neuroscience of meditation

Dalai Lama’s brain challenge produces split decision

New Scientist: If you’re going to challenge the Dalai Lama to a memory game, don’t do it just after he’s meditated. New research finds that meditation boosts visual memory, but only in the short term. The findings counter the claims of some monks who say that years of practicing a meditation technique that centres on creating an elaborate mental picture of deities can offer long-lasting improvements in visual memory and processing. Read more here.

“They claim they can do it all the time – they cannot,” says Maria Kozhevnikov, a neuroscientist at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia, who travelled to several monasteries in Nepal to test the Buddhist monks’ visual memory.
Holy challenge

In 2003, the Dalai Lama, who has a long-term interest in science and what he calls “the luminosity of being”, attended a neuroscience conference at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. There he challenged Kozhevnikov’s then post-doctoral advisor, Stephen Kosslyn, to test the visual memory of Buddhist monks.

Kosslyn and most other neuroscientists claimed that working memory was too short to maintain an image for more than a few seconds. He found no difference in visual memory between moderately practiced monks and non-meditators who came to his Harvard lab.

The Dalai Lama suggested that Kosslyn test more experienced monks in Nepal, and Kozhevnikov took on the task while on sabbatical.

Her initial tests at Sechen Monastery in Kathmandu confirmed Kosslyn’s findings. She showed monks an array of six images – various animals, for instance – and then five seconds later another six images, five of which appeared in the first set and one new picture. Test subjects had to determine which image was new.

In another task, Kozhevnikov showed monks a three-dimensional shape next to a rotated version of the shape or its mirror image.
‘Unbelievable performance’

The Sechen monks proved no better at determining whether the second shape was identical to or the mirror image of the first shape, compared to people who don’t meditate. Their visual memories, too, seemed normal.

Then, by chance, Kozhevnikov tested a monk immediately after a meditation session. “He showed unbelievable performance. Suddenly, I realised that I need to give this test right after meditation,” she says.

On subsequent exams of 15 monks and experienced meditators in the US, she got the same results. Before meditation, they performed no better than anyone else. Yet after 20 minutes of meditation, their visual memory and spatial skills improved dramatically.

What’s more, only practitioners of a meditation style that emphasises visual imagery – called deity yoga – registered an improvement. Kozhevnikov also tested 14 people experienced in a form of meditation that does not focus on mental imagery – known as open presence meditation – and their visual memory and spatial skills saw no gains.
Artists too?

The team didn’t probe how long the improvement lasts after meditation, but Kozhevnikov suspects that it varies from person to person, depending on meditation experience, mood and the length of the meditation session.

She also speculates that heightened visual memory and processing isn’t unique to those who practice Buddhist meditation. Visual artists may also experience transient surges in visual awareness that allow them to maintain mental images for extended periods, Kozhevnikov says.

“I think that if she shows it’s not confined to these practitioners, but you find the same thing happening in these great visual artists that’s important,” says Jack Loomis, a neuroscientist at the University of California in Santa Barbara.

Their heightened mental images may not even be contained to two dimensions, Loomis speculates. Most people can maintain a coarse mental picture of their three-dimensional world and can roughly approximate different vantage points.

“What if these people have an incredibly dense representation of three-dimensional space,” he says. “That’s pretty amazing.”

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Talking up enlightenment

Scientific American: Many years ago a curious boy looked through a telescope and, on seeing the shadows in the craters of the moon, realized that he had to make a choice. His religion taught him to respect the moon as a generator of light, but science taught him that the moon reflected the sun’s rays. The subtle clarification offered by science ultimately trumped the Buddhist interpretation for Tenzin Gyatso, the current Dalai Lama.

Today when this political and religious leader is faced with conflicting explanations of life’s mysteries, the Dalai Lama still favors scientific evidence over classical Buddhist concepts. At a time when Americans are battling state by state for religion-free science education, he urges people to take a path of peace between the perspectives. Read more here.

An estimated 14,000 people attended his lecture on November 12, 2005, at a meeting of the Society for Neuroscience in Washington, D.C., with most of them watching from overflow rooms where the talk was broadcast on large screens. Dressed in gold and crimson robes, he suggested a healthy dose of skepticism toward religious pronouncements. Although science can overturn spiritual teachings, people can benefit from scientific understanding without losing faith, he reasoned.

But the Dalai Lama also emphasized that religion can help science, not just hinder it. In particular, he urged neuroscientists not to discount the role of Buddhist traditions on the brain, specifically meditation. “Try to find reality with an open mind,” he said, referring both to investigations in science as well as to studies in Buddhist thought. “Without investigation we can’t see reality.”

The neuroscientists in the auditorium responded with approval, especially those who have examined the effects of meditation. One was Bruce F. O’Hara of the University of Kentucky, who has found that meditation improves the performance of sleep-deprived individuals about as much as drinking a cup of coffee does. O’Hara applauded the religious leader’s support of science, “especially given the issues with evolution and the [fundamentalist] Christian reluctance to accept evolution because it threatens their beliefs.” Olivia Carter of Harvard University found it fascinating to hear about the Dalai Lama’s personal interest in neuroscience and the importance he places on the scientific method of inquiry. “It should not matter that the observations associated with meditation arise through introspection or contemplation, as long as the observations can be used to generate objective testable predictions,” she says. Carter’s own work in the field examines meditation’s effect on perception.

Sara W. Lazar of Harvard Medical School remarks that not all scientists are equally as open to testing Buddhist meditation practices. “I have encountered mainstream scientists who do not meditate who are very curious and open, and those who are still unwilling to even consider the possibility that meditation might have some positive effects.” Lazar has found that meditation may help prevent the rate of cortical thinning with age. Brain scans show that as people get older, the white matter typically degenerates. This material envelops the neurons and helps them work more efficiently. Lazar discovered that older meditators had active cortical regions that were comparable to those of younger nonmeditators.

