Embodiment and The Brain

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.


Spiritual Evolution

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.

Photo of Winston McCullough

Contemplation, Meditation, Happiness

by Dr. John Edwards

For centuries, people have practiced meditation.  Their reasons for doing this vary.  Some do it to gain wisdom, some to become more compassionate, others are in search of a spiritual experience, and some simply want  to manage stress and anxiety.  But they all do it because they believe it will somehow lead to a better life.  But is this true?

Psychologists, neuroscientists, and medical researchers have studied meditation for many years, with the first published paper in a western journal on this topic coming in 1963.  In the early days, it was very much a fringe topic.  Recent years have seen a dramatic change in the landscape, with meditation becoming an extraordinarily hot research focus.  Last year alone saw over 400 academic papers published on meditation.  All of this research has given us a great deal of knowledge about the effects of meditation.

Although reports of this research often treat meditation as though there were only one technique, there are actually many different meditation techniques.  What all forms of meditation have in common is that they involve manipulation of one’s attention in one way or another.  They vary in terms of two dimensions:  first, the extent to which they involve focused versus defocused attention (is the goal to focus on just one thing, or to broaden attention to attend to many things?) and second, the object of attention (that is, to what are you paying attention?

In recent years, much of the research on meditation has focused on a particular type of meditation called mindfulness meditation.  Mindfulness meditation involves paying attention to what is going on in the present moment in a nonjudgmental way.

This is harder than it appears, because people’s minds are constantly wandering and being distracted by stray thoughts, memories, worries, plans, and so on.  But mindfulness meditation isn’t the only type that has been studied — others, such as loving-kindness meditation, Christian contemplative techniques, and yoga, have also been researched.

The pattern of results from these sorts of studies indicates that regular meditation practice has numerous beneficial effects.  For instance, it is associated with increases in happiness, decreases in symptoms of depression, and increases in life satisfaction.

Sustained Happiness

Indeed, meditation is perhaps the only intervention that psychologists have found that overcomes the “hedonic treadmill”, which is the tendency for people to habituate to things that make them happy.  (Try watching the same comedy every day for two weeks.  The first day it will make you laugh.  The tenth day?  Not so much.)  Meditation, so long as it is done regularly, leads to sustained increases in happiness.

Meditation has other psychological effects as well.  It leads to increases in optimism and feelings that one can accomplish things.  It also leads to increased ability to focus one’s attention.  Meditators also report having better relationships.

Meditation also has physiological effects.  It is associated with reduction in physiological markers of stress, in part because people are beter able to manage their emotions and thoughts in response to negative events.  This leads to a reduction in negative health outcomes related to stress, including things as diverse as psoriasis and migraines.  Not surprisingly, this has led meditation to be used as a treatment for certain kinds of mental and physical health problems.  It has been used as a way to help people manage chronic pain, binge eating, panic disorder, and depression, among others.

So What’s the Catch?

There appear to be few negative effects associated with meditation, but there are a few things to bear in mind.  One of them is simply the commitment involved.  Although positive effects have been observed among novice meditators in even very brief sessions, the best effects are associated with a sustained, regular practice.  Research on the relationships between meditation and happiness indicates that people who stop a regular meditation practice may slowly see their happiness levels revert to the old levels.  Much like an exercise routine, if you stop doing it, you slowly get out of shape.

There are also some initial indications in the research literature (as well as from anecdotes) that people differ with regards to which meditation technique will offer them the most benefit.  For instance, a person who already has high concern for others, or who has a tendency to feel guilty about their interactions with others, may not benefit from compassion meditations.  This is especially true for meditation when it is used as a treatment for mental illness.  Some meditation types simply don’t work for some forms of mentall illness (and indeed may make things worse).  A related issue is that the allure of meditation as a simple, side-effect free way to deal with life’s problems may lead people to fail to seek out help from mental health experts for serious problems, or to discontinue treatment for such problems without consulting their doctor (ironically, becaue meditation makes them feel better).

That being said, a great deal of research has shown that a meditation practice can be an important component of a happier, healthier life.  It’s something that virtually anyone can do.  So find a meditation teacher, and get started!

Dr. John Edwards is the Head of the School of Psychological Science at Oregon State University.  He is a social psychologist specializing in social cognition and individual differences.  He has received grants from the National Science Foundation and he Department of Defense, among others.  His recent research has focused on uncertainty, “best practices” for communicating risk and probability information to people, and the intersection of Buddhist philosophy and social cognition.  Along with Dr. Winston McCullough, he teaches a course on the Psychology of Meditation.