on November 23, 2009
We have often been told that by altering our thoughts, deeds and words, we can create a happier, more fulfilled life. This book, at the intersection between psychology, neuroscience, and Buddhism, offers effective methods to show us how to live such a life by being fully present in the moment.
Hanson and Mendius, a neuropsychologist and a neurologist and both practicing Buddhists, show us just how the brain programs us to experience the world a certain way by combining information from the external world with information held in neural pathways within the brain. These pathways operate in the background of our awareness, influencing our conscious mental activity. Unless we consciously interrupt this process, we are destined to develop deeper neural networks and even stronger programming.
The argument that the brain has the ability to simulate the world is not new. What is interesting is how Hanson and Mendius link Buddhist teachings on the causes of suffering (painful situations cannot be avoided but our emotional responses to them can) to the deep programming in our brains caused by ancestral survival strategies. They suggest that this hardwiring helped us survive constant life-threatening situations but is based on erroneous beliefs that we are separate, that it is possible to stabilize an ever changing world, that we can avoid situations that create pain and pursue only those that give us pleasure. None of these beliefs are true or can be attained. Their inherent contradictions cause us to live with an underlying feeling of anxiety taking us away from our true ground of being and causing much physical and psychological ill-health.
The main part of the book is a practical guide and is packed with useful exercises and guided meditations to help us develop a more loving, happier, and wiser state of being. The methods Hanson and Mendius suggest are informed by their experiences as therapists and management consultants, and are rooted in Buddhist teachings on mindfulness, virtue, and wisdom. I particularly liked the way they use neuroscience to underpin the tools they offer, only choosing "methods that have a plausible scientific explanation for how they light up neural networks of contentment, kindness and peace." Now I know why taking five deep inhalations and exhalations calms me.
Many of their methods show how to activate desired brain states by consciously changing the association between an event and its painful or pleasurable feelings. This can take a long time. Understanding the neuroscience behind the process can help us be compassionate with ourselves when "swimming against ancient currents within our nervous system."
This book is very informative, with helpful summaries at the end of each chapter. The authors' writing, even when explaining the intricacies of neuroscience, is infused with humor and fun to read. This is a good working manual to help us to become who we already are, and an important contribution to the growing body of knowledge on the relationship between mind, brain, and consciousness. Highly Recommended.
Review by Marta Freundlich
on December 9, 2009
"If I know one thing for sure, it's that you can do small things inside your mind that will lead to big changes in your brain and your experience of living. I've seen this happen again and again with people I've known as a psychologist and meditation teacher . . ."
- Rick Hanson
Buddha's Brain will not only explain 'why' you should take in the good but 'how' you can achieve a more positive outlook with some basic awareness skills. The authors, Neuropsychologist, Rick Hanson and neurologist, Richard Mendius are the Click and Clack (Car Talk) of the brain. These two brainiacs/meditation teachers will show you how to create positive feelings that have many emotional and health benefits such as a stronger immune system and a cardiovascular system that is less reactive to stress. You'll learn how to create a positive cycle of good feelings that you can then spread to others. Enough with all the negativity out there! Haven't we all had enough?
As a Type-A New Yorker, one of my favorite exercises in the book is 'Hush the Verbal Centers.' Here you use the power of prefrontal intention to politely (or impolitely) suggest that the verbal activity (voices in your head) shut the hell up. Tell them if they are quiet and well-behaved you will invite them to come yammer away later on after the job interview/tax return/golf putt/midterm exam. For us control freaks this is especially wonderful because now we can control our brains, as well as everything else. Who knew life could be so swell!?!
Last, Hanson's wife, acupuncturist Jan Hanson writes an appendix on nutritional neurochemistry recommending nutrients, supplements and dietary basics to support brain function. "I've repeatedly seen that small, thoughtful, sensible changes in what you put in your mouth each day can gradually produce significant benefits," writes Hanson.
The authors have simplified the latest neuroscientific research and presented it in a wise and compassionate style that comforts and educates at the same time. Read this book and then pass it on to the cranky person in your life!
For more about Buddha's Brain or articles, talks and other educational resources, [...]
on April 24, 2010
This is a very good book in many ways, but it has one drawback that I think is very serious. Basically, the authors do not explain that the exercises they describe may lead to pain and frustration instead of increased well-being. They do point out, briefly, that if doing one of the exercises is uncomfortable, the reader should "feel free" to stop. This is not, however, nearly enough.