But such a discovery should not have been too surprising, according to neuroscientist Michael Merzenich of the University of California, San Francisco. The brain typically responds to repetitive use by thickening the cortex in the relevant area—for example, people who play the piano have more cortex associated with that skill. Moreover, recent studies indicate that “plastic changes driven by mental exercises in many respects parallel those driven by actual exercise,” Merzenich says.

Still, he finds the idea of science studying the influence of faith on the brain intriguing. Imaging work has shown that an area in the frontal cortex is activated in response to how strongly someone believes an answer to be correct. Merzenich adds that “this activation affirms the brain’s decision that one’s conclusion is correct, whether it is or not.” Such findings reinforce why the Dalai Lama places so much importance on maintaining an open mind.

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The Best of Inquiring Mind: 25 Years of Dharma, Drama, and Uncommon Insight

Best of Inquiring Mind

Title: “The Best of Inquiring Mind: 25 Years of Dharma, Drama, and Uncommon Insight”
Author: edited by Barbara Gates and Wes Nisker.
Publisher: Wisdom Publications (2009).
ISBN: 0-86171-551-9
Available from:

As the exceptional, essential new anthology The Best of Inquiring Mind: 25 Years of Dharma, Drama, and Uncommon Insight underscores for us, Inquiring Mind journal has been both a vital and heroic effort in English-language Buddhist media.

At a quarter-century in age, the biannual is one of the longest-standing publications for Dharma practitioners in North America—a survivor, a keeper, and an example. As publisher Alan Novidor so aptly puts it in his preface, the journal is generally regarded as “beautiful, honest, provocative, and simply presented.”

Co-founded and co-edited by Barbara Gates and Wes Nisker (who also put the book together), Inquiring Mind is staffed by six part-timers and a lot of volunteers. A labor of devotion to the Dharma and to others, there is no office or headquarters—it is assembled in the homes of its editors and staffers—and published on recycled newsprint.

Freely offered as dāna, it depends entirely on reader donations; and though it has been popularized at American Vipassana centers, it is neither “affiliated with” nor “subsidized by” any particular community or tradition, opting instead for a nonsectarian, independent approach.

Expressly dedicated to “the creative transmission of Buddhadharma to the West,” contributing authors have included such luminaries as Jack Kornfield, Thich Nhat Hanh, Joanna Macy, Gary Snyder, Sharon Salzberg, Joseph Goldstein, Allen Ginsberg, Rick Fields, Ayya Khema, Mark Epstein, S.N. Goenka, Jon Kabat-Zinn, Robert Thurman, Tsoknyi Rinpoche, Noah Levine, Edward Espe Brown, and many others.

With such an incredibly rich archive to draw upon, the question can be asked: How best to distill Inquiring Mind down into a “Greatest Hits” volume? In the introduction to The Best of Inquiring Mind, Gates and Nisker articulate a sound vision: an anthology arranged into eight sections that best represent the issues and ideas pondered over in the pages of the journal. (Each issue of Inquiring Mind has revolved around one or two themes.) By doing this, the “mix of genres” and “mix of voices” that made the publication so distinctive are very well exhibited without making for an unwieldy book.

The editors are careful to note, however, that their volume nonetheless reflects gender and ethnic “imbalances” in Western Buddhism, as the authors are mostly male and white. Still, it would be difficult to fault the book for not presenting a fairly broad spectrum of genres—in particular, the inclusion of artwork at the beginning of each section highlights some other important ways of teaching dharma that are often neglected.

 Inquiring Mind is expressly dedicated to the creative transmission of Buddhadharma to the West  

The first section, “Path of the Elders: East Moving West,” seeks to chart and characterize the transmission of Theravāda Buddhism to the West. It includes interviews (with Goldstein, Goenka, Salzberg, Kabat-Zinn, and Ajahn Amaro); reflections on the great Dipa Ma (by Goldstein, Kornfield, Jack Engler, Carol Wilson, and Michele McDonald); and a conversation (between Nisker and Noah Levine). It also features a piece that should be required reading for all Western Buddhists: Jack Kornfield’s “Advice from the Dalai Lama,” which reports on the first historic meeting between His Holiness and a group of twenty-two Western Dharma teacher from various traditions.

The second section, “Living & Dying in a Body,” is a consistently fascinating, powerful, and unique portion of the book—in many ways, this small collection itself exemplifies what has been so special about Inquiring Mind. An exploration of “the flesh and its attendant joys and conflicts,” it immediately grabs a hold on the reader with Rick Kohn’s evocative poem “Mr. Lucky.”

Also brilliant and equally absorbing is Diana Winston’s reflection on being a nun and experiencing the “blessing” of her menstrual cycle, which served as a reminder of her “connection to the Earth and [herself] as a woman.” Former belly-dancer Terry Vandiver’s coming to grips with her age, Caitriona Reed’s meditation on gender identity, and Kate Lila Wheeler’s encouragement of us to include the “loathsome” in our practice are all also outstanding and extremely valuable in that they touch on issues and ideas not often mulled over in contemporary Buddhist writing.

Zen Hospice Project founder Frank Ostaseski’s “Stories of Lives Lived and Now Ending” and the late Rick Fields’ recollection about teaching a fellow cancer patient about the Medicine Buddha offer memorable insights from those looking death squarely in the eye. The section ends with an absolutely unforgettable piece by Ronna Kabatznik, entitled “Tsunami Psychologist,” about tending to survivors among the dead following the Southeast Asian tsunami that was caused by the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake.

“Science of Mind,” the third section, considers the “new synthesis” of Eastern and Western ideas about the human mind. It includes interviews with scientists Paul Ekman and Francisco Varela, psychotherapist Epstein, and dharma teacher Kornfield. Additionally, Susan Moon contributes a fiercely honest reflection on her experience with depression as a devoted Buddhist practitioner.

