Posts Tagged ‘Buddhism’

The Dalai Lama’s Approach to Religion

December 13, 2017

To be sure, the Dalai Lama’s understanding of the power of compassion comes from his deep spiritual reflections of human suffering and relief from that suffering. However, as a world leader, the Dalai Lama puts aside religion, ideology, or any faith-based belief system in seeking a foundation for this compassionate ethic. He notes that, for centuries, religion provided an ethical base—but with the spin-off of philosophy from theology, postmodernism, and the “death of God.” many people have been left with no absolute foundation for ethics. Moreover, so often the talk about ethics polarizes people who get hijacked by extreme voices, particularly when the discussion revolves around religious belief.

Those who cause the troubles we hear about in the daily news all too often invoke as justification one or another religion—whether Buddhism, Islam, Judaism, Christianity, Hinduism, or any other. The Dalai Lama says, “then there are those narrow-minded believers who say all creatures are the same but emphasize their own faith, forgetting the larger perspective.”

He observes that “their actions show that ‘deep inside’ they do not take their own religion’s moral values seriously and so distort or carefully select some textual sources while ignoring others, to serve their own needs. If we lack basic conviction in the value of compassion, then the effect of religion will be quite limited.”

Religions have had thousands of years to promote ethics—and have often failed, he says. Besides, while selflessness and kindness are ideals found in most faith-based teachings, these virtues also exist in nonreligious ethical systems. He continues”there are countless people in the world who are concerned for all humanity and yet who do not have religion. I think of all the doctors and aid workers volunteering in such places as Darfur or Haiti or wherever there is conflict of natural disaster. Some of them may be people of faith, but many are not. Their concern is not for this group or that group but simply for human beings. What drives them is genuine compassion—the determination to alleviate the suffering of others.”

He seeks a morality of compassion that all agree upon: “My concern is the seven billion human beings alive now, including one billion nonbelievers.”

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Altered Traits

November 25, 2017

The title of this post is identical to the title of a book by Daniel Goleman and Richard J. Davidson. The subtitle is “Science Reveals How Meditation Changes Your Mind, Brain, and Body. The following is taken from the Coda of the book: “We are inspired by the vision of the Dalai Lama. He encourages us all to do three things: gain composure, adopt a moral rudder of compassion, and act to better the world. The first, inner calm, and the second, navigating with compassion, can be products of meditation practice, as can executing the third, via skillful actions. Exactly what action we take, though, remains up to each of us, and depends on our individual abilities and possibilities—we each can be a force for good.”

We view this “curriculum” as one solution to an urgent public health need: reducing greed, selfishness, us/them thinking and impending eco-calamities, and promoting more kindness, clarity, and calm. Targeting and upgrading these human capacities directly could help break the cycle of some otherwise intractable social maladies, like ongoing poverty, intergroup hatreds, and mindlessness about our planet’s well-being.”

To be sure, there are still many, many questions about how altered traits occur, and much more research is needed. But the scientific data supporting altered traits have come together to the point that any reasonable scientist would agree that this inner shift seems possible. Yet too few of us at present realize this, let alone entertain the possibility for ourselves.

The scientific data, while necessary, are by no means sufficient for the change we envision. In a world growing more fractured and endangered, we need an alternative to mind-sets snarky and cynical, views fostered by focusing on the bad that happens each day rather than the far more numerous acts of goodness. In short, we have an even greater need for the human qualities altered traits foster.

We need more people of good will, who are more tolerant and patient, more kind and compassionate. And these can become qualities not just espoused but embodied.”

The philosophy espoused here is eudaemonism, which is a system of ethics that bases moral values on the likelihood that good actions will produce happiness. The exact opposite is hedonism, which is hardly an ethical theory, and maintains that pleasure is the highest good and proper aim of human life. There are several problems with hedonism. One is to take care of oneself and to screw everyone else. Poor health often is concomitant with pleasure. There also constraints on the amount of pleasure one can tolerate. Eudaemonism is unconstrained, promotes health, benefits others, and results in happiness. The hope is that eudaemonism is within us human beings and that meditation and mindfulness are activities that foster eudaemonism.

Understand that the goal here is not to convert people to Buddhism. The Dali Lama uses science to inform Buddhist ideology and practices. He sends monks to study science. Most religions at onetime had contemplative practices like meditation, and some still do. Rather than citing words by rote, prayer should be a meditative practice. It is important to realize that all religions, Buddhism included, have been created by human beings. What is spoken from the pulpit should not be taken uncritically. Rather, one needs to assess not only whether it corresponds with the stated doctrine and literature of the religion, but also whether it corresponds to a loving, just, and forgiving God.

Obviously, this book deserves many posts. Coleman and Davidson apply rigorous standards to assessing the data, so the conclusions above are justified. The primary criticism might well be that they are overly optimistic. Nevertheless, they are well worth pursuing.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2017. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

The Somewhat Tarnished Gold Standard

September 22, 2017

This post is exclusively HM’s. It is being introduced here before the final two posts on “The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High Tech World” by Drs. Adam Gazzaley and Larry Rosen. The final two posts provide guidance on how to cope with the distracted mind. The authors do a well-intentioned but naive review of research and attempt to rank methods with respect to their level of confidence. This post provides some background for understanding research results and conclusions that should be generally valuable.

Randomized, placebo-controlled, double-blinded studies called randomized controlled trials or RCTs are the Gold Standard for research. This is a good standard to employ when it is feasible. But it is not always feasible, and attempts to apply it can lead to erroneous conclusions.