Let me explain.
The aim of the book is to guide people to increase the frequency and power of positive emotions in their lives--emotions like equanimity, compassion, gratitude and joy. (And, of course, to decrease the power of negative emotions like fear and hate.) There are a number of ways to do this, but the technique which the authors describe in the most detail is guided imagery. In guided imagery one imagines a situation that will trigger the desired emotion. Each time one creates these emotions, one strengthens their pathways in the brain/mind and thus makes oneself a happier/better person.
The problem is that when some people do this imagery they are unable to generate the intended feelings. Instead they feel disappointment and frustration at being unable to do what comes so easily (it seems) to other people. If the person has a history of failure at trying to improve her mood, and if the person has been told all her life to cheer up, look at the bright side, etc., than this can be quite painful, and, ultimately, psychologically harmful.
To see if these methods will work for you, try calling up some happy memory and see if it makes you feel happy. If it does, buy this book. There's a lot of good stuff here. If it doesn't, I recommend trying "The Mindful Way Through Depression". It has much of the same material but it is directed at people who have experienced long-term mental pain--not just depressives, but also people suffering from anxiety, chronic pain, and so forth. It is a tremendously good, useful, insightful book. (No, I have no connection with the book or its authors. I just think it's a great book.)
on March 8, 2010
This is one of the most amazing, life changing books I've ever read, and I've read a LOT in my 51 years. It's the only book I've ever taken the time to review on Amazon and I'd give it 100 stars if I could. Bringing together wisdom from the fields of psychology, neurology, and contemplative practice, they teach how we can create greater happiness, joy, & love in our lives. This is all based on recent western scientific research and thousands-of-years old wisdom, and not fluff created in the imagination of a new age entrepreneur. The authors describe how thousands of generations of social and environmental evolutionary pressures have wired our brains & bodies to work they way they do, and how we can use our mind to change our brain so that we handle stress better, and experience greater peace and joy. The implications of doing the work suggested by this book has the potential to profoundly improve the quality of one's life, and all those one contacts, and to change the course of the evolution of our species. As Rick says (in an interview), we have the brain of a cave-man with nuclear weapon capabilities. We need to learn how to be more loving, aware, compassionate, and self disciplined in how we treat the earth if we are to flourish as a species, and this book gives some practical tools on how to do this. I've been sharing some of these ideas in the classes I teach and many of my students have bought the book also. The authors also have a website with many great, free, down-loadable articles that elaborate on the ideas.
on May 24, 2010
My most recent read was "Buddha's Brain: the practical neuroscience of happiness, love & wisdom" by Rick Hanson and Richard Mendius. I really enjoyed it, and recommend it to anyone who wants a neuroscientific breakdown of important concepts in spirituality, Buddhism, meditation. One of my favorite things was how it explained how dopamine is a gateway to the regulation of working memory. When dopamine levels are steady, the "doorway" of working memory is closed; when they are low, the "doorway" opens, when there is a spike, the "doorway" opens. Why is this?
When you are feeling bad, (low dopamine), your attention is scattered so you can find things in the environment that will spike your mood: you are going to be more likely to be able to find food, sight potential mates, etc. When there is a spike in dopamine, you need to open your attention to be alert to the new threat/opportunity. Otherwise you can let the contents of your working memory remain constant so you can work on whatever problems are currently on your mind.
Remember the concept of "flow" by Mihali Csikszentmihalyi? "Being in the zone?" This may operate through similar principles. When a task is too easy for you, there will be low stimulation, so you will be easily distracted. When a task is too hard for you, you will not be able to solve it. But when it is sufficiently hard and when your skills are sufficiently trained, there will be a steady flow of dopamine, leading you to be "in the zone", happy and undistracted and fully engaged in the problem. (Your working memory won't flow open and you won't be prone to random distractions.) Many psychologists, including Martin Seligman, believe that regular experience of "flow" is an important component to long term happiness, and I'm inclined to agree.
How about meditation? Breathing is important to Buddhism. The reason for this is because exhaling invokes the parasympathetic nervous system - the branch of your autonomic nervous system that "slows you down". By the way, I know that "parar" means "to stop" in Spanish, which is how I distinguish between the parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous systems.