 …deserves to find a home on every practitioner’s bookshelf…  

The fourth section on “The Dharma & The Drama” includes pieces about “the dramas of life…seen through the lens of Buddhist teachings.” Working from the story of Prince Siddhartha’s renunciation of his family, Norman Fischer provides a striking teaching on “the sacred and the lost.” Nina Wise vividly recalls a dinner with Carlos Castaneda that included an important lesson: “You’re perfect just the way you are.”

Gates, recognizing that “nothing can be thrown away” in meditation, composes a terrific love letter to garbage. In a very powerful teaching on facing fear, African-American teacher Charles Johnson confronts the memory of a near-lynching during a long retreat. Zen cook Brown’s funny story involving strawberry rhubarb tart cake makes for a fitting wrap-up.

The fifth section, “Complementary Paths,” delves into the issue of practicing in multiple traditions, borrowing from others, and creating new hybrid communities—distinctive trends in Western Buddhism. A typically incisive and provocative interview with Stephen Batchelor (who has practiced in the Tibetan, Korean Zen, and Theravāda Buddhist traditions) on the subject is the first of several interviews in this chunk of the book.

Also featured are interviews with Ram Dass, Tsoknyi Rinpoche, and Hari Lal Poonja. Last is a wonderful conversation between Ani Tenzin Palmo, Ajahn Sundara, Ajahn Jitindriya, and Yvonne Rand about their harmonious experiences as nuns in various traditions.

“Practices,” the sixth section, showcases several riffs on specific practices and aspects of practice. Nisker reveals his rationale to practice in poetic, sometimes lighthearted form. Santikaro articulates mindfulness of breathing in technological language. Ayya Khema, Miranda Shaw, and Goldstein are interviewed about jhana practice, tantric practice, and “the undiluted Dhamma,” respectively.

Rev. Heng Sure memorably ponders humor as he recounts a three-year pilgrimage doing full prostrations for 800 miles along the California Coast Highway. This portion of the book concludes with one of Thurman’s classically quick-witted, razor-sharp teachings—this one on the importance of recognizing impermanence in practice.

“Artists & Jesters of the Dharma,” the seventh section of the book, looks at how the arts and humor are being used as “teaching tools and expressions of realization” here in the West. Judith Stronach, for example, finds koans in Pablo Neruda’s poetry, and an infectiously adulatory Patrick McMahon makes a case for Jack Kerouac as a Dharma ancestor.

There is also Anne Waldman’s astounding poem-cum-elegy about sitting with the corpse of her friend Allen Ginsberg, and Gates’ piece about all that “laundry-line images” evoke for her.

Movie buffs are sure to appreciate Andrew Cooper’s hilarious and imaginative film noir spin on the sutras as well. There are also three stimulating interviews in this section on Buddhist tricksters (Steven Goodman), the “music of sound” (John Cage), and teaching Beat poetry in China (Ginsberg, of course).

The last section, “Tending to the World,” brings forwards pieces that offer a sampling of the various ways socially engaged Buddhist practitioners have articulated what it is that they are doing. There are fabulous interviews with Joanna Macy, Gary Snyder, China Galland, and prison administrators Kiran Bedi and Lucia Meijer, as well as excellent conversation pieces on environmentalism (Julia Butterfly Hill and Ajahn Pasanno) and indigenous voices (Eduardo Duran, Lorain Fox Davis, and Tsultrim Allione). In addition, gardener Wendy Johnson, prisoner Jarvis Jay Masters, and public school teacher Naomi Baer offer colorful glimpses into their lives and work.

The Best of Inquiring Mind is a completely engrossing read and a significant record of a magnificent journal’s work. It’s rare to be able to say that a book deserves to find a home on every practitioner’s bookshelf, where it can continue to motivate and otherwise benefit the reader…and I can say that without hesitation about this book. I’ll be revisiting and drawing inspiration from it for a long, long time. Let’s hope we don’t have to wait another twenty-five years for Volume II.

Rev. Danny FisherRev. Danny Fisher, M.Div., D.B.S. (Cand.), has written for Tricycle: The Buddhist Review; The Journal of Buddhist Ethics (forthcoming); The Journal of Religion & Film; Eastern Horizon; Dharma Life; New York Spirit; elephant journal; and many other publications. He was ordained as a lay Buddhist minister by the ecumenical Buddhist Sangha Council of Southern California in 2008, and is certified as a mindfulness meditation instructor by Naropa University in association with Shambhala International. Visit him online at [Photo by Pierre Rene Bouchard.]

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“Ten Zen Questions,” by Susan Blackmore

Title: “Ten Zen Questions” / “Zen & the Art of Consciousness”
Author: Susan Blackmore
Publisher: Oneworld Publications, Oxford (2009).
ISBN: 978-1-85168-642-1
Available from:

Susan Blackmore’s “Ten Zen Questions” (later re-released as “Zen & the Art of Consciousness”) may at first glance seem silly or pointless — asking yourself things like “Where is this?” for example — but when approached with a focused mind they can be used to push back our assumptions and let us have a glimpse at what’s really going on.

Susan Blackmore is justifiably something of a superstar in the small but important and expanding world that exists where science and Buddhism overlap.

She’s well-known on the TED circuit for her work on “memes” — ideas and cultural phenomena understood as viral-like entities that “infect” our minds and compete for dominance.

She is a psychologist by training, has 25 years of Zen practice under her belt, and employs both disciplines to study the mind in the field that’s become known as “consciousness studies.”

Blackmore emphasizes that she is not a Buddhist, but is “someone with a questioning mind who has stumbled upon Zen and found it immensely helpful.” Helpful, that is, not just on a personal level but as a tool to help her probe the mysteries of consciousness. Ten Zen Questions is a description of Blackmore’s attempts to combine her knowledge of the science of consciousness with introspective practice. It’s an extraordinary book: a sometimes heady but deeply rewarding read.

