Buddha’s Brain

One of my favorite resources on meditation is Rick Hanson – he’s kind of my meditation/psychology idol.  He is a neuropsychologist who practices meditation & Buddhism, who writes some fabulous books explaining why meditation works from a biological and scientific standpoint in terms that anyone can understand, AND he very cleverly ties the principles of Buddhism to the mechanics of the brain.  For example:

More than two thousand years ago, a young man named Siddhartha – not yet enlightened, not yet called the Buddha – spent many years training his mind and thus his brain.  On the night of his awakening, he looked deep inside his mind (which reflected and revealed the underlying activities of his brain) and saw there the causes of suffering and the path to freedom from suffering.  Then, for forty years, he wandered northern India, teaching all who would listen how to:

  • Cool the fires of greed and hatred to live with integrity
  • Steady and concentrate the mind to see through it’s confusions
  • Develop liberating insight

In short, he taught virtue, mindfulness (also called concentration), and wisdom.  These are three pillars of Buddhist practice, as well as the wellsprings of every well-being, psychological growth, and spiritual realization.

Hanson then goes on to explain that :

Virtue, mindfulness, and wisdom are supported by the three fundamental functions of the brain: regulation, learning, and selection.  Your brain regulates itself – and other bodily systems – through a combination of excitatory and inhibitory activity: green lights and red lights.  It learns from forming new circuits and strengthening or weakening existing ones.  And it selects whatever experience has taught it to value; for example, even an earthworm can be trained to pick a particular path to avoid an electric shock.

These three functions – regulation, learning, and selection – operate at all levels of the nervous system, from the intricate molecular dance at the tip of a synapse to the whole-brain integration of control, competence, and discernment.  All three functions are involved in any important mental activity.

Nonetheless, each pillar of practice corresponds quite closely to one of the three fundamental neural functions.  Virtue relies heavily on regulation, both to excite positive inclinations and to inhibit negative ones.  Mindfulness leads to new learning – since attention shapes neural circuits – and draws upon past learning to develop a steadier and more concentrated awareness.  Wisdom is a matter of making choices, such as letting go of lesser pleasures for the sake of greater ones.  Consequently, developing virtue, mindfulness, and wisdom in your mind depends on improving regulation, learning, and selection in your brain.  Strengthening the three neural functions – which you’ll learn to do in the pages ahead – thus buttresses the pillars of practice.

Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of happiness, love, and wisdom by Rick Hanson, PH.D

Siddhartha was pretty much the first neuropsychologist!  (Speaking of – I was fortunate to have read Siddhartha for college about 15 years ago and have read it several times, since. Definitely worth a read, if you haven’t read it yet.)

During my psychology class, I also noted that Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs & the theories of Human Motivation could be tied to the 5 (or 7, depending on who you talk to) Koshas.  Koshas are the 5/7 sheaths or layers that you work through in yoga.  The principle is the same for each: First, you have to work through our “animal/primal” needs before transcending to deeper desires and goals.  Maslow’s Hierarchy, for example – you strive to meet the basic needs of food, shelter and safety.  Only after those needs are met do people begin to work on or even think about self actualization.  As with the koshas – first you must work through earthly annoyances (as I call them) like physical discomfort and the strain of building up endurance in difficult poses before you can start to move towards enlightenment.  I can’t remember exactly how she worded it, but my favorite yoga teacher said something along the lines of those first few koshas being our “animal” selves.  They are primal needs.  We function as animals, on autopilot, until moving past the basic needs and only then do we become thinking beings.

In any case – this is why I am so hooked on Rick Hanson’s work.  The marriage of neuroscience and Buddhist principles is absolutely fascinating & compelling.  The more I learn about each, the more fascinated I become.  Buddhism, mediation, and yoga are absolutely NOT hokey, spiritual mumbo jumbo – they are all practices that align perfectly with the mechanics of our very own brains.  It’s purely scientific, this magic in our brains.


Rick Hanson’s website
Wise Brain (another website of Rick Hanson)
Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love, and Wisdom


Leave a Reply