Another ideal of Buddhism is "no-mind": to stop thinking. We know that thinking is often non-deliberate, and stresses us out, such as when we are trying to fall asleep. What the authors of Buddha's Brain insightfully point out is that when one area of the brain is engaged, other components/processes will not be used. So if talking/thought loops operate through the left hemisphere, then we should engage the right hemisphere if we want to relax and stop thinking. An excellent way to engage the right hemisphere is by trying to feel and experience the body as a unified whole... this is called proprioception.
Many helpful concepts are detailed alongside their neuroscientific mechanisms. You'll get a great explanation of how the Prefrontal Cortex, Basal Ganglia, Anterior Cingulate Cortex, Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Adrenal Axis, and autonomic nervous system all operate in concert to create your experience of consciousness. If you enjoy the hand-wavey feel good books like Eckhart Tolle's "The Power of Now" but get frustrated when grandiose claims of peacefulness are invoked without any material grounding, you'll LOVE Buddha's Brain. It explains the theory and then uses the theoretical framework to produce practical tips that anyone can use - even if you are a regular person living a hectic life and don't have the luxury of a monastery. (For example, it tells you exercises that will invoke the parasympathetic nervous system, or that will release oxytocin, or dopamine... it even contains an appendix of vitamin supplements that affect the production of neurotransmitters! I'm going to try an experiment of taking Vitamin E (gamma-tocopherol), DHA/EPA, Vitamin B-6 (as P5P), and 5-Hydroxytryptophan in the morning. I'll let you know how it goes (check [...] for updates.)
I also learned some two VERY helpful ideas that help me understand "living in the now" even better, from a practical perspective.
The Two Dart System. When something bad happens, it as if we are hit by two darts. The bad thing, the pain, is often very real... we can call it the first dart. For example, if we stumble and hit our head, it probably hurts. This is the first dart. If we then think about how unlucky we are, and why couldn't we have known better, and keep replaying the incident in our head, this is the second dart. The second dart is insidious because we don't realize that we have control over it. We can structure our life in a way to minimize the chance of getting hit by First Darts, but we can deliberately practice not being affected by Second Darts. The best way to do this is probably to practice being conscious of when we are indulging in self-pity and replaying - and realize that this is a kind of pain that is within our locus of control. These are the second darts.
Feeling Tones. Apparently there's an idea in Buddhism called feeling tones: in our head, things can be subjectively experienced as positive, negative, or neutral. When things get really positive or negative, our ego ("self") gets involved, attaching a story to the experience: this probably helps us strive towards more positive things and away from more negative things. However, equanimity (another important component), mind-balance in the face of nettlesome (or exceptionally positive) circumstances, encourages us to practice renouncing ownership over positive or neutral experiences. Equanimity leads to an enduring tranquility.
Anyway, "Buddha's Brain" is available from Amazon for only $[...]. So far, it is one of my favorite books I've read this year.
on February 1, 2010
"Buddha's Brain" is a book that is similar to the works of Dr. B. Allan Wallace, in that it attempts to conflate ancient contemplative practice with hard science, in this case: Neurophysiology. The authors successfully demonstrate that the older parts of our brain (the brain stem and mid brain) are evolutionary holdovers that served the purpose of increasing the chances of survival (and therefore the ability to procreate) yet, in this time and place we no longer have to be subservient to them. That is; we do not have to spend our lives chasing carrots (and being disappointed when we don't recover any) or avoiding sticks (and being disappointed when we get clocked in the head by one.) The crux of the argument is that we have newer, more evolved portions of the brain PFC, ACC etc., that can serve as bridges to other states of being and/or consciousness which will allow for a more unified, empathetic and compassionate life for all.
The most profound portion of this volume, for me anyway, was the prospect that there really is no physiological "hard wiring" of a distinct self. That is: the self which we refer to as "I" may just be another creation of the mind, a montage of distinct "nows" that the mind stitches together in a relatively seamless pattern with "self" or "I" at the center, which doesn't have a physiologic counter part. "Buddha's Brain" is a new, refreshing piece that discusses arcane wisdom in contemporary parlance. 4 and ½ stars from me, with a 4 on the board.
on January 27, 2010
I am a Soto Zen Buddhist living the corporate life. Having studied
physiology and now working as a coach and organisational change
consultant I found this book perfectly meets me where my western mind
is and succinctly points a guiding finger to help me understand
my Self. Many times I come back from meditation retreats and struggle
to make sense of and integrate my mindfulness practice within the
context of my ordinary life. This book helps A LOT!
