Some time ago around 2007, a new word crept into the urban dictionary –pizzled – defined as a cross between pissed off and puzzled. It is the feeling you get when someone whips out their cell phone and starts texting or checking e-mail while they were in the middle of a conversation with you. As Daniel Goleman, a neuroscience researcher and author of new book “Focus” (1), describes it, people do this because the feeling of receiving an email, a text, a picture on WhatsApp or Snapchat, or aFacebook comment is similar to getting a “hit” – it gives us a temporary high, accompanied by a secretion of the pleasure inducing chemical dopamine in the brain. We go back again and again to get that high. When bombarded with the barrage of information from 24-hour news and social media, we end up in a constant state of distraction, which prevents any kind of task accomplishment, learning, and even has health hazards.
Constantly distracted, we cannot get any work done. Our relationships suffer. We ruminate endlessly over an argument with a friendor lose our temper at the drop of a hat. We are completely debilitated by the loss of someone dear, or keep thinking non-stop of a negative event that occurred in our lives, or stress and worry about things beyond our control – we are now in a state of “frazzle”. In this state our stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol are very high, which further lowers performance on any task.
Pizzle and frazzle are dangerous conditions, and unfortunately very common in our present day society. According to Dr. Richard Davidson (2), Psychologist and Neuroscientist at the University of Wisconsin, and one of Time magazine’s “Most Influential People on the Planet” (2006) – people have six major emotional styles that can work to their disadvantage, including Low Attention, Low Resilience, Low Self Awareness, Low Social Intuition, Negative Outlook and Low Sensitivity to Context (3). Similarly, Goleman aims to “bring attention back to attention”, as he contends that we unwittingly don’t use our attention muscle anymore, and cannot harness our minds at will. Instead, we wait for things to “grab” our attention, and the economic structure around us obliges with heavy advertising.
These emotional styles are nothing but trouble and make us suffer needlessly. Furthermore, all these have their unique signature blueprint in the brain. Some of these tendencies we were born with, and others we picked up from the environment around us. But the good news is that we can change this circuitry in the brain, and thus change our emotional habits, and save ourselves from unnecessary misery. All it takes is brain rewiring – through meditation! This is where science meets spirituality – and it is called “contemplative neuroscience”. While meditation has always had the overarching aim of taming the mind, this schema gives a categorization of thoughts gone haywire, the impact this has on our daily lives, and ways to “reset” them back to neutral.
The fact that the brain can change is relatively a new discovery in science, and this “neuroplasticity” of the brain makes it a lot more interesting as an object of study. Not only do we have choices in how we respond to the physical world around us, but we can also change our gene expression. The tasks of the brain that we assumed were pre-determined, pre-wired,and pre-programmed are all up for re-evaluation. The brain is not the boss, the mind is. The mind wants to take charge and conquer back the fortress that was besieged by the brain. In a nutshell, if you can repeatedly bring your mind back to your breath as it wanders, you have in you the power to change your universe.
Spiritual Practice Changes the Brain
The concept of self-transformation (or changing your emotional archetype) in order to process things differently in the external world was always the justification for spiritual practice in most religions. The Abhidhamma lists 52 mental factors that afflict humans and ways to overcome them. The Buddha talked of destructive emotions and their transcendence. Patanjali’sYoga Sutras talk of mental kleshas and how the practice of ashtanga yogacan help overcome these shortcomings of the mind. The Bhagavad Gitaand the Upanishads spoke of three major personality types or “gunas” (tamas, rajas and sattva). The spiritual goal of man is to elevate himself fromtamasic modes which are inherently indolent, lazy and delusional, torajasic (industrious, ambitious and goal oriented) and then finally to sattvic(equable, unflappable, serene, calm, content and cheerful).
The prescription for human upliftment was regular spiritual practice such as dhyana and dharana (contemplation and attention training), japa(chanting of mantras), pranayama (breathing techniques) or even physical action performed with the right intention i.e. not for personal gain or glory. The spiritual texts have claimed for centuries that these practices have to be adopted and regularly practiced. The neuroscientists are also saying that regular practice is key to changing the brain, and even eight weeks of regular practice has a significant impact on a person’s ability to regulate his emotions. This is “experience based neuroplasticity”.