Although it isn’t billed as such, Ten Zen Questions is largely a spiritual autobiography, in which Blackmore outlines how she stumbled upon Buddhist practice, her struggles with various “koans” (questions that push the mind past limiting assumptions about how things are), and the insights that arose from these experiments. As an account of one person’s spiritual quest, it’s an exceptional piece of writing. But it’s also highly thought-provoking because of the sher intensity with which the author has explored the existential issues implicit in those Zen Questions.

Am I conscious now?

The questions themselves come from various sources, including her scientific training, but mostly they arise from her Buddhist practice. The “Zen” component of the title is slightly misleading because some of the questions are taken from Mahamudra reflections, albeit ones that she studied under her Zen teacher, John Crook.

Questions that arose from her scientific work and her teaching include “Am I conscious now?” and “What was in my consciousness a moment ago?” while questions that she describes as more classically Buddhist include “What is the difference between the mind resting in tranquility and the mind moving in thought” and “How does thought arise?”

What was I conscious of a moment ago?

The purpose of the questions, though, makes more sense in relation to some of the outstanding problems faced by the field of consciousness studies. These problems are outlined in an introductory chapter called “The Problem of Consciousness.” Unfortunately going into these in depth would involve an extensive amount of regurgitation of the chapter, so I can only touch on a couple of points and hope that I haven’t distorted the rather heady problems Blackmore outlines.

One core problem is the relationship of consciousness to the physical body, and in particular to the brain. This is known as the “hard problem” of “how can objective, physical processes in the brain give rise to subjective experience?” Electrical and chemical brain activity are one thing, but the experience of the color red, the feeling of sorrow, or a childhood memory appear to be completely different and irreducible to mere chemistry. This, Blackmore points out, is a modern form of the problem of Cartesian dualism, where physical things in the world and subjective experiences are regarded as fundamentally different things. But if they are truly separate things, then how do they interact? How does the body receive input from the physical senses? How does the mind give instructions to the body?

Who is asking the question?

Philosophical attempts have been made to eliminate the dualism by reducing everything to consciousness (idealism: the world is a creation of the mind — but then how to explain the world’s consistency?) or to reduce everything to matter (materialism: but then how to explain away the sheer subjectivity of our experiences? How can the color, taste, and aroma of a glass of wine be explained in purely chemical terms?)

The other big problem, besides dualism, is where is the “self” that we instinctively assume is sitting in the midst of our flow of experiences, monitoring inputs and deciding on our responses? The notion of a central self does not correspond to anything found in the brain, which lacks a central command center. It’s even been shown that when we make a decision the actual activity happens seconds before we are aware of it. The conscious mind claims to have made a decision only after it’s been made, in an act of post hoc rationalization.

Where is this?

This is all fascinating stuff, and very relevant to Buddhism, which states that there is in fact no self in the sense that we normally think of it, and that we are therefore deluded about the nature of our “selves”. Consciousness Studies and Buddhism therefore have at least some potential common ground, and Blackmore’s Ten Zen Questions are an attempt to explore “the conflict between scientific findings and our own intuitions” by means of introspective awareness engages in reflection.

Some of the questions are familiar to me as practices, while some are new. Asking “Am I conscious now?” is a common practice in one form or another and one that goes back to the earliest days of my own practice. The mindfulness bell for example (a bell rung at intervals as a wake-up call) is a wordless version of that question. The question “Am I conscious now?” brings about the disconcerting realization that often “the lights were on but nobody was home.” In other words in asking the question “Am I conscious now?” we most often become aware of the fact that actually we were not (really) conscious, just a moment before. Obviously something was going on in the mind before the question was asked, but whatever it was it didn’t involve the mind being conscious of itself.

How does thought arise?

This chapter, because of its relentless repetition of the question “Am I conscious now?” itself acts as a wake-up call. I doubt many people could read this chapter without finding the following days filled with moments in which they become aware that they have just “woken up” from unmindfulness.

In my own practice history, this question was phrased “Am I aware of being aware?” which I think is in some ways a more apt question (although it lacks that tangy word “now” that calls on us implicitly to look back at the previous moment). The thing is that we do not, in the terminology I favor, go from being not-conscious to being conscious but go from having simple consciousness (which includes sensing, thinking, and feeling) to having reflexive self-awareness (sensing, thinking, and feeling, combined with an awareness that we are sensing, thinking, and feeling).

There is no time. What is memory?

In hearing the mindfulness bell (or the question “Am I conscious now?” in whatever form of words is chosen) we become aware of ourselves as aware beings. Instead of the mind functioning on automatic pilot, with internal processes (sensing, thinking, and feeling) chugging along in an entirely habitual way, the mind becomes aware of its own inner states. Self-monitoring comes into being. This “being aware of being aware” allows us to make choices that affect what we do and how we respond: for example in simple consciousness we may be obsessed by a train of thought that is painful to us. Without any internal self-monitoring there is nothing to prevent us continuing to cause ourselves pain. When the mindfulness bell (in whatever form) rings and we become aware of being aware, we are able to evaluate the helpfulness or otherwise of our activities and can choose to let go of that pain-inducing train of thought.

When are you?

This twist on Blackmore’s question (moving from “Am I conscious now?” to “Am I aware of being aware?”) may make a difference to the analysis and reflection that she engages in with respect to the second question, “What was I conscious of a moment ago?” She beautifully explores the nuances of this question as it percolates through her mind in meditation. We’ve all had the experience of suddenly hearing the last few seconds of the fridge compressor running before it cycles off. Had we previously been conscious of the fridge running? Usually, no. Yet when the fridge shudders to a halt the mind seems to jump back in time, retrieve the sensory impression of the sound of the compressor (from outside of consciousness? — from where then?) and thus allows us to make sense of the sudden quiet. You weren’t conscious of the fridge running. Then the fridge stopped. And then — what? — you realize you had been conscious of it after all? This doesn’t make much sense in the language of being conscious or not-conscious.

