That secret serene smile
Members 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?

Neuroscience 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.

Buddhists are 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.

That said, 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)

You're a Buddhist
Inspired by scientists who have discovered how Buddhists keep their karmas aglow, John Elliot goes in search of smiling faces in London

Aideen Curtis, 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.

Golden banners 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.

Inside there 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.

Stacked neatly 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.

"I was very, very preoccupied and anxious," she said. Then she became curious about Buddhism, which along with mediation has brought her a measure of calmness.

"I could be sulky, getting angry and throwing things - but I know now there is more possibility of stopping myself doing that," she said.

Male Buddhists 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.”

Have Curtis 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 spiritual jackpot.

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.

For happy, relaxed people it is the other way round, with more activity in the left frontal cortex than the right and a tranquil amygdala.

Brains are 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.

Professor Richard 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 to influenza.

Davidson is 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.

Like Davidson, 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.

"He was an extremely cheerful, happy, inquisitive fellow, whom it was pleasant to be around," said Ekman, who added: "Buddhists are the gymnasts of the mind".

In another 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 highly.

Other researchers believe that meditating may increase the levels of serotonin, a neurotransmitter that makes the brain calm.

Buddhism has 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."

However, when 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.

Paul Seto, 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.

Seto himself 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)

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