Training Your Brain
We all have a basic understanding of how our home equipment works – our refrigerator, telephone, TV. But do you know how your brain works?
That piece of equipment is kind of important to us, yes? Can we train our brain to produce greater happiness and satisfaction with life? Are there reliable tested methods to enhance our cognitive and emotional styles, so we can deal with life’s challenges more effectively? Is there any truth behind the special “spiritual” moments we experience from time to time? This month we’re look =ing at what new neuroscientific research can tell us about how our brain works, focusing on three researchers, and how to use that knowledge to increase our well being.
George Vaillant, M.D., has directed the unprecedented Harvard Study of Adult Development for over 35 years. His Spiritual Evolution: A Scientific Defense of Faith (2008) uses the latest neuroscience research to explain human nature and spiritual experience as an expression of our positive social emotions: love, hope, joy, forgiveness, compassion, faith, awe and gratitude. He shows that through the evolution of the brain structures in our limbic system, we humans come hard-wired to be inclined toward these pro-social emotions, and that evolving human spirituality predicts a hopeful future for humanity. We can freely access the neuro-potentials that come complete in our physical body to experience life in a fuller more joyful way. It’s all right there inside your head.
Richard Davidson, professor of psychology and psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, is the world’s leading expert on emotions and the brain. His The Emotional Life of Your Brain: How Its Unique Patterns Affect the Way You Think, Feel, and Live – and How You Can Change Them (2012) is a fascinating read that invites us to assess where we fall on six emotional styles: resilience, outlook, social institution, self-awareness, attentional style and sensitivity to context.
Neuroscientific research has identified the neural basis for these emotional styles, which impact our quality of life, our relationships with others, and even our physical health. The good news comes via “neuroplasticity,” the ability of our brains to develop throughout adulthood by generating new neurons, strengthening the connections of existing neural connections and forming new neural connections. Based on insights into our personal profile of emotional styles and how our brains reinforce these conditioned behavioral patterns, we can deliberately “train our brain” to enhance effective ways of navigating the important arenas of life and reduce destructive cognitive, emotional and behavioral patterns.
Via neuroplasticity, we can follow personally relevant prescriptions for modifying our brain in positive ways, because the brain operates in this sense like a muscle: if we give it a positive work-out each day we can build responses to life that enable us to thrive…as the saying goes, use it or lose it.
The Spiritual Cortex?
Andrew Newberg, another nationally prominent neuroscientist, directs the Center for Spirituality and the Mind at the University of Pennsylvania. He researches, authors and teaches at the intersection of neuroscience and spirituality and is a founder of a new interdisciplinary field called neurotheology. His books include Why God Won’t Go Away: Brain Science and the Biology of Belief (2001) and How God Changes Your Brain (2009). His work is packed with empirical evidence for the neurological reality of human spiritual experience and its positive impact on our well being. He offers twelve empirically supported exercises that can enhance the neural functioning of our brain and improve our physical, emotional and cognitive health, adding years of happiness to our lives.
Here’s a particularly intriguing finding from Newberg’s research: The “orientation association area” of the brain (technically, the posterior superior parietal region of the cortex) is located a bit behind the crown/top of our head. Heightened neural activity in this brain region is associated with our experience of locating ourselves in the three-dimensional physical environment through which we move. It’s what enables us, for example, to not bump into things or other people as we walk through our house or a crowded building, as we make a distinction between the location of our body and other objects in space. Brain scan research shows than when experienced practicioners have entered a deep state of concentration – whether Buddhist meditators or Franciscan nuns practicing centering prayer/contemplation – neural activity in this orientation association area of the brain is “deafferented,” meaning it is suppressed or reduced. At such moments, the meditators experience feelings of union with God (language expressed by the Christian meditators) or dissolution of the ego (in Buddhism terms). While significant differences in the theology or philosophy of each group result in different language to express the experience, the interesting common theme is the diminishment of a separate sense of “me,” of ego, of myself standing apart from and in opposition to what is “not me,” to my environment. In general terms we could call this a unitary experience, a sense of connection, of mystical self-transcendence or Oneness with our environment, along with an associagted reduction in our ego-awareness. We could also call this state “humility” (self-forgetfulness) or “ec-stasy” (literally “standing outside” my self). And as the brain scans confirm, these states are reliably, biologically, observably, scientifically real.
Furthermore, research demonstrates that people who experience genuine mystical states enjoy above average levels of psychological health: more meaningful interpersonal relationships, higher self-esteem, less anxiety, a clearer self-identity, greater empathy for others, and a more positive overall outlook on life. Whatever the philosophical or theological implications of such experiences may be – questions that ultimately transcend science’s ability to measure – there is little doubt that they carry an empirically validated value for producing a more flourishing human life.