Are you here now?

Blackmore in fact frames her observations consistently in terms of conscious/not-conscious, whereas from my point of view anything that has entered our senses we are conscious of, but we are not necessarily aware that we are conscious of those things unless we “wake up” into reflexive self-awareness. The question “Am I conscious now?” is one possible prompt to make that leap.

I suspect that considering the fridge scenario in terms of “simple consciousness” and “reflexive self-awareness” simplifies things somewhat by allowing us to be “conscious” of the sound of the fridge running even though we weren’t reflexively aware of the sound. In other words we weren’t aware that we were aware of the sound. The stimulus of the fridge stopping acts as a mindfulness bell and we become aware that we were conscious of the fridge. Of course I could be wildly oversimplifying here — never underestimate the power of a consciousness researcher to spot an overlooked complexity. That’s what they’re paid for.

What am I doing? 

Blackmore also brings up a question with regard to those “fridge” sensations that are retrieved from simple consciousness and made the object of reflexive self awareness. She asks, “Who, then, was conscious of them?” She also seems to implicitly assume that “someone” must have been conscious of them, but I’m not sure why she needs to assume that, or what she means by “someone.” It seems to me to be enough to say that the information (say the sound of the fridge) was being processed in the brain (in “simple consciousness”) and that we then then became aware that we were conscious of that particular sensation. Call me a reductivist, but I’m unclear why it has to be more complicated than that.

She also points out that there is no part of the brain that is a “special place where consciousness happens, or a special process uniquely correlated with conscious, as opposed to unconscious, events.” But since we don’t even know how the experience of consciousness relates to the electrical and chemical activity in the brain, I confess this doesn’t much bother me. Where is reflexive self-consciousness located in the brain? I couldn’t guess. Perhaps it’s a quantum process that involves the whole of the brain at one time. Maybe our current tools just can’t even begin to look for the kind of activity that reflexive self-awareness is. It’s not that I’m incurious — I love to see consciousness and the brain being studied — but more that I’m not unduly bothered by the inability of science to measure something that may be essentially intangible.

What happens next?

Blackmore’s investigations of the other eight questions are all described in an equally experiential and autobiographical way, often with blow-by-blow descriptions of what went on in her meditation practice and the history of particular retreats she attended. Her writing style is vivacious and colorful. Her observations are thought-provoking. Her commitment to self-examination is something I frankly find both exemplary and shaming (what exactly do I do in my meditation practice — sometimes it all seems a bit flabby).

The questions tend to be cumulative, in that the insights or exposed assumptions raised in an earlier question tend to become part of the background for the next just as “Am I conscious now?” leads to “What was I conscious of a moment ago?” Blackmore’s analytical/reflective approach leads her to progressively analyze the notion of an “observer self” out of existence.

By Question Six, “There is no time. What is memory?” Blackmore’s spiritual autobiography has led her to experience the “great doubt” — a profound uncertainty about every aspect of experience, where all assumptions seem shaky and the security of knowledge frighteningly elusive. She arrives at the point where she recognizes that there is no past, no future, and not even a present moment. (She also, as an aside, asserts her individuality and departs from the way her teacher advises her to conduct her practice. She is, after all, “not a Buddhist” but hopefully even if she were she would still feel able to enjoy that freedom).

With Question Seven, “When are you?” Blackmore finds herself observing experiences manifesting from nothingness and then going back into nothingness, “with no continuous someone” to whom they appear, and while they appear they are essentially mysterious and unknowable. She recognizes that the self is a fiction, but some fear holds her back from abandoning her attachment to the notion.

With Question Eight, “Are you here now?” Blackmore is looking for the “pure pristine cognition” that Zen, Mahamudra, and Dzogchen assure us is ever-present and non-separate from the impermanent experiences that rise out of emptiness and fall back into it like waves rising and falling on the ocean. She realizes that her thoughts are her self, and “self seems to dissolve … so that there is no longer any central self whose attention switches.” She experiences something “like a void or an emptiness or a vast space of possibilities” rather than an observer separate from her experiences. She also experiences conflict with her teacher, John Crook, who has definite ideas about how her practice should proceed, and who thinks she is intellectually fixated on one approach to her experience.

Question Nine is “What am I doing?” Blackmore examines actions and their relation to “free will” and comes to the conclusion (one consciousness studies would agree with) that there is no such thing. It’s not that there is no choosing going on — there clearly is — but there is not conscious “I” who makes choices. “There’s no one in here making decisions.” Decisions, however, still happen.

In Question Ten, “What happens next?” there is some rather uninteresting questioning about reincarnation and survival, and some rather more interesting observation and reflection about the tendency to want to hold on in subtle ways: to observe experiences sinking, like waves, back into the ocean of emptiness, but to resist their passing. “The task is not to prevent it, not to interfere with it, not to suppose that there even is a me who could interfere with it.”

She explores the possibility that what seems to be her “self” merely arises along with whatever is being experienced, and passes away with it. If I may once again use a metaphor that Blackmore does not, the self is like the sum total of the waves on the surface of the ocean: there is no identity — no “thing” that endures because each wave, like each experience, is short-lived — but there is a continuity. Perhaps this continuity, she wonders, “is that of the timeless, emptiness, or void, or whatever it is, out of which phenomena appear.”

This is a conclusion that many a Buddhist tradition would recognize and embrace, of course.

After this final question there is a chapter on “Being conscious.” Perhaps I missed something here, but I found this chapter rather unsatisfactory. She mainly addresses some of the preoccupations of consciousness researchers, but since I don’t share those preoccupations I had the feeling Blackmore was talking past me (and to a large extent over my head).