Here is an example where the Gold Standard was applied with no adverse consequences. This was the test of the Salk Vaccine for polio. HM was in the second grade at this time. Some test participants were given the Salk Vaccine and others were given a placebo. HM did not know whether he had been given the vaccine or a placebo, nor did the people administering the vaccine. We were assigned randomly, there were placebo controls, and the people administering did not know if we were being given the vaccine or the placebo (number were assigned to identify the conditions, but the administrators did not know what the numbers meant.

Now suppose participants assigned themselves. Here everything falls apart and valid interpretations are not possible.

Now suppose the Gold Standard was employed, but negative results, no evidence that the vaccine worked, were achieved. Does this allow the conclusion that the vaccine does not work? In statistics, you cannot prove a negative. The procedure is to decide to reject the null hypothesis with a certain degree of confidence. It is conceivable that the dose was too small. Another test might be warranted using larger doses.

Suppose the test involved a medication that was self-administered, and the Gold Standard was rigorously applied. What could possibly confound the results? Well the question is how well did the participants self-administer the medication? Differences in the results could be the result of an artifact caused by their being differences in adherence to self administration in the two groups.

The efficacy of meditation has been tested. HM has been pleasantly surprised by the positive results when the training was short and the training period fairly limited. In a study in which a group instructed to meditate is compared to a group instructed to do something else, there is the following possible problem: if participants have been randomly assigned to the groups, some who have been assigned to the meditation group might not believe in meditation and have a negative attitude to training and the entire project. This is different from RCTs in which the participants are passive and the treatment is administered to them.
When HM was a graduate student there was a hotly contested debate regarding whether humans could learn to control their autonomic nervous systems. HM thought this was ridiculous as there were practitioners of certain religions, Buddhism for example, who were able to control their heart rates and reduce them to frighteningly low levels. So HM thought the issue was resolved. But research was being done at colleges in which students were given biofeedback and examined as to whether they could learn to control their heart rates. Since this research failed, these researchers effectively accepted the null hypothesis, and ignored evidence from the millions of humans who were effective controlling their autonomic nervous systems.

HM is a strong advocate of mindfulness meditation. This increases the control of our attentional processes, which gives us increased control of our mind and emotions. The research question is not whether it works, but how much meditation of different types is useful. There is more than ample research indicating the benefits of the relaxation response discussed in healthy memory blogs.

So for RCTs to yield valid results, the experimental design and sample sizes should be adequate. Research participant compliance is another issue. Moreover, there is a much more important issue to which the research community at large has yet to consider. This issue comes from epigenetics: it is not just genes, but what is read out from the genes that is important. Nurture affects what is read out from the gene, so two individuals with identical genes can differ in how these genes are expressed. So identical twins can differ radically. One outstanding example involved two identical twin sisters. One was popular and a successful student. The other was socially withdrawn and a poor student. These twins were raised in the same family. Medications for people with identical genes could still have different effects. So under what conditions, are RCTs are still applicable? Herbert I. Weinberg has raised this issue in his book, “Willful Ignorance: The Mismeasure of Uncertainty.”

Yet another factor for consideration is the distinction between between near and far conclusions. Practically all results and conclusions should be regarded as near studies. Studies showing the cognitive benefits of games provide a useful example. If cognitive tests reveal a difference between people playing games and people who don’t, one can only make conclusions about these immediate benefits. Conclusions about the far effects of these games, say in the prevention of dementia, are questionable extrapolations. How long do these games have to be played? These conclusions await further research.

Now there are good data (see the healthymemory blog post “Cognitive Activity and the Risk of Alzheimer’s Disease”) indicating that cognitive activity helps build cognitive reserve which reduces the risk of dementia. Now the brain is always active, even when we sleep. So the question is what types of cognitive activity? HM has strongly argued that effortful processing, what Kahneman terms System 2 processing.

HM is mildly depressed when physical activity is emphasized, and cognitive activity relatively ignored. Sure physical activity is beneficial along with living a healthy lifestyle. But a main effect of physical activity is to increase oxygen flow to the brain. However effortful System 2 processing, activates many pathways in the brain and creates new links. Practically all learning initially involves System 2 processing, and as long as different and new ideas are being considered or new material is being learned, more pathways are activated and new links are made. HM argues it is this that enables the overcoming of the amyloid plaque and neurofibrillary tangles that are the defining characteristics of Alzheimer’s.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2017. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

SPACE

March 7, 2017

SPACE is the title of Part Three of Victor Strecher’s Book, “Life on Purpose.”  The Japanese have a word for “Life on Purpose” and that is ikigai, which is used in these posts because it has an earlier appearance in this blog and is shorter.

SPACE is an acronym that stands for Sleep, Presence, Activity, Creativity, and Eating.  An entire chapter is devoted to each of these topics, as the author goes into great detail regarding the importance and the implementation of these activities.  Only Presence will be addressed in the healthy memory blog.

Presence begins with this quote from Steve Jobs:
“If you just sit and observe, you will see how restless your mind is.  If you try to calm it, it only makes it worse, but over time it does calm, and when it does, there’s room to  hear more subtle things—that’s when  you intuition starts to blossom and you start to see things more clearly and be in the present more.  Your mind just slows down, and you see a tremendous expanse in the moment.  You see so much more that you could see before.  It’s a discipline; you have to practice.”