“... the revolution in neuroplasticity has shown that the brain can change as a result of two distinct inputs. It can change as a result of the experiences we have in the world – how we move and behave and what sensory signals arrive in our cortex. The brain can also change in response to purely mental activity, ranging from meditation to cognitive behavior therapy, with the result that activity in specific circuits can increase or decrease.” (Davidson and Begley, p.263)
The Indian scriptures warned of indulging in hedonistic sense pleasures (preyas) versus the harder path of renouncing instant gratification for higher order happiness (shreyas). The former gives momentary happiness, but the latter gives long-lasting joy. The willful choice one make when withdrawing from a sense pleasures and orienting oneself towards something harder with no immediate reward, uses the same brain circuitry of “cognitive control” that neuroscientists advocate. Scientific experiments using marshmallows and four year olds showed that the children who could delay gratification had much more successful and fulfilled lives decades after the experiment was performed.
The Bhagavad Gita prescribes a “different strokes for different folks” technique to help people utilize their innate tendencies and natural gifts for spiritual growth. People of contemplative nature with a strong desire to learn were given the path of wisdom (jnana yoga), those with preference to “do things” were to channel themselves in benevolent acts such as medicine, education etc (karma yoga). Devotional minded people were to engage in more ritualistic practices dedicated to their gods (bhakti yoga).
It’s interesting to note that psychologists like Carl Jung’s interest was not with yoga as a philosophy or religion but as a psychology. “Yoga was originally a natural process of introversion. Such introversions lead to characteristic inner processes of personality changes” (Jung in Yoga and the West) (4). Thus both tantric yoga and yoga sutras were essentially self-transformational techniques based on deep analysis and experience of the human psyche.
The Inner Workings of the Three Pound Universe
Nothwithstanding the common roots with ancient scriptures, Davidson’s research offers a fascinating peek into the workings of what is arguably the most complex organ in the human body, although it weighs only three pounds or so. Hence it is sometimes called the “three pound universe”. The brain has a 100 billion nerve cells and around a quadrillion connections (or synapses) between these nerve cells. Every emotion such as desire, fear, anger or disgust - has its own signature circuitry or synaptic pathway in the brain, which gets strengthened as the emotion is experienced again and again. Behaviors and habits form neuronal highways in the brain that,once established, are hard to dismantle. You are now “hardwired”.
Different parts of the brain are responsible for different emotions – the left prefrontal region may be the seat of positive emotion and damaging it leads to a depressive state. Resilience, for example, is marked by greater left versus right activation in the pre-frontal cortex. A lack of resilience comes from higher right prefrontal cortex activation. A resilient person may have 30 times more activation in the left prefrontal cortex than a non-resilient one. The amygdala is responsible for feeling negative emotions such as fear, anger, disgust etc. But the left prefrontal cortex sends inhibitory signals to the amygdala instructing it to quiet down, hence shortening the period of amygdala activation and allowing the brain to bounce back from an upsetting experience. Meditation helps this amydala regulation.
Rewiring the Brain with Mindfulness Meditation
Mindfulness meditation involves observing your thoughts and feelings from the perspective of a non-judgmental third party. In the case of experiencing stress, anger, fear or other negative emotions, this means learning to experience a symptom without reacting emotionally. It is learning to realize that the feeling that something is amiss is just the manifestation of overactivity in the brain circuit. One learns to re-label emotion and also distance oneself from it.
We have habitual ways of responding to emotional challenges – complicated products of life experiences, genetics and also previous lives. Mindfulness training alters these habits and makes it more likely that one neuronal pathway rather than another will be used. If the habitual response is for neuronal signals to travel from the frontal cortex, which gives meaning to an experience, to the limbic system, where the amygdala attaches an intense negative connotation to that experience – then mindfulness can help create a new pathway where signals do not reach the amygdala, or fewer do. So what was a stressful experience or setback no longer triggers anxiety, fear or fatalistic capitulation. It’s like “carving out new channels in the streambeds of the mind… Mindfulness retrains these habits of the mind by tapping into the plasticity of the brain’s connections, creating new ones, strengthening some old ones, and weakening others”.(Davidson, p.302). It actually shifts you on the spectrum of emotional types from “slow to recover” to “fast to recover”, or improve your ability to focus and pay attention.
In a world where adversity is always prevalent in some shape or form, this may be a very useful technique to make ourselves more capable of living happy and fulfilling lives. For as the old adage goes, “we see the world not as the world is; we see the world as we are”.
(1) Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence. By Daniel Goleman. Harper Collins, 2013.
(2)The Emotional Life of your Brain By Richard Davidson and Sharon Begley, 2012. Hudson Street Press.
(3) For example, Low Attention implies inability to screen out emotional distractions and stay committed to task at hand. Low Resilience results in difficulty shaking of anger or sadness or any other negative emotion. The capacity to sustain positive emotion is Outlook Style; Social intuition is the ability to pick up on non-verbal cues; Self awareness implies being aware of you own emotions; Sensitivity to Context implies capacity to regulate our emotions based on rules of social engagement.