In the introductory chapter she had raised the problems inherent in believing that there is a “self” that handles experiences, and she also outlines the “hard problem” of how subjective experience can arise on the basis of physical phenomena. While the chapter “Being conscious” reiterates the illusory nature of the self, it doesn’t seem to have anything to say about the “hard problem.” I found that rather disappointing.

She does make some interesting observations about the nature of consciousness — observations that also resonate with me as a practitioner:

At any time in a human brain there are multiple parallel processes going on, conjuring up perceptions, thoughts, opinions, sensations, and volitions. None of these is either in or out of consciousness for there is no such place. Most of the time there is no observer: if consciousness is involved at all it is an attribution made later, on the basis of remembering events and assuming that someone must have been experiencing them in the past, when in fact no one was.

She argues that “temporary observers” are constructed and that we need to study how this happens and she ventures some suspicions about how these temporary observers may come into being.

I find myself in agreement with most of what she says here, but I doubt, however, that consciousness is “an attribution made later.” Blackmore spends a lot of time dealing with sounds, and the nature of some of the questions she asks lead her to be aware of things that have just happened. “Am I conscious now” immediately leads to thoughts of what has just been. It can become essentially the same question as “What was I conscious of a moment ago?”

And sound has a peculiar nature. We can be aware of sounds as they arise, for example while listening to a piece of music unfold, or we can be aware of sounds that are in what’s called “echoic memory,” which is a kind of sensory buffer that stores around four seconds of auditory data. The purpose of this would seem to be to allow us to briefly skip back in time and check for important data we may have missed, just as you might skip back a few seconds in an audiobook to pick up the thread when you’ve been distracted from the narrative. A lot of Blackmore’s descriptions of mindfulness seem to have involved paying attention to what’s in echoic memory rather than what she was currently listening to. Rather than simply listening to what was at the forefront of her auditory consciousness, she made it a practice to seek out the sounds she was not paying attention to — and those by definition would be in echoic memory, and therefore in the past in some sense.

I think this emphasis on “skipping backwards” into echoic memory may have skewed her view of consciousness. As I’m writing this review I’m aware right now that it’s, well, right now. I’m here now, being aware of my experience, not attributing consciousness later. Unless, of course, I’m seriously deluded.

Part of the problem for me in staying engaged with Blackmore’s account of her explorations is the fact that she doesn’t define what it means to be “conscious,” and doesn’t generally make a clear distinction between the kind of consciousness we have just before we ask “Am I conscious now?” and the kind we have afterwards. The question “Am I conscious now?” implies that “conscious” is what I am once I’m in a position to ask that question. But what do we call the kind of awareness we had before we ask that question? Blackmore tends to use the word “conscious” there as well: “I can remember what was happening just before I asked the question, so it seems that someone must have been conscious.” A more careful use of terminology would have helped me be sure I knew what she was talking about.

Blackmore’s final words point to a spiritual experience of non-self that corresponds to what is known to be going on in the brain: “There is no persisting self, no show in a mental theatre, no power of consciousness and no free will, no duality of self and other — just complex interactions between a body and the rest of the world, arising and falling away for no one in particular.” This description very much accords with what I understand the state of bodhi, or enlightenment, to be — a radical acceptance of and non-interference with direct experience, a flow of experience undistorted by ego-based grasping or aversion.

Yet those final words also leave me feeling uneasy. Blackmore throws in the phrase “no power of consciousness” and I find myself wondering what she means. Why at the very end of the book introduce a new term? Did I miss something earlier? I’m sure I missed a lot while reading Ten Zen Questions, but I’m pretty sure she’s never used that phrase before. I’m sure she means something by saying there is “no power of consciousness” but it’s almost as if she’s so excited about what she’s saying that she doesn’t take the time to connect the dots — and perhaps to connect to the reader as well. Or maybe I’m being a bit dim? I experience doubt and confusion.

Spotting that final ambiguous and unexplained phrase (“no power of consciousness”) brought to my attention that throughout the book I had half-noticed other instances where explanations didn’t seem clear or seemed partial, and where phrases were dropped in as if of course you’d know what she was talking about. The feeling I’m left with is that Blackmore’s book to some extent went over my head. Some moments I doubt myself and think I must be too inattentive or lacking in intelligence to grasp her arguments, but at other times I suspect she may have a “feeling” of significance that hasn’t been fully thought out or articulated.

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Six ways to boost brainpower

Scientific American: Scientists are finding that the adult human brain is far more malleable than they once thought. Your behavior and environment can cause substantial rewiring of your brain or a reorganization of its functions. Activities such as listening to music, playing video games and meditating may boost cognitive performance as well. Read more here.

By Emily Anthes

Amputees sometimes experience phantom limb sensations, feeling pain, itching or other impulses coming from limbs that no longer exist. Neuroscientist Vilayanur S. Ramachandran worked with patients who had so-called phantom limbs, including Tom, a man who had lost one of his arms.

Ramachandran discovered that if he stroked Tom’s face, Tom felt like his missing fingers were also being touched. Each part of the body is represented by a different region of the somatosensory cortex, and, as it happens, the region for the hand is adjacent to the region for the face. The neuroscientist deduced that a remarkable change had taken place in Tom’s somatosensory cortex.

Ramachandran concluded that because Tom’s cortex was no longer getting input from his missing hand, the region processing sensation from his face had slowly taken over the hand’s territory. So touching Tom’s face produced sensation in his nonexistent fingers.

This kind of rewiring is an example of neuroplasticity, the adult brain’s ability to change and remold itself. Scientists are finding that the adult brain is far more malleable than they once thought. Our behavior and environment can cause substantial rewiring of the brain or a reorganization of its functions and where they are located. Some believe that even our patterns of thinking alone are enough to reshape the brain.

Researchers now know that neurogenesis (the birth of new neurons) is a normal feature of the adult brain. Studies have shown that one of the most active regions for neurogenesis is the hippocampus, a structure that is vitally important for learning and long-term memory.

