By Eric Thompson
What, exactly, is contemplative neuroscience and what relevance, if any, does it have to the study of brain and behavior? Contemplative neuroscience is primarily the study of how contemplative practices like meditation affect the brain and nervous system. However, contemplative neuroscience can sometimes take on a second but equally valid definition: The contemplative philosophical view of neuroscience and the mind. I’d therefore like to offer a short but concise philosophical foundation for this emerging science and thereby highlight precisely why such a philosophical interpretation has the capacity for revolutionizing both what we understand about the mind-body connection and how we use that understanding to profoundly change our brains, our behavior, and our way of being.
Over the last 20 years, science has discovered how deeply the human brain is impacted by both human experience and the environment, and not only early in life but throughout the lifespan as well. This new understanding of the brain’s capacity to change and develop, often referred to as neuroplasticity, offers new inroads to personal development that once seemed impossible. According to Sharon Begley (2007), by making the best possible use of brain plasticity through attentional training, “the goal is not merely the absence of mental illness, which seems to be all that psychiatric and psychological therapies strive for these days, but the enduring presence of robust mental and emotional health” (p. 221, emphasis mine).
The research on neuroplasticity clearly shows that specific kinds of mental training can influence how our brains operate, which strongly implies that our emotional and mental well-being can indeed be cultivated through mental discipline. The evidence seems clear: Our individual emotional set-points can be shifted toward higher levels of well-being. Conventional psychiatry, on the other hand, typically approaches treatment by treating the symptoms of mental and emotional discomfort through psychopharmacology, without necessarily addressing the deeper causal issues behind such discomfort.
The conventional emphasis, as such, seems to be on the manipulation of neurotransmitters to alleviate symptoms, relegating the people who are suffering from such discomfort to the role of victims of brain chemistry and physiology, sentenced as it were to rely for the rest of their lives solely upon psychopharmacology for any hope of future relief. Furthermore, such medication often requires additionalmedication simply to counteract its own distressing side effects.
Before I go any further, allow me to be very clear: I’m not against psychopharmacology, psychiatry, or the use of medication. The development and use of such medication has greatly contributed to the world in which we live. While the use of psychopharmacology is often necessary in the short-term treatment of symptoms (and in some cases may actually be necessary for long-term treatment), it is by itself incapable of offering long-term treatment with the potential of teaching the brain new and healthy neurological habits. Contemplative training and meditation, on the other hand, are capable of such long-term treatment.
So why, in fact, does psychiatry often assume that the primary cause of mental and emotional dysfunction is biological in nature? Our inward, subjective experiences are usually not considered as causal agents in conventional psychiatry because the very basis for such experiences—the mind—is often reduced simply to brain processes. Mental causation, as such, is often viewed as uni-directional, originating only in the brain and resulting in psychological experience and consciousness itself.
Contemplative neuroscience agrees with the basic view that biology plays a role in causation. In this view, many of the thoughts and feelings experienced in our daily lives are indeed seen as the result of habitual neural processes. However, contemplative neuroscience makes the claim that causation between brain and mind is not merely uni-directional but bi-directional, and thus acknowledges the mind’s capacity to influence and change the brain, particularly when it is systematically and consistently trained over a long periods of time.
In this view, while the brain influences attention and mental functioning, attention and mental effort can in turn influence the brain. This, of course, raises the issue of dualism between mind and body, otherwise known as the mind-body problem. A common approach to solving this problem, used by a growing number of contemporary neuroscientists, is to simply compress the mind and virtually all mental processes to mere neural processes. In other words, in this view, virtually all thought originates in and is produced solely by the brain. However, by making such a simplistic reduction, many neuroscientists find it difficult to even consider the possibility that attentional training can liberate the brain’s higher potential by way of mental causation. This aptly illustrates how our assumptions about the ultimate nature of reality can and do influence and determine the course and quality of the treatments we are willing to be involved with. Our assumptions likewise predetermine and limit our methodologies for researching further treatment possibilities. Simply stated, philosophical and metaphysical assumptions can and often do limit the spectrum and quality of treatment offered by psychiatrists and psychologists to suffering clients and patients.
This being the case, contemplative neuroscience often strives to empower us by giving us the tools to become the masters of our own minds, to awaken the greater potentials of our brains and thereby experience more wholeness, more joy and more peace. By granting the mind its own reality, as well as acknowledging the mind’s power to transform the brain and liberate higher potentials, contemplative neuroscience offers a scientific worldview capable of radically changing what we believe is possible for our lives and the lives of future generations.
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