Jobs is talking about meditation.  He personally consulted Zen masters and made periodic trips to Japan to sharpen his meditations.

Much has been written in the healthy memory blog about meditation.  What will be included here is “LOVING-KINDNESS MEDITATION.”  This particular meditation is famous.  One reason for its popularity comes from the recordings of the brains of Buddhist monks while doing this meditation.  The phrase, “off-the-charts” might capture these recordings.

*Find a comfortable place to sit, either in a chair or on the floor (HM reclines, which is okay provided you do not fall asleep).  Close your eyes.  Take a few moments to just be, noticing the sounds, smells, and feelings.  Allowing yourself to settle down, turn your attention to your breathing.

*Notice the way you body automatically, effortlessly inhales and exhales.

*Don’t try to manipulate you breath in any way.  Notice the feeling of air moving in and out of the nose and the easy, natural way your body moves

*Imagine yourself in a beautiful place.  As you continue breathing in and out, say to yourself, “May I be happy and free of suffering.”  (You can use many other salutary phrases here such as “health” or “strength”—or create your own.)

*Next, imagine a new person entering your beautiful place.  This is a person you care for a great deal.  Again, as you continue breathing in and out, say to yourself, “May you be happy and free of suffering.”

*Now move to another person entering your beautiful place.  This is a person who provokes no feeling of like or dislike.  A neutral person.  It could be a bank teller or a waitress you recently interacted with.  As you continue breathing in and out, say to yourself, “May you be happy and free of suffering.”
*Now move to another person.  A person who provokes feelings of dislike.  Again as you continue breathing in and out, say to yourself, “May you be happy and free of suffering.”

*Finally, extend these feeling of loving-kindness to the world.  To all living beings.  Bring them into your special place and say to yourself. “May all beings be happy and free of suffering.”

*Take a minute or so with your eyes shut before going back to your daily routine.

Siddhartha’s Brain

October 14, 2016

“Siddhartha’s Brain” is a book by the veteran science writer James Kingsland.  The subtitle of the book  is “Unlocking the Ancient Science of Enlightenment.”  Should you not know, Siddhartha, a well off noble who became a pauper to learn about suffering and, more importantly, how to deal with it, became known as the Buddha.  If people think they know one thing about Buddhism, it is probably that Buddhists believe in repeated rebirths after death.  However, when the Dalai Lama  was asked whether it is necessary to believe in rebirth to be a Buddhist, he emphatically replied:  “It doesn’t matter!   The most important thing was to practice the essence of the Buddha’s teaching—impermanence, selflessness, and compassion.”  He went on to say that with increasingly refined states of meditation, one would invariably  gain the insight that rebirth was real and that to escape from the cycle of suffering, one must attain nibbana. The Dalai Lama does not proselytize Buddhism.  What he does strongly advocate is secular humanism.  Even Buddhists in traditional schools dismiss any speculation about rebirth as a waste of time.  They believe instead that we  should focus on the karma that determines out psychological well being in this life.   It is important to realize that Buddhism is not a belief system.  Rather it is a religious approach based on experience.

Nor is it claimed that Buddhists developed meditation.  Rather it is believed that individual humans stumbled upon the meditative experience.  Moreover, meditation has been practiced by contemplatives in virtually every substantive religion.  Meditation can and should be expanded into mindfulness.  One is tempted to attribute the current state of the world, as well as the historical record, to a famine of mindfulness.  It is hoped that some day there will be a feast of mindfulness,  The practice of mindfulness involves regarding oneself in the third person and trying to understand others from their perspectives, and to be concerned about their well-being.

One learns much about Siddhartha and Buddhism in this volume to include practices of meditation and mindfulness. But it does not cover all the different branches  of Buddhism.  They range from the extremely ascetic Zen Buddhism to highly commercial versions.  There are Buddhist priests who marry and have families.  HM has been to Japan several times and has marveled at the selling of fortunes by some versions.

There are Buddhists who strongly object to the way the private companies have adopted mindfulness and meditation practices.  Philosophically, they are far from the Dalai Lama who presses for secular humanism.  Regardless, HM predicts that in the future it will be commonplace for businesses and agencies to have dedicated spaces for meditation and mindfulness.  Dedicated facilities for physical exercise have become commonplace, but dedicated facilities for meditation and mindfulness will not only promote physical health, they will also promote psychological health and beneficial interactions among personnel.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2016. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

A Good Reference on Meditation

June 18, 2016

That reference would be “How to Meditate” by Kathleen McDonald.  Should one be interested in learning more about the meditation techniques employed by the Buddhist Monks that were discussed in the post “Transforming the Emotional Mind,”  then this reference is highly recommended.  Many of the benefits from meditation can be gained just by practicing the relaxation response (see the healthy memory blog post, “An Update of the Relaxation Response Update”).  Moreover, the time demands for this type of meditation are quite reasonable.

Kathleen McDonald was born in California in 1952.  In 1973 she took her first courses in Buddhist meditation in Dharmsala, India.  Dharmsala is where the Dalai Lama resides since his exile from Tibet.  She was ordained  as a Tibetan, Buddhist in 1974.  In 1978 she moved to England to continue her higher Buddhist studies, and in 1982 helped establish the FPMT’s Dorje Pamo Monastery for Buddhist nuns in France.  From 1985 until 1987 she taught in Australia, then for a year in Nepal, followed by eleven years as resident teacher at FPMT’s Amitabh Buddhist Center in Singapore.  Since 2000 she has been teaching around the world, taking a break in mid-2005 for a year’s solitary retreat in Spain.