Neurogenesis also takes place in the olfactory bulb, which is involved in processing smells. But not all the neurons that are born survive; in fact, most of them die. To survive, the new cells need nutrients and connections with other neurons that are already thriving. Scientists are currently identifying the factors that affect the rate of neurogenesis and the survival of new cells. Mental and physical exercise, for instance, both boost neuron survival.

Mice that run on wheels increase the number of neurons in their hippocampus and perform better on tests of learning and memory. Studies of humans have revealed that exercise can improve the brain’s executive functions (planning, organizing, multitasking, and more). Exercise is also well known for its mood-boosting effects, and people who exercise are less likely to get dementia as they age. Among those who are already aged, athletic senior citizens have better executive function than do those who are sedentary; even seniors who have spent their entire lives on the couch can improve these abilities just by starting to move more in their golden years.

A variety of mechanisms might be responsible for this brain boost. Exercise increases blood flow to the brain, which also increases the delivery of oxygen, fuel and nutrients to those hard-working neurons. Research has shown that exercise can increase levels of a substance called brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), which encourages growth, communication and survival of neurons.

Of course, all this research does nothing to help explain dumb jocks.

On the Frontier
New research suggests a little music can make your workout better yet. Volunteers completed two workout sessions. In one, they sweated to the sweet sound of silence; in the other, they listened to Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. After each workout, participants completed assessments of their mood and verbal skills. Exercise alone was enough to boost both, but verbal scores improved twice as much when the exercisers had tunes to listen to. Maybe you can get your insurance company to pay for a new iPod.

Cocktail Party Tidbits
>> Exercise also improves sleep quality, a pile of studies suggests. And immune function. Is there anything it can’t do?

>> You don’t need to be Chuck Norris (thankfully) to get the brain benefits of exercise. Studies of senior citizens have shown that as little as 20 minutes of walking a day can do the trick.

The brain needs fuel just as the body does. So what will really boost your brainpower, and what will make you lose your mind? Saturated fat, that familiar culprit, is no better for the brain than it is for the body. Rats fed diets high in saturated fat underperformed on tests of learning and memory, and humans who live on such diets seem to be at increased risk for dementia.

Not all fat is bad news, however. The brain is mostly fat—all those cell membranes and myelin coverings require fatty acids—so it is important to eat certain fats, particularly omega-3 fats, which are found in fish, nuts and seeds. Alzheimer’s disease, depression, schizophrenia and other disorders may be associated with low levels of omega-3 fatty acids.

Fruits and vegetables also appear to be brain superfoods. Produce is high in substances called antioxidants, which counteract atoms that can damage brain cells. Researchers have found that high-antioxidant diets keep learning and memory sharp in aging rats and even reduce the brain damage caused by strokes. That’s food for thought.

On the Frontier
It’s not just what you eat that affects the brain. It’s also how much. Research has shown that laboratory animals fed calorie-restricted diets—anywhere from 25 to 50 percent less than normal—live longer than other animals do. And it turns out they also have improved brain function, performing better on tests of memory and coordination. Rodents on calorie-restricted diets are also better able to resist the damage that accompanies Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and Huntington’s disease.

Cocktail Party Tidbits
>> Some of the best brain foods: walnuts, blueberries and spinach.

>> It is especially important that babies get enough fat. Babies who don’t get enough of the stuff have trouble creating the fatty myelin insulation that helps neurons transmit signals. Luckily for babies, breast milk is 50 percent fat.

>> Populations that traditionally eat diets high in omega-3 fatty acids tend to have lower rates of disorders of the central nervous system.

Stimulants are substances that rev up the nervous system, increasing heart rate, blood pressure, energy, breathing and more. Caffeine is probably the most famous of the group. (It is actually the most widely used “drug” in the world.) By activating the central nervous system, caffeine boosts arousal and alertness. In high doses, though, this stimulation can go too far, causing jitters, anxiety and insomnia.

Cocaine and amphetamines are less benign. Although they work on the brain through different mechanisms, they have similar effects. Taking them increases the release of some of the brain’s feel-good neurotransmitters—including dopamine and serotonin—and produces a rush of euphoria. They also increase alertness and energy.

That all sounds pretty good, but cocaine and amphetamines are extremely addictive drugs and in high doses they can cause psychosis and withdrawal. The withdrawal symptoms are nasty and can lead to depression, the opposite of that euphoric feeling. And of course, an overdose can kill you.

On the Frontier
Although high doses of caffeine can undoubtedly have unpleasant effects (ranging from irritability to the most unpleasant of all: death in rare cases), small to moderate amounts can boost our mental functioning in ways researchers are now measuring.

One study showed that the equivalent of two cups of coffee can boost short-term memory and reaction time. Functional MRI scans taken during the study also revealed that volunteers who had been given caffeine had increased activity in the brain regions involving attention. In addition, research suggests caffeine can protect against age-related memory decline in older women.

Cocktail Party Tidbits
>> Three quarters of the caffeine we ingest comes from coffee. Try to limit yourself to fewer than 100 cups a day. That much coffee contains about 10 grams of caffeine, enough to cause fatal complications.

>> One of fiction’s most famous stimulant users is the great caper cracker Sherlock Holmes. Many of the detective’s capers include descriptions of the relief he found from injecting cocaine. It must be tough to make sure justice is done.

Video games could save your life. Surgeons who spend at least a few hours a week playing video games make one-third fewer errors in the operating room than nongaming doctors do. Indeed, research has shown that video games can improve mental dexterity, while boosting hand-eye coordination, depth perception and pattern recognition. Gamers also have better attention spans and information-processing skills than the average Joe has. When nongamers agree to spend a week playing video games (in the name of science, of course), their ­visual-perception skills improve. And strike your notions of gamers as outcasts: one researcher found that white-collar professionals who play video games are more confident and social.

