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More About the Neuroscience of Enlightenment

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For some time, this column, Mindful Technology, has explored commonalities between information technology (IT) and Buddhism because making their shared concerns and common patterns explicit can deepen their mutual understanding and contribute to the development of an integrated, system-level view of their role in the evolution of consciousness. Ultimately, every aspect of human endeavor and struggle is related to the evolution of consciousness.

Now that IT and artificial intelligence (AI) researchers have started leveraging findings from an increasingly expanding body of knowledge in neuroscience, this path is widening and becoming even more exciting. 

However far-fetched it may seem to some rational thinkers, the majority of Buddhist views can be grounded in very logical explanations, albeit based on different axioms and assumptions.

My previous article discusses duality, which plays a central role in the philosophy and worldview of wisdom traditions, exploring whether duality could be related to or possibly caused by the morphology of the human brain, which is split into two hemispheres, and the fact that after humans have two eyes, two ears, and so on. Could philosophical duality in Eastern traditions be related to this physical separation of the hemispheres in the brain?

To the extent that this question is relevant to science depends on whether the philosophical notion of duality is considered to be relevant to cognition or psychology or to scientific inquiry as a whole.

Other questions related to duality could be:

• If meditation and some of the advanced Buddhist practices are aimed at overcoming and transcending duality, what impact could this have on the brain?

• Can meditation and ritual practices change how duality is perceived and processed and can these changes be seen or detected in the brain?

• How does duality and its transcendence impact how individuals perceive reality and consequently their conduct and beliefs?

To answer these questions, it may be necessary to set up a research program with labs and experiments—interested readers with research facilities, please get in touch!

We can start by going through some of the available research results along a similar line—for example, a study researching subjects who had parts of their brains removed showed that brain networks (connected synapses) that control walking, talking, and other functions  can be remarkably intact in hemispherectomy cases—even in patients who only had one hemisphere.*

This could suggest that conscious, intelligent, and intentional cognition, and even some motor functions are not necessarily constrained to certain physical portions of the brain—as it has been assumed in neuroscience for a long time—and that certain brain functions have the capacity to reorganize themselves dynamically and reallocate resources. 

When it comes to integrating the brain activity of the two hemispheres, the corpus callosum is considered to have a central role, as briefly mentioned in a recent article. (Eileen Luders, et al) Readers interested in this topic may have to become familiar with the key concepts of this field of inquiry, such as diffusion and tensor imaging (DTI), a technique used in this type of observational study.

Research has shown, for example, that white matter integrity in the corpus callosum is enhanced in long-term Brahma Kumaris Raja yoga meditators. (Sharma, et al) Another study including 22 meditators showed how raja yoga meditation brings potential changes in the microstructure of corpus callosum segments. And another states: 

Callosal measures were larger in long-term meditators compared to controls, particularly in anterior callosal sections.

Thicker callosal regions and enhanced FA in meditators might indicate greater connectivity, possibly reflecting increased hemispheric integration during cerebral processes involving (pre)frontal regions. Such a brain organization might be linked to achieving characteristic mental states and skills as associated with meditation, though this hypothesis requires behavioral confirmation. 

(Luders, et al)

Scientific evidence showing the measurable effects of meditation on the brain structure—in particular on the part linking the two hemispheres—is still patchy. This is possibly due to a lack of scientific definitions of what exactly Buddhism consists of and how scientific disciplines may benefit from the Buddhist worldview. Scientific inquiry into the neuroscience of enlightenment is still limited due to the lack of scientific theories that accept enlightenment as a reality.

In fact, setting aside science, even among different spiritual traditions there is no real agreement as to what exactly enlightenment consists of, how it shows up, and what it all means. And even among Buddhists themselves, there is no clear-cut understanding and agreement on what exactly being a Buddhist consists of and how that relates to yoga and the literature of yogic and other spiritual traditions. Because of this fragmented and a confusing but exciting epistemic mess, there is limited scientific basis for experiments and data collection. This is what the Buddhist scientific community needs to overcome.

The experiments in which monks wear EEG caps are interesting but not conclusive, possibly because the monks being tested may not be enlightened, and because such experiments so far have been purely exploratory, without defined parameters, goals, or agreement on what should be observed. So far, it is not clear what the science of enlightenment aims to demonstrate either.

It should be noted that not every Buddhist is a meditation or yogic practitioner, let alone an advanced one who can display achievements and measurable results. The majority of Buddhists are ordinary beings who believe in the historical existence of Shakyamuni Buddha and try to follow his teachings.

Keeping these issues in mind, there is definitely work to be done so that science can better serve the evolution of consciousness, which is what life and the universe are all about, and Eastern philosophies can contribute to informing and providing direction for scientific enquiry.

Patients Missing One Brain Hemisphere Show Surprisingly Intact Neural Connections (Caltech)

References

Luders, Eileen, et al. 2012. “Bridging the hemispheres in meditation: thicker callosal regions and enhanced fractional anisotropy (FA) in long-term practitioners.” Neuroimage. pp. 181–7 https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/22374478/

Sharma, Kanishka, et al. 2017. “Enhanced White Matter Integrity in Corpus Callosum of Long-Term Brahmakumaris Rajayoga Meditators.” Brain Connectivity. Vol. 8. No. 1 

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