Ms. McDonald writes concisely and is easily understood.  She does not proselytize.  Instead she shows how other religious beliefs can be incorporated into meditations. The information provided about Buddhism is in the context of how to do the different types of meditation.

Healthy Memory is not a Buddhist, but he finds many of the ideas and practices of Buddhism promote a healthy memory.  Unlike some religions, which are anti-science and preach against evolution of global warming, the Dalai Lama’s Buddhism is pro-science and incorporates scientific findings rather than rejecting them.

Now What?

June 16, 2016

“Now What” is the title of the final chapter in Sharon Begley’s outstanding book, “Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain:  How a New Science Reveals Our Extraordinary Potential to Transform Ourselves.”   The answer to this question is that the future has arrived and that we are the beneficiaries of a revolution in the understanding of the brain and human potential.

There are three key discoveries.  One is that neurons are created until we die.
The second is neuroplasticity that the brain can rewire itself.
The third is that we can effect these changes with how with think, that is, with our minds.  Hence the title, “Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain.

Sometimes there are problems in the brain, and these can be corrected  by the way we think and exercises that can effectively make corrections to our neuroplastici brains.  But we can also build upon and improve our minds.  The future is virtually limitless.
Begley reviews some of the exciting research of Merzenich, which shall not be reviewed here as there shall be many future posts about the work of Merzenich.

A critical topic is that of secular ethics, a term Healthymemor believes was coined by the Dalai Lama.  The Dalai lama does not proselytize for Buddhism.  Rather he argues for a new basis for a modern ethics, one that appeals to the billions of people who adhere to different religions or to no religion, one that supports basic values such as personal responsibility, altruism, and compassion.

The problem is that a scientific literate person or anyone who gives a cursory glance at newspaper science stories may well react to that a message with some skepticism.  Modern science seems to be offering a radically different view of human responsibility.  Critics call this view neurogenetic determinism, the belief, ascendant from the early 1990s and propelled by the mystique of modern genetics, that ascribes causal power to the genres one inherent from one’s parents.  Should a reader still adhere to this view they are urged to read or reread all the posts devoted to Begleys book.  Genes are affected by the environment and, what is important, are epigenetic, which refers to what is read out from genes.  The environment has strong effects as do meditative practices.  There is a related wrong view and that is strict determinism.  We are victims to neither our genes nor to our environments.  Our minds, how we think about the world along with meditative practices, can and do effect changes.

Healthy memory shall conclude this post with the Begley’s final paragraph.  “The conscious act of thinking about one’s thoughts in a different way changes the very brain circuits that do that thinking, as studies show how psychotherapy changes the minds of people with depression show.  Such willfully induced brain changes require focus, training, and effort, but a growing number of studies show how real those changes are.  They come from within.  As discoveries of neuroplasticity, and this self-directed neuroplasticity, trickle down to clinics and schools and plain old living rooms, the ability to willfully change the brain will become a central part of our lives—and our understanding what it means to be human.”

Transforming the Emotional Mind

June 13, 2016

The title of this post is identical to the title of Chapter nine of Sharon Begley’s “Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain.”  In the 1970s, Davidson and his colleagues discovered striking differences in the patterns of brain activity that characterize people at opposite ends of the “eudaemonic scale,” which provides the spectrum of baseline happiness.  There are specific brain states that correlate with happiness.

Secondly, brain-activation patterns can change as a result of therapy and mindfulness meditation, in which people learn to think differently about their thoughts.  This has been shown in patients with obsessive-compulsive disorder and with patients suffering from depression.  Mental training practice and effort can bring about changes in the function of the brain.

Given these two facts Davidson built the hypothesis that meditation or other forms of mental training can, by exploiting the brain’s neuroplasticity, produce changes, most likely in patterns of neuronal activation, but perhaps even in the structure of neural circuitry that underlie enduring happiness and other positive emotions.  Then therapists and even individuals by exploiting the brain’s potential to change its wiring can restore the brain and the mind to emotional health.

In 1992 Davidson and his colleagues found that activity in the brain’s prefrontal cortex, as detected by EEG, is a reflection of a person’s emotional state.  Asymmetric activation in this region corresponds to different “affective styles.”  When activity in the left prefrontal cortex is markedly and chronically higher than in the right, people report feeling alert, energized, enthusiastic, and joyous, enjoying life more and having a greater sense of  well-being.  In other words, they tend to be happier.  When there is greater activity in the right prefrontal cortex, people report feeling negative emotions including worry, anxiety, and sadness.  They express discontent with life and rarely feel elation or joy.  If the asymmetry is so extreme that activity in the right prefrontal cortex swamps that in the left, the person has a high risk of falling into clinical depression.

The Dalai Lama has noted that the most powerful influences on the mind come from within our own mind.  The findings that, in highly experienced  meditators, there is greater activity in the left frontal cortex “imply that happiness is something we can cultivate deliberately through mental training that affects the brain.”

Research has shown that every area of the brain that had been implicated in some aspect of emotion had also been linked to some aspect of thought:  circuitry that crackles with electrical activity  when when the mind feels an emotion and circuitry  that comes alive when the mind undergoes cognitive processing, whether it is remembering, or thinking, or planning, or calculating, are intertwined as yarn on a loom.  Neurons principally associated with thinking connect to those mostly associated with emotion, and vice versa.  This neuroanatomy is consistent with two thousand years of Buddhist thought, which holds that emotion and cognition cannot be separated.