Of course, we cannot talk about the effects of video games without mentioning the popular theory that they are responsible for increasing real-world violence. A number of studies have reinforced this link. Young men who play a lot of violent video games have brains that are less responsive to graphic images, suggesting that these gamers have become desensitized to such depictions. Another study revealed that gamers had patterns of brain activity consistent with aggression while playing first-­person shooter games.

This does not necessarily mean these players will actually be violent in real life. The connections are worth exploring, but so far the data do not support the idea that the rise of video games is responsible for increased youth violence.

On the Frontier
Video games activate the brain’s reward circuits but do so much more in men than in women, according to a new study. Researchers hooked men and women up to functional MRI machines while the participants played a video game designed for the study. Both groups performed well, but the men showed more activity in the limbic system, which is associated with reward processing. What is more, the men showed greater connectivity between the structures that make up the reward circuit, and the better this connection was in a particular player, the better he performed. There was no such correlation in women. Men are more than twice as likely as women are to say they feel addicted to video games.

Cocktail Party Tidbits
>> Video games are a $10-billion industry in the U.S.

>> In 2003 a 16-year-old boy shot and killed two police officers and a police dispatcher. Two years later the families of the victims filed suit against the company that made the massively popular video game Grand Theft Auto. The lawsuit alleges that the perpetrator was inspired by his obsession with the controversial video game.

When you turn on Queen’s Greatest Hits, the auditory cortex analyzes the many components of the music: volume, pitch, timbre, melody and rhythm. But there’s more to music’s interaction with the brain than just the raw sound. Music can also activate your brain’s reward centers and depress activity in the amygdala, reducing fear and other negative emotions.

A highly publicized study suggested that listening to Mozart could boost cognitive performance, inspiring parents everywhere to go out and buy classical CDs for their children. The idea of a “Mozart effect” remains popular, but the original study has been somewhat discredited, and any intellectual boost that comes from listening to music seems to be tiny and temporary. Nevertheless, music does seem to possess some good vibrations. It can treat anxiety and insomnia, lower blood pressure, soothe patients with dementia, and help premature babies to gain weight and leave the hospital sooner.

Music training can bolster the brain. The motor cortex, cerebellum and corpus callosum (which connects the brain’s two sides) are all bigger in musicians than in nonmusicians. And string players have more of their sensory cortices devoted to their fingers than do those who don’t play the instruments. There is no agreement yet on whether musical training makes you smarter, but some studies have indeed shown that music lessons can improve the spatial abilities of young kids.

On the Frontier
Music lessons and practice during childhood increase the sensitivity of the brain stem to the sounds of human speech. According to a recent study, the brain stem is involved in very basic encoding of sound, and lots of exposure to music can help fine-tune this system, even in kids without particular musical gifts.

So buck up, tone-deaf children of the world! Think of it like eating vegetables: chewing on that clarinet is good for you.

Cocktail Party Tidbits
>> The auditory cortex is activated by singing a song in your head. The visual cortex is activated by merely imagining a musical score.

>> Playing classical and soothing music can increase the milk yield of dairy cows.

Forget apples. If reams of scientific studies are to be believed (and such studies usually are), an om a day can keep the doctor away. Meditation, or the turning of the mind inward for contemplation and relaxation, seems to help all types of conditions—anxiety disorders, sure, but it can also reduce pain and treat high blood pressure, asthma, insomnia, diabetes, depression and even skin conditions.

And regular meditators say they feel more at ease and more creative than nonmeditators do.
Researchers are now illuminating the actual brain changes caused by meditation by sticking meditators into brain-imaging machines. For one, although the brain’s cells typically fire at all different times, during meditation they fire in synchrony. Expert meditators also show spikes of brain activity in the left prefrontal cortex, an area of the brain that has generally been associated with positive emotions. And those who had the most activity in this area during meditation also had big boosts in immune system functioning.

Meditation can increase the thickness of the cerebral cortex, particularly in regions associated with attention and sensation. (The growth does not seem to result from the cortex growing new neurons, though—it appears that the neurons already there make more connections, the number of support cells increases, and blood vessels in that area get bigger.)

On the Frontier
Meditation can increase focus and attention, improving performance on cognitive tasks. Researchers spent three months training volunteers in the practice of Vipassana meditation, which centers on minimizing distractions. Then the volunteers were asked to perform a task in which they had to pick a few numbers out of a stream of letters. People who had undergone meditation training were much better at identifying numbers that briefly flashed onto a computer screen. They also seemed to be able to do this without exerting as much mental energy.

Cocktail Party Tidbits
>> Monks who take part in these scientific studies have typically spent more than 10,000 hours in meditation. That’s more than a year.

>> In 2005 the Dalai Lama was a distinguished speaker at the Society for Neuroscience’s annual conference, the world’s largest gathering of brain researchers.

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Meditation, prayer alter brain, says researcher

Ventura County Star: Labeled one of the world’s leading experts on spirituality and the brain by Time and Newsweek magazines, neuroscientist Mark Waldman has found that a few simple modified meditations can change the brain in ways that promote physical, emotional and cognitive health and may even slow down the brain’s aging process. “The neurological benefits of meditation are undeniable. Our research has documented how meditation, prayer and spiritual practices alter both the structure and function of the brain,” he said. “Meditation can be modified to improve academic performance, and our newest research shows that it may even slow down the aging process of the brain. Thus our research touches on some of the most important concerns of society.”

Labeled one of the world’s leading experts on spirituality and the brain by Time and Newsweek magazines, neuroscientist Mark Waldman has found that a few simple modified meditations can change the brain in ways that promote physical, emotional and cognitive health and may even slow down the brain’s aging process.

“This, we propose, leads to greater cooperation between people: with couples, spouses, families, business associates and other groups of people,” said Waldman, a therapist with a counseling practice in Agoura Hills and Camarillo. He also is an associate fellow at the Center for Spirituality and the Mind at the University of Pennsylvania, where he conducts