zen and the Brain, titled Your Self, Your Brain, and Zen. While books whose titles begin with “Zen and the…” tend to be pretty silly, Austin combines the rigor of a scientist with someone who reports having deep meditative experience firsthand.

Before learning to meditate in Japan, I would not have believed it possible briefly to lose all sense of self. Nor could I have regarded that experience as desirable. Hadn’t my teachers emphasized, early in medical school, that our patients were very abnormal if they did not know who they were, or what time it was? So how could any state of “no self” help clarify the normal operations of one’s brain?

As it turned out, two very different kinds of loss of self occurred on my long path of Zen. The first experience was superficial: my physical sense of self dropped off temporarily—a “dearth of self,” so to speak. Years later, I briefly lost all sense of my psychic self and its bodily attachments. During this “death of self,” deep insightful realizations occurred.

– See more at: http://www.dana.org/Cerebrum/2003/Your_Self,_Your_Brain,_and_Zen/#sthash.kWW4LjIK.dpuf

In Zen and the Brain Austin switches back and forth between intensely personal experiences and detailed scientific explanation (he’s an academic neurologist). It’s a great book for browsing. You can take a look at (or purchase) the book here at Amazon.

Pretty Brain Blobs and a Facebook Antidote?

Mindfulness Can Literally Change Your Brain. Since we are in an age where anything related to the brain generates instant credibility (and conforms to the rule of Blobology), I attach this. It’s published by the Harvard Business Review. Article focusses on two areas of the brain, one (anterior cingulate cortex) associated with emotional regulation, and another (hippocampus), associated with memory, emotion, resilience.

More interesting, is the work done by Judson Brewer at Yale. His research has focussed on something he calls the Default Mode Network. Basically this is the part of the brain that is active when we are doing nothing. And he has correlated that part of the brain’s activity with greater levels of unhappiness. He wanders a little farther, hinting that selfishness is part of what fuels unhappiness. Here’s a (pretty long) quote from an interview Brewer did at Buddhist Geeks.

 And we were a little surprised when we analyzed the data. We didn’t see much activity in the brain like increased activity in experienced meditators but we saw some specific brain regions that had deactivation patterns.  And when we looked more closely at this, it was fascinating.

We were pleasantly surprised to see that two of the main brain regions that were deactivated, and on whole there were only four or five that survived statistical thresholds, but two of those were part of the default mode network. And the default mode network is particularly interesting because it’s all about me….

And so this default mode network, it’s called the default mode network because it was discovered to be active when people were just laying still and they were doing this “controlled” task of don’t do anything in particular. Well guess what we don’t do in particular when we’re not doing anything in particular. What we’re doing is we’re thinking about ourselves, all the time.

….this actually is present about 50% of our waking lives. So there’s a study in Harvard that’s well-known now done by Matt Killingsworth where they probed people throughout the day and they found that 50% of the time people’s minds were wandering.

And typically when they were wandering they weren’t very happy. And typically it’s this self-referential stuff.  There was a more recent study that just came out this year in the proceedings in the National Academy of Sciences where somebody actually gave people a choice of monetary reward or to disclose about themselves. Guess what they chose?  [laughter]

Yes. They would rather talk about themselves than earn money. And in fact when they imaged people that were doing this, their self-referential default mode network was activated and also the reward centers of the brain, the nucleus accumbens was activated.

So it’s rewarding to talk about yourself which is probably why Facebook is worth $100 billion or $50 billion or whatever it’s worth now. It’s worth all this money because it provides 1. You get to talk about yourself. What am I doing? Here’s pictures of me. There’s this and that. It also provides gossip and gossip is sticky. What are other people doing?

And it also does this in an intermittent reinforcement fashion which is the most reinforcing type of learning. So it happens at random times. You don’t know. It’s not on a regular schedule.  So all of that is many tangents away from the original question which is why are interested in the default mode network and why we’re so excited to see deactivation in the default mode network in experienced meditators.

So, maybe there is hope for freedom from Facebook, after all.

The Mess

An allusion to the previous post — the Messy Truth about Meditation. Here’s another Britton quote, where she describes what some meditators have in store for them, and have no idea it’s coming:

Britton says, meditation has a shadow side, familiar to experienced meditation teachers but almost never mentioned in the popular media—that is, the not uncommon tendency of some people when they begin practicing in earnest to freak out (lose ego boundaries, hallucinate, relive old wounds and traumas, experience intense fear, and even have psychotic breaks, as well as exhibit strange physical symptoms, like spasms, involuntary movements, hot flashes, burning sensations, and hypersensitivity). These effects are well documented in Buddhist texts as stages along the long, hard path to inner wisdom, but they haven’t been studied in the West and aren’t featured in mindfulness/meditation brochures. Britton is one of the first to begin researching these phenomena seriously…” According to Willoughby Britton, an assistant professor of psychiatry and human behavior at Brown.

The Messy Truth About Mindfulness

That’s the title of a little interview with Willoughby Britton found on Mindful.org. Here’s their brief bio:

Willoughby Britton is Assistant Professor of Psychiatry and Human Behavior at Brown University Medical School. She has also been a committed mindfulness practitioner for 20 years.

She talks about the often untalked about experience that many people will experience meditating — unpleasant emotional material can resurface with a surprising force. In other words, for some people some caution should be exercised while embarking on the meditative path.