Using fMRI Davidson measured activity in the brain’s amygdala, an area that is active during such afflictive emotions as distress, fear, anger,and anxiety.  Davidson said, “Simply by mental rehearsal of the aspiration that a person in a photo be free of suffering, people can change the strength of the signal in the amygdala.  This signal in he fear-generating amygdala can be modulated with mental training.

Eight Buddhist adepts and eight controls  with 256 electrodes glued to their scalps engaged in the form of meditation called pure compassion, in which the meditator focuses on unlimited compassion and loving-kindness toward all living beings.  This produces a state in which love and compassion permeates the whole mind, with no other considerations, reasoning, or discursive thoughts.  The brain waves that predominated were gamma waves.  Scientists  believe that brain waves of this frequency reflect the activation and recruitment of neural resources and general mental effort.  They are also a signature of neuronal activity that knits together far-found brain circuits.  In 2004 the results of this study were published in the “Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.  Not surprisingly the results of the monks were quite pronounced.  But it was encouraging to discover that some of the controls who received a crash crash course and only a week’s worth of compassion meditation, showed a slight but significant increase in the gamma signal.

fMRI images were also taken.  The differences between the adepts and the controls were quite interesting.  There was significantly greater activation in the right ins and caudate, a network that other research has linked to empathy and maternal love.  These differences were most pronounced in monks with more years of meditation.  Connections from the frontal regions to the brain’s emotion regions seemed to become stronger with more years practicing meditation.  It was clear that mental training that engages concentration and thought can alter connections between the thinking brain and the emotional brain.

A surprising finding was that when the monks engaged in compassion meditation, their brains showed increased activity in regions responsible for planned movement.   It appeared that the monks’ brains were itching to go to the aid of those in distress.  Another spot of activation in the brains of the meditating monks jumped out in  an area in the left prefrontal cortex, the site of activity association with happiness.  Activity in the left prefrontal swamped activity in the right prefrontal  to a degree never before seen from purely mental activity.

Davidson concluded, “ I believe that Buddhism has something to teach us as scientists about the possibilities of human transformation and in providing a set of methods and a road map of how to achieve that.  We can have no idea how much plasticity there really is in the human brain until we see what intense mental training, not some weekly meditation session, can accomplish.  We’ve gotten the idea in Western culture, that we can change our mental status by a once-a-week, forty-five intervention, which is completely cockamamy.  Athletes and musicians train many hours every day.  As a neuroscientist, I have to believe that engaging in compassion meditation every day for an hour each day would change your brain in important ways.  To deny that without testing it, to accept the null hypothesis, is simply bad science.”

Davidson continues, “I believe that neuroplasticity will reshape psychology in the coming years.  Much of psychology had accepted the idea of a fixed program unfolding in the brain, one that strongly shapes behavior, personality, and emotional states.  That view is shattered by the discoveries of neuroplasticity.  Neuroplasticity will be the counter to the deterministic view (that genes have behavior on a short leash).  The message I take for my own work is that I have a choice in how I react, that who I am depends on the choices I make, and that who I am is therefore my responsibility.”

The Neuroplasticity of Young Brains

June 9, 2016

The fourth chapter of “Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain”  by Sharon Begley is concerned with the neuroplasticity of young brains.  It reviews an enormous amount of research that can best be summarized in the following paragraphs taken from the text.

“…the key sensory cortices are, for the first decade of life and perhaps longer, like a flighty new college gradate hopscotching from job to job, responding to the best offer.  No signals from the eyes arriving?  No problem; the visual cortex will handle a different sense and even a non sensory job such as language.  No transmission from the ears?  The auditory cortex will be happy to help out with peripheral vision.  By the early years of the millennium, it was clear that these structures should really be referred to as he “visual cortex” and the “auditory cortex” in quotation marks.  “Visual information is going into the auditory cortex and auditor information is going into the visual cortex,” the researcher Neville told the Dalai Lama as she ended her presentation.  “This isn’t supposed to be how our brain is wired.  But what the research has shown is that the primary visual cortex is not inherently different from the primary auditory cortex.  Brain specialization is not a function of anatomy or dictated by genes.  It is a result of experience.  Who we are and how we work comes from our perceptions and experiences.  It is the outside world that determines the functions properties of the brain’s neurons.  And that’s what our work has been about: how experience shapes the functional capabilities of the brain.”

“Usually, the pathways from the ears to the visual cortex and from the eyes to the visual cortex remain scarcely traveled if traveled at all, like back roads.  In people with normal vision and hearing, superhighways  carry signals from the eyes to the visual cortex and from the ears to he auditory cortex just fine, swamping any activity  along the back roads of he brain.   As a result, the wayward connections all away soon after birth , when the brain figures out where signals are supposed to go.  But in the absence of normal sensory input, as when neurons from the retina are unable to carry signals to the visual cortex or neurons from the ears to carry signals to the auditory cortex, the preexisting but little-used connections become unmasked and start carrying traffic.  The “visual” cortex hears, and the “auditory cortex sees, enabling the brain to hear the lightning and see the thunder.  (“In Buddhism,” Thupten Jinpa added, “there is a claim that an advanced meditator can transfer sensory functions to different organs, so that visual activity can be performed by something other  than the ears.  In this case, a meditator can read with “closed eyes.”)  In what Alvaro Pascual -Leone and colleagues call “the intrinsically plastic brain,” more permanent structural changes then kick in, as neurons grow and sprout more connections to other neurons.  This may be how the visual cortex adds higher cognitive function to its repertoire, too.”