The chapter on the self is worth the cover price alone. This chapter
beautifully brings together neuroscience, psychology and Buddhism into
a clear description on how we cause ourselves to suffer.
"Buddha'a Brain" is a highly practical, no-nonsense manual to your brain that teaches you to drive your brain using the gearbox of your mind. This very well researched book trains you to fire up your brain, to cool it down, and even to expand your "consciousness workspace." The neuro-anatomical commentary that accompanies the Sunyuata doctrine of "no fixed self" is masterful! "Buddha's Brain" is a laconic, pragmatic cousin to James Austin's "Zen and the Brain." Bound to be a classic!
Pavel Somov, Ph.D.
author of "Eating the Moment," "Present Perfect: a Mindfulness Approach to Overcoming Perfectionism and the Need to Control," & "The Lotus Effect"
on December 12, 2009
This book is a perfect balance of what I have been looking for. It merges Spirituality with Science, which is not an easy task. It seems that this book has been taylor made to all my personal likings of what a book should be. The chapters are powerful and to the point, packing a lot of information, paragraph for paragraph. Furthermore, chapters are segmented into even smaller sections, which makes it easy to read and come back to. There is also a chapter summary of key points made at the end of each chapter. Key points explain how your brain works, how you can pay better attention to the way you think, and with practice, how changing your thoughts can change your life. Let it be understood, its no easy task to change old thinking patterns, but this book has been very insightful in helping to allow you to clearly see how the law of "cause and effect" within your own thinking patters shape and form the life you live today. This book is not a typical self improvement book... Id rather categorize it as a book to healthy thinking, based on Eastern philosophy. Id been waiting for this book to come out for a long time, and I give it a 10/10. Rick Hanson and Richard Mendius have a way of explaining very complicated things in very simple ways. If you take the time to consistently apply the principals in this book to your life, you will see changes.
on October 9, 2011
Buddha's Brain by Rick Hanson with Richard Mendius is a guide that leads the reader through the fundamental pillars and practices of Buddhism, explaining the underlying and inner workings of the human brain along the way. Focusing on happiness, love, and wisdom, Hanson and Mendius, both neuroscientists, attempt to explain the known mechanisms of the brain behind these core ideals on the path to Enlightenment.
Although I should have expected as much from title, Buddha's Brain, I was surprised by the over all emphasis on Buddhist teachings and the overtly Buddhist perspective that Hanson uses to communicate his ideas. I expected a somewhat more direct (and perhaps more plain) explanation on how to practice contemplative techniques and the brain changes happening behind the scenes. Nevertheless, this is an excellent book on what I would classify as a difficultly nebulous topic, that does offer excellent suggestions and guides to quiet the mind and seek perhaps the most sought after innate human desires: happiness, love, and wisdom.
Hudson lays out his practical work in four sections based on four concepts or ideals of classical Buddhist teachings: suffering, happiness, love, and wisdom. The concept of suffering and its neurological and evolutionary basis are presented. As explained by Hudson, suffering must be understood and avoided. Buddhism, at a basic level, teaches the minimization of suffering for one's self and others. In the next two sections, Happiness and Love, Hudson discusses what happens in our brains when we are happy or are loving/loved. In each section, Hudson then presents how someone can pursue these brain states and strengthen the wiring that creates them. Lastly, Wisdom is outlined in the final three chapters. Discussing how wisdom is first understanding "what hurts and what helps", Hudson then moves on to the power of meditation and how to concentrate the mind. Wisdom and the book are concluded with a lesson on reducing or relaxing the "sense of self".
Overall, the structure of the book is great; the four sections are broken up into distinct and unified chapters that are easy to look back on when desired. Even within each chapter, text is formatted and categorized into sub-headings with diagrams, charts, and tables as needed. This makes the book very easy to refer to when thinking about a particular topic. I naturally found certain parts of the book more interesting, and in trying to practice some meditation on these areas I often located and re-read a few of the meditation walkthroughs and their surrounding context.
