secret serene smile
of my tribe-we call ourselves philosophical naturalists - treat
all talk of souls and spirits as metaphorical. We think of the soul
as the brain, in concert with the rest of the nervous system. Dalai
Lama speaks of a "luminous consciousness" that transcends
death and which he thinks might not have brain correlates, but we
believe this must be realised neurally.
So an interesting
question for neuroscientists is how do the brains of Buddhist practitioners
- or indeed any other wise, happy, virtuous people-light up? How
are qualities of happiness, serenity and loving kindness that the
Buddhist practice of mindful meditation reflected in the brain?
How does that subjective experience manifest itself?
is beginning to provide answers. Using scanning techniques such
as PET and functional MRI, we can study the brain in action. We
now know that two main areas are implicated in emotions, mood and
temperament. The amygdala-twin almond-shaped organs in the forebrain-and
its adjacent structures are part of our quick triggering machinery
that deals with fear, anxiety and surprise. It is likely that these
structures are also involved in other basic emotions such as anger.
The second area comprises the prefrontal lobes, recently evolved
structures lying just behind the forehead. These have long been
known to play a major role in foresight, planning and self-control,
but are now crucially implicated in emotion, mood and temperament.
With this knowledge
in hand, a few prominent neuroscientists have begun to study the
brains of Buddhists. The preliminary findings are tantalising. Richard
Davidson at the Laboratory for Affective Neuroscience at the University
of Wisconsin at Madison has found that the left prefrontal lobes
of experienced Buddhist practitioners light up consistently (rather
than just during meditation). This is significant, because persistent
activity in the left prefrontal lobes indicates positive emotions
and good mood, whereas persistent activity in the right prefrontal
lobes indicates negative emotion. The first Buddhist practitioner
studied by Davidson showed more left prefrontal lobe activity than
anyone he had ever studied before. We can now hypothesise with some
confidence that those apparently happy, calm Buddhist souls one
regularly comes across in places such as Dharamasala, India-the
Dalai Lama's home-really are happy. Behind those calm exteriors
lie persistently frisky left prefrontal lobes. If these findings
are widely confirmed, they will be of great importance.
not born happy. It is not reasonable to suppose that Tibetan Buddhists
are such a homogeneous biological group that they are, uniquely
among humans, born with a "happiness gene" that activates
the left prefrontal cortex. The most reasonable hypothesis is that
there is something about conscientious Buddhist practice that results
in the kind of happiness we all seek. What about the effect of Buddhist
practice on the amygdala and other subcortical forebrain circuitry?
This circuitry, you will recall, is involved in relatively automatic
emotional and behavioural responses. Now, thanks to important work
by Joseph LeDoux at New York University, we know that a person can
be conditioned - via their amygdala and thalamus - to be scared
of things that really aren't worth being scared of. We also know
that it is extremely hard to override what the amygdala "thinks"
and "feels" simply by conscious rational thought.
there is some fascinating early work that suggests Buddhist mindfulness
practice might tame the amygdala. Paul Ekman of the University of
California San Francisco Medical Center, a renowned researcher on
basic Darwinian emotions, is, like Davidson, in the early stages
of studying Buddhist practitioners. So far, he has found that experienced
meditators don't get nearly as flustered, shocked or surprised as
ordinary people by unpredictable sounds, even those as loud as gunshots.
And Buddhists often profess to experience less anger than most people.
I believe research
like this will eventually allow us to answer the question of whether
Buddhist training can change the way the brain responds - most importantly
with negative emotions - to certain environmental triggers. Antidepressants
are currently the favoured method for alleviating negative emotions,
but no antidepressant makes a person happy.
On the other
hand, Buddhist meditation and mindfulness, which were developed
2500 years before Prozac, can lead to profound happiness, and its
practitioners are deeply in touch with their glowing left prefrontal
cortex and their becalmed amygdala.-(New Scientist)
by scientists who have discovered how Buddhists keep their karmas
aglow, John Elliot goes in search of smiling faces in London
a 51-year-old Buddhist, is giving a tour of Bethnal Green and it
is about as close as a Buddhist comes to doing a victory lap. "Look,
there's another one, she's a Buddhist too, beamed Curtis,
waving to a smiling old lady across the street.
Right now the
karma in Bethnal Green, east London, is sweet. Last month scientific
evidence emerged which appeared to show that Buddhists had found
the secret of happiness.