Buddhism’s Concept of Self

June 7, 2016

According to Buddhism a person can be viewed as an amalgam of five elements—the physical body, feeling or sensations, ideation or mental activity, mental formations or perceptions, and consciousness.  According to the scholar and monk Wallace, these five aggregates “are in a constant state of flux, never, never static even for a moment, and the self is simply imputed  upon the basis of these psychophysical aggregates.  Gold told the group, “The environment  and our experiences change our brain, so who you are as a person changes by virtue of he environment you live in and the experiences you have.”  The psychologist Richie Davidson called that discovery “a point of intersection with Buddhism.”

A little introspective thought should convince you of the truth of this proposition.  We are constantly changing.  Most of the time these changes are slow and incremental, but there are times when they can be large and life changing.  Epiphanies and insights can produce large changes in our thoughts.

Given that a we are constantly changing, it seems prudent to have the goal of changing for the better.  Continual learning through growth mindsets as well as continual improvement in our life processes through meditation and mindfulness capitalize on our ever changing selves.

This post is short to leave time for thought and contemplation.

The Dalai Lama, Science, and Buddhism

June 6, 2016

The Dalai Lama, whose shortened religious name is Tenzin Guyatso, is the 14th Dalai Lama.  Dalai Lamas are important monks of the Gelug school, which is the newest school of Tibetan Buddhism.  This current Dalai Lama was interested in science from a very early age, and this interest in science has grown as he has matured.  Although science and religion are often portrayed as chronic opponents and sometimes even enemies.  There is no historic antagonism between Buddhism and Science as there has been between science and the Roman Catholic Church.  The Roman Catholic Church put Copernicus’s work on the Index of forbidden books and tried Galileo by the Inquisition, found him “vehemently suspect of heresy”, forced him to recant, and to spend the rest of his life under house arrest.  Both Buddhism and science share the goal of seeking the truth, with a small t.  For science truth is, or should be, always tentative and always subject to refutation by the next experiment.  For Buddhism, especially as the Dalai Lama sees it, even core teachings can and must be overturned if science proves them wrong.  Most importantly, Buddhist training emphasizes the value of investigating reality and finding the truth of the outside world as well as the contents of one’s mind.  According to Alan Wallace, who spent years as a Buddhist monk before turning in his robes to become a Buddhist scholar and who is a long time participant in the dialogues between scientists and the Dalai Lama, “Four themes are common to Buddhism at its best:  rationality, empiricism, skepticism, and pragmatism.”

In 1983, the Dalai Lama traveled to Austria for a conference on consciousness where he met Francisco Varela, a thirty-seven-year-old Chilean born neuroscientist who had begun practicing Buddhism in 1974.  It was not surprising  that the Dalai Lama had never met an eminent neuroscientist who was also knowledgeable about Buddhism, so the young researcher and the older Buddhist hit it off immediately.   Even with his busy schedule the Dalai Lama told Varela he wished he could have such conversations more often.

The following year Varela heard about a plan that Adam Engle, an entrepreneur in California was working on.  When Engle heard from Varela about the Dalai Lama’s interest in science he decided he wanted to put some energy into making the Dala Lama’s interest in science something more than a passing fancy.

After having put a great deal of energy into the effort in October 1987, the Dalai Lama hosted the first conference of what had been named the Mind and Life Institute in Dharmsala, India, where the Dalai Lama lives in exile.  Many conferences of the Mind and Life Institute have followed.  Many parts of this book are taken directly from these meetings between scientists and Buddhist scholars in Dharmsala.

Some scientists saw the Dalai Lama as a bridge between the world of spirituality and the world of science, someone whose expertise in mental training might offer western science a perspective that has been lacking in its investigations of mind and brain.  He was invited to address the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience in 2005, but not without controversy.  Some five hundreds members signed a petition protesting his appearance arguing that religion has no place as a scientific conference.  The Dalai Lama has offered the following answer, “Spirituality and science are different but complimentary  investigative approaches with the same greater goal of seeking truth.”  He told neuroscientists that although Eastern contemplative practices and western science arose for different reasons and with different roles, they share an over-riding purpose.  They both investigate reality.  “By gaining deeper insight into the human psyche, we might find ways of transforming our thoughts, emotions and their underlying properties so that a more wholesome and fulfilling way can be found.”

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2016. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain

June 5, 2016

The title of this blog post is the title of a book by Sharon Begley.  Please ponder this title for a moment and consider its ramifications.

It overturns two longstanding dogmas.  One is that the brain is hardwired and fixed.  The second is that although we are conscious, this consciousness is epiphenomenal in that his consciousness cannot change the brain.

Healthy memory was pleased to learn that William James, the father of experimental psychology in the United States, first introduced the word “plasticity to the science of the brain.  In 1890 James posited that “organic matter,” especially nervous tissue, seems endowed with a very extraordinary degree of plasticity.”As Ms. Begley notes, “But James was ‘only’ a psychologist, not a neurologist (there was no such thing as a neuroscientist a century ago) and his speculation went nowhere.”Santiago Ramon y Cajal was a great Spanish neuroanatomist who won the Nobel prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1906.  In 1913 near the conclusion of his treatise on the nervous system he declared, “In the adult center the nerve paths are somewhat fixed, ended and immutable, thus stating that the physiology of the brain itself could not be changed. Nevertheless, he did continue with the hope, “It is for the science of the future to change, if possible, this harsh decree.”  Fortunately, empirical evidence that emerged in the 1990s and will be discussed in subsequent posts found that this statement is wrong.