Stylistically I found the book at times wordy, confusing and overly nebulous. Usually the scientific backing and underlying knowledge was presented well. Hudson simplifies a complicated science into simpler terms most readers will be able to understand. The scientific presentation is for the most part very thorough and well researched. However, much of Hudson's explanation of "the mind" was much more difficult to follow than his explanation of "the brain". Although I acknowledge the difficulty on the subject, Hudson's language is in my opinion to complex and airy. His diction can at times become a bit grandiose and it is sometimes easy to lose track of the underlying message. Much of this can be traced to word usage that to this reader seemed notably odd. Words like "truth", "equanimity", "stimulation" and many others are used in unfamiliar ways, making comprehension difficult. I can only guess that this word usage and abstract language stem from Buddhist teachings and beliefs that, due to the authors' bias, are quite pervasive throughout the book. Hudson does use allegorical language, at times, to try and simplify the message, but more often than not adds more complexity and does not ease comprehension. In short, for a book seemingly targeted for a wide range of readers as a practical guide for many Buddhist teachings, it was rather cryptic in its language. I would have preferred a slightly more simple and easily navigable guide, so that I may have understood the lessons with fewer rigors. Perhaps, a more plain beginning that ramps up to a more nebulous style would have been more effective.
Opinions on Specific Parts
Perhaps, my favorite aspect of this book were the meditation guides. Hudson provides many "walkthroughs" for simple meditations that deal with the topic he is discussing at the time. I found these guides to be very practical and interesting. I have never intentionally meditated before reading this book but I found myself wanting to try it out. Hudson slowly introduces meditation and its use throughout the course of the book. The first walkthrough does not come until Chapter 5 in the Happiness Section. Chapter 5, entitled "Cooling the Fires", focuses on relaxation and the parasympathetic nervous system. Here Hudson explains what meditation is, and many neurological and other scientific findings tied to meditation. Although I question some of the scientific results mentioned (such as meditation boosting immune system capabilities), I found this first meditation very interesting as I practiced it. These meditation guides become more and more frequent throughout the rest of the book and when time allowed, I earnestly tried to go through them. Hudson does an excellent job breaking down the steps so that I, a very new practitioner, could easily follow along.
As somewhat of a budding scientist (biomedical engineering undergraduate), I greatly appreciated the evolutionary explanations of how the brain developed and theories as to why. The biggest example of this, mentioned in the opening chapters of the book, explain that the neural mechanisms behind suffering were what helped prehistoric man survive. Hudson explains how early man, and even now, your body and brain are programmed to try to handle threats, including remembering threatening and negative experiences well. This makes sense for early man, such negative and harmful experiences need not happen again if man wanted to survive; the prehistoric world was a much harsher one than it is today. This strong connection to and remembrance of negativity is the basis of suffering Hudson argues. Hudson also explains how these trends in evolution are still present in humans today, citing the functions of the pre-frontal cortex, hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis, and others.
Sense of self/"Us and them"
One important pillar of Buddhism I learned from this book is the value in not only reducing suffering and increasing happiness for one's self, but of others too. In fact, the "relaxation of one's sense of self" is emphasized throughout the book, but especially in the last chapter. Earlier, when discussing compassion, Hudson points out the "us and them" mindset we inherently create. Again, the evolutionary foundation for this way of thinking, competition for resources, is presented. However, Hudson stresses the importance and value of extending "us" to include as many people as possible, if not the entire planet. In the final chapter, the concept of "I" or "self" is challenged. According to Buddhist ideology, this sense of self should be dissolved as much as possible. Hudson connects this to science by presenting how the brain's concept of self is not as important and extraordinary as one might think, and not necessary to drive thought or action. Literally, the number of neurons and the circuit that forms the "sense of self" is relatively small, according to Hudson.
Review Summary and Recommendation
Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed this book. It is very well organized and can be used as guide, picked up and put down as needed. I had some stylistic complaints that I feel form a small barrier to a wide audience, however this book was still incredibly thought provoking and interesting. From the neuroscience foundation to the Buddhist teachings to the practice of mindfulness, I found Buddha's Brain to be a very complete and thorough book. I would definitely classify this book as a must read for anyone interested in Buddhism not already familiar, anyone interested in how the brain works, or anyone who wants to seek happiness, love, and wisdom through contemplative practices. It will continue to be a regular read of the many neuroscience books on my shelf.