The area, slowly
becoming gentrified, is home to one of London's largest Buddhist
communities. So it is with a sense of pride that Curtis shows off
the well-scrubbed, converted fire station that serves as the local
headquarters for the Friends of the Western Buddhist Order.
and brightly coloured prayer flags flutter on the high redbrick
exterior, while a 30ft poster of Buddha looks down serenely onto
the Costcutter supermarket opposite.
is the small meditation room with murals of Himalayan scenes and
beyond that is a shrine, about the size of a squash court, with
a polished wooden floor.
against the wall are the cushions on which she and 60 to 70 fellow
devotees sit, including, Curtis said, a City lawyer an architect,
teachers, students, fulltime mothers and the occasional recovering
drug addict. For Curtis the road to Buddhism began about 15 years
ago when she enrolled in meditation classes. She will travel to
Italy to take a further series of vows later this year.
very, very preoccupied and anxious," she said. Then she became
curious about Buddhism, which along with mediation has brought her
a measure of calmness.
be sulky, getting angry and throwing things - but I know now there
is more possibility of stopping myself doing that," she said.
live upstairs in the Buddhist centre, but Curtis occupies a large
Victorian terrace house with 11 other female Buddhists, aged between
27 and 73.
There is the
odd disagreement - "Some people put the forks in the cutlery
drawer the wrong way round, said Curtis - but there
is always someone you can turn to if you are feeling low.
and her meditating friends really cracked the secret of happiness?
Early findings by American scientists who have been studying the
brain activity of Buddhist monks - and other practitioners of meditation
- suggest that the Buddhists of Bethnal Green have truly hit the
In people who
are depressed, angry or stressed, the right frontal cortex of the
brain is more active than the left frontal cortex. Greater whirring
is also detected in their amygdala, the twin structures deep in
the forebrain that create responses to fear and other negative emotions.
relaxed people it is the other way round, with more activity in
the left frontal cortex than the right and a tranquil amygdala.
things of habit, and over time each develops what researchers call
a "set point". If a person's set point is tilted to the
left, then the tendency is for lots of activity in the left frontal
cortex, making for a happy person. If the set point is titled to
the right, then the right frontal cortex is more active and the
person will tend to be less happy.
Davidson, of the Laboratory for Affective Neuroscience at the University
of Wisconsin Madison, decided to test whether the set point could
be moved. He signed up volunteers from a technology company and
put them through an eight-week course of Buddhist-style meditation.
When the course
was complete, he found the volunteers had moved their personal set
points to the left. This indicates that meditation may have made
their general outlook sunnier and implies, astoundingly, that people
can train themselves to be happy.
As a practical
side-effect, the meditators also developed measurably superior responses
one of several American scientists to have developed links with
the Dalai Lama, who has visited his lab. Davidson has also tested
the left-right cortex balance of another senior Tibetan lama whose
brain was biased more strongly towards the left cortex - the direction
of happiness - than anyone Davidson had previously tested.
Professor Paul Ekman of the University of California has talked
neuroscience with the Dalai Lama and tested Buddhist monks. Ekman
measured a meditating monk's "startle response" by unleashing
the sound of a gun in the laboratory. The monk's brain, according
to measuring devices, remained balanced and calm.
an extremely cheerful, happy, inquisitive fellow, whom it was pleasant
to be around," said Ekman, who added: "Buddhists are the
gymnasts of the mind".
experiment, Ekman tested whether Buddhist practitioners could pick
up difficult-to-detect signs of emotion in another person's face.
Ekman calls these signs "micorexpressions". Some last
only .05 of a second yet reveal our deepest feelings. Most people
Ekman has tested, including policemen and judges, are unable to
detect microexpressions, but three devotees of Buddhism all scored
believe that meditating may increase the levels of serotonin, a
neurotransmitter that makes the brain calm.
found favour with a number of Hollywood actors and A-list stars,
including Keanu Reeves and Richard Gere. Speaking about his faith
Reeves said: "By practising meditation, I am more compassionate
and more sensitive to those around me."
Gere's marriage to supermodel Cindy Crawford failed in 1994 one
of the reasons for the split, it was reported, was Gere's religious
beliefs. Gillian Anderson, star of The X Files, and Annie Lennox,
the Eurythmics singer, are also Buddhists.
50, director of the Buddhist Society, holds classes for people who
feel their frantic lives are burning them out. "They say, 'I've
seen some of those Buddhists. They look relaxed,'" he said.
avoids watching EastEnders on television because he does not wish
to see "people shouting and screaming" and boycotts the
Tube as it raises his stress levels. "I have identified the
Underground as an unhealthy place to be," he said.
What is really
intriguing is the thought that while science has demonstrated the
wellhoned skills of Buddhists for achieving happiness, others who
live contemplative lives - such as Christian monks - might show
similarly bright left frontal cortexes if tested.
-(The Sunday Times, UK)