The second dogma, that consciousness is epiphenomenal and that only the brain is made of solid stuff that science can study was never accepted by the Buddhists.  In Buddhism the mind is contra and can be used not only to influence but to change the brain.  The Dalai Lama ins very much interested in science and uses science to alter religious beliefs.  This will be discussed in the immediately following post.

As this is an important book, healthy memory shall devote many posts to it.  Even so, Healthymemory will not be able to do Sharon Begley’s book justices.  Thus, healthy memory encourages you to read the book, and Healthymemory is egotistical enough to think that there will be added value in also reading the posts.

The Latest Discoveries in Neuroplasticity

April 26, 2015

These can be found in the book, The Brain’s Way of Healing:  Remarkable Discoveries and Recoveries from the Frontiers of Neuroplasticity by Norman Dodge, M.D.  This is the sequel to his earlier book, The Brain That Changes Itself. I am especially impressed as when I was a graduate student, there was no such thing as neuroplasticity.  Once damage was done to the nervous system, it could neither be treated nor repaired.  The nervous system was fixed and not amenable to change.  So The Brain That Changes Itself was eye opening and overwhelming.  The Brain’s Way of Healing does not disappoint.

Doidge is a Canadian psychiatrist who has received research funding from both the National Institute of Mental Health in the United States and the National Health Research and Development Program of Health Canada.  And obviously he is an accomplished writer who knows this topic intimately.  You can visit his webpage http://www.normandoidge.com.

He relates case histories, explains the underlying  science, and documents this research with references and notes in the back of the book.

The first chapter discusses a physician who specialized in the treating pain discovering how Chronic Pain can be unlearned.   He discovered this in learning how to cope with his personal chronic pain and then formulated a course of treatment using this method.

The next chapter presented the case history of a Parkinson’s sufferer who learned how to walk off his Parkinsonian symptoms.  This showed how physical exercise helps fend off degenerative disorders and can defer dementia.

The third chapter discusses the stages of neuroplastic healing explaining how and why it works.

Chapter four explains how the brain can be rewired with light by using light to reawaken dormant neural circuits.

Chapter 5 introduces us to Moshe FeldenKrais, a physicist who had a Black Belt in Judo and who developed a means of healing serious brain problems through mental awareness of movement.

Chapter 6 explains how a blind mind learned to see using the method of Feldenkraus, Buddhist and other Neuroplastic Methods.

The seventh Chapter discusses a strange device called the PoNS that stands for Portable Neuromodulation Simulator because when it stimulates the brain, it modifies and corrects how the neurons are firing.  It stimulates modulation to reverse symptoms.  It has been successful in treating traumatic Brain Injury, Parkinson’s, Stroke, and Multiple Sclerosis.

The eighth chapter discusses how sound can be used and the special connection between music and the brain.  It has been successful in treating dyslexia, autism, attention deficit, and sensory process disorder.s

There are three appendices.  The first presents a general approach to Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) and brain problems.  The second appendix discusses matrix repatterning for  TBI that has been developed by Canadian clinical Dr. George Bush.  Appendix 3 discusses neurofeedback for Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD), Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder (ADHD), Anxiety, and TBI.

After reading all this, it is understandable that you might conclude that this is bunk, it is simply too outlandish.  Please accept my assurances that this is not the case, and that this is genuine research at the forefront of knowledge.  I hope the Veterans Hospitals are applying this research to veterans suffering from trauma.  And I would like to encourage sufferers of these maladies to read about these treatments.  However, I am reluctant to do so, because there is little information on where information can be found to pursue these treatments.  Perhaps if it were, the limited resources available would be overwhelmed.  It will take time for this research to trickle down with resultant treatment centers employing and furthering the research.

Mindfulness is Growing Rapidly

December 3, 2013

As was reported in a column in The Economist.1 Google is offering an internal course titled “search inside yourself.” This has proved so popular that Google has created entry-level versions such as “neural self-hacking,” and “managing your energy.” They also have a labyrinth for walking meditation. Ebay has meditation rooms equipped with pillows and flowers. Rupert Murdoch is interested in transcendental meditation, which he says “everyone recommends.” Rayu Dalio of Bridgewater Associates says that meditation has had more impact on his success in the money-management business than anything else. Mindfulness is being introduced at Harvard Business School to develop leaders who are self-aware and self-compassionate. Arianna Huffington runs a mindfulness conference, a “GPS for the soul” app and a mindfulness corner of her Huffington Post.

The Duke University School of Medicine has conducted research that concludes that in the United States an hour of yoga a week reduces stress levels in employees by a third and cuts health-care costs by an average of $2,000 a year.

The Economist article notes that business success might be a tad at odds with the Buddhist ethic of non-attachment to material goods, but Buddhism, like most religions, has different sects to suit different tastes. Whereas Zen Buddhists are highly ascetic, there are other sects that are quite commercial selling fortunes and other items.

Just today I received a solicitation for a donation to the Prison Mindfulness Institute, which, as the name implies, works with prisoners. You can check this out at their website, www.PrisonMIndfulness.org.

