Thursday, December 21, 2017

Beyond the Self: Buddhism and Neuroscience

BEYOND THE SELF: Conversations Between Buddhism and Neuroscience
by Matthieu Ricard and Wolf Singer
MIT Press 

I remember seeing a public television documentary on the brain, in the early 1970s.  It was then orthodoxy that humans could not consciously affect internal workings of the body.  But the final shot was of a Buddhist monk in meditation, as the voiceover mentioned that meditators claimed to affect their own pulse rate and other functions, and this ought to be investigated.

Shortly after that, biofeedback and "the relaxation response" became New Age enthusiasms that by now have entered orthodox medicine.  The relationship of the brain and body continues to be explored, and for three decades now, the relationship of brain and mind has been explored through the agency of the Mind and Life Institute and the efforts of the Dalai Lama.  A series of gatherings of scientists and monks sparked laboratory research in which experienced meditators like Matthieu Ricard (a participant at several of the Dalai Lama's gatherings) wore sensors that recorded brain patterns, studied by neuroscientists (like Wolf Singer.)

These meetings resulted in a series of books (10 of which I've read and reviewed), with many of the more recent discussions viewable on the Internet.  This work profoundly affected some of the scientists involved, notably psychologist Paul Ekman, who wrote a book with the Dalai Lama.  But neuroscientists have also been fascinated by what they found, which clearly includes Wolf Singer.

The basis for dialogue between Tibetan Buddhists and brain scientists has been that both investigate the workings of the mind.  Tibetan Buddhist meditators have complied centuries of data and conclusions, based on what the meditators experienced.  This is the first person perspective, but with such elaborate data and systems that these scientists, wedded to the objectivity of only the third person perspective, could not ignore.  They also could not ignore how different the brains of very experienced meditators worked.

It's all come a long way and this book is one of the results.  It also turns out to be the  best book I've read on neuroscience, period, and the clearest explanation of Tibetan Buddhism and its approach to meditation.  More specifically, this is the clearest discussion I've read so far on the relationship of Buddhist meditation and the brain.  (I've tried to read James Austin but I failed.)

Ricard (in monks robes) at a Mind and Life dialogue in DC.
Jon Kabat-Zinn is speaking to the Dalai Lama.
Ricard, who is a trained scientist as well as a Tibetan Buddhist monk, has done a few of these dialogue books and he's very good at it.  He and Wolf engaged substantively and for the most part succinctly, which must be partly a product of the editing, as this book reflects dialogues over eight years.

 One impression I got is that at least the particular kind of Buddhism that comes from Tibet and neuroscience are very similar in their view of the brain.  Tibetan Buddhism as I observe from the Dalai Lama and others, and now Ricard, is highly logical.  It comports well with the mechanistic approach of neuroscience, though Wolf is pretty clear on where the mechanistic model runs up against limits.

There are six broad topics that expand to inevitable problems of epistemology and perhaps even (in "why is there something instead of nothing?") cosmology. That they agree on so much may surprise some readers.  The expected disagreement on on the ultimate nature of consciousness is minimized, and Ricard leaves it as an area for further research.

The logical rigor of Tibetan Buddhism may also be surprising.  I remember when as a Catholic boy I first read anything about Buddhist tenets (usually in popular literature), the romantic and mystical elements jumped out, like "enlightenment" and Zen koans.  The koan that seemed to capture everyone's imagination was: "what is the sound of one hand clapping?"  It promised such depths of paradox and maybe even, the Answer.

But Ricard uses it in a different context, to explain how a heated argument needs two participants.  "So, as the Tibetan saying goes, 'One cannot clap with one hand."  So it seems that for Tibetan Buddhists the answer to "what is the sound of one hand clapping?" is exactly what common sense tells you: silence.

Within the broad topics and technical discussions, I found at least one answer I've been seeking.  As Ricard says, the concentration of meditation is not rumination--in fact, ruminating is a distraction to be avoided.  I always wondered how a creative person reconciles meditational rigor with the creative fruits of rumination, daydreaming, imagination.

The answer is akin to the sound of one hand clapping--because the relationship is the contradiction it seems to be. Wolf surmises that unstable states (the wandering mind) could be a prerequisite for creativity.  Ricard agrees, citing a neuroscience study: "brain states favorable to creativity seem to be mutually exclusive with focused attention."

Which of course is not to say that writers and other creative people shouldn't meditate, for it certainly helps in many other ways which eventually contribute to the creative life.

For myself, even though Tibetan Buddhism presents the closest thing to a practical and congenial belief and value system, there are limits to its application. (Plus as much as the Dalai Lama laughs, I find Zen funnier, in that paradoxical way.) And there are many more limits to neuroscience, in my view.  It's interesting that to some this book is a revelation that Buddhism actually has something to say about the brain.  That's been clear to me for decades, but if its clarity finally gets through, then it has done its job, with elegant rigor.

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