Today, it is quite common to see areas devoted to physical exercise at businesses, government offices, and hotels. I believe that we shall soon be seeing mediation areas in these same places. Where space is limited we might even see them replacing the physical exercise areas.

You can find many posts about mindfulness and meditation, by placing mindfulness or meditation in the healthymemory blog search block.

1Schumpeter (2013). The mindfulness business, Nov 16th p.73.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2013. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Blogging Buddhists

October 2, 2013

Yes. Buddhists do use technology and they blog. This post is so titled because of the third principle of contemplative computing1, Be Mindful. We need to learn what being mindful feels like and to learn to see opportunities to exercise it while being online or using devices.

Buddhist monastics use the web to test their beliefs and objectives, that is their mindfulness, capacity for compassion, and right behavior. In the digital world it is easy to forget that we’re ultimately interacting with our fellow human beings rather than Web pages. Damchoe Wangmo recommends that you “investigate your motivation before each online action, to observe what is going on in your mind,” and stop if you’re driven by “afflictive emotions” like jealousy, anger, hatred, or fear.2 Choekyi Libby watches herself online to “make sure I’m doing what I’m doing motivated by beneficial intention.”3 Others argue that we need to bring empathy to technology, to have our interactions be informed by our own ethical guidelines and moral sensibility. If we can be a positive presence online, we can be an even better one in the real world. “Approaching your interactions with information technologies as opportunities to test and strengthen your ability to be mindful; treating failures to keep focused as normal, predictable events that you can learn from; observing what helps you to be mindful online and what doesn’t—in other words engaging in self-observation and self-experimentation—can improve your interactions with technologies and build your extended mind.4

The following Rules for Mindful Social Media are taken from Appendix Two of The Distraction Addiction:

Engage with care. Think of social media as an opportunity to practice what the Buddhists call right speech, not as an opportunity to get away with being a troll.

Be mindful about your intentions. Ask yourself why you’re going onto Facebook or Pinterest. Are you just bored? Angry? Is this a state of mind you want to share?

Remember the people on the other side of the screen. It’s easy to focus you attention on clicks and comments, but remember that you’re ultimately dealing with people, not media.

Quality, not quantity. Do you have something you really want to share, something that’s worth other people’s attention? Then go ahead and share. But remember the aphorism carved into the side of the Scottish Parliament: Say little but say it well.

Live first, tweet later. Make the following promise to yourself: I will never again write the words OMG, I’m doing doing x and tweeting at the same time LOL.

Be deliberate. Financial journalist and blogger Felix Salmon once lamented that most people believe that online content is not supposed to be read but reacted to. Just as you shouldn’t let machines determine where you place your attention, you shouldn’t let the words of others drive what you say in the public sphere. Being deliberate means that you won’t chatter mindlessly or feed trolls. You’ll say but little and say it well.

The remaining five principles of contemplative computing will be discussed in subsequent healthymemory blog posts. The first two principles were discussed in the immediately preceding posts.

1(2013) Pang, Alex Soojung-Kim. The Distraction Addiction

2Ibid. p. 219

3Ibid. p.219

4Ibid. Pp 221-222.

Buddha’s Brain

February 13, 2011

Buddha’s Brain: the practical neuroscience of happiness, love, and wisdom1 is not a book proselytizing Buddhism. Its authors are Rick Hanson, Ph.D., and Richard Mendius, MD, who are a neuropsychologist and a neurologist, respectively. They address the intersection of three disciplines: Psychology, Neuroscience, and Contemplative Practice. In doing so, they avail us of wisdom from the East, wisdom that is not addressed by the West, in general, and by the Western educational system, in particular. Buddha’s Brain provides readers with a great deal of potential for cognitive growth and personal fulfillment.

Here are some basic facts from Buddha’s Brain. The brain consists of about 1.1 trillion cells, 100 billion of which are neurons. The average neuron receives about 5,000 connections, synapses, from other neurons. Chemicals called neurotransmitters carry signals across these synapses. A typical neuron fires from 5 to 50 times a second. The number possible neurons firing or not firing is about 10 to the millionth power (1 followed by a million zeroes). Now the number of atoms in the universe is estimated to be about 10 to the eightieth power. Conscious mental events, which represent a small percentage of brain activity, are based on temporary coalitions of synapses that form and disperse. Although the brain is only about 2 percent of the body’s weight, it consumes from 20 to 25 percent of the bodies oxygen and glucose. The brain is constantly working and uses about the same amount of energy whether you are sleeping or thinking hard. The brain interacts with the rest of your body and is shaped by the mind as well. Your mind is made by your brain, body, and natural culture as well as by the mind itself.

Buddha’s Brain covers the structures of the brain and neurotransmitters and explanations of what does what and how the different structures interact. More importantly, Buddha’s Brain explains how you can affect these structures and processes and mold your own brain and behavior. Readers of the Healthymemory Blog should know the importance of attention and selective attention to effective memory. Buddha’s Brain covers how to control and expand attention as well as how to control your emotions to lead to, as the title promises, happiness, love, and wisdom. People who are deeply into contemplative practices are able to control heart rate and blood pressure.

One prediction that I have read, and which I believe, is that within twenty years meditative practices will have become as frequent as aerobic exercising is today.

Some future blog posts will be based on excerpts from Buddha’s Brain, but they cannot do justice to the entire book. I strongly recommend its reading.

1Hanson, R., & Mendius, R. (2009). Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications, Inc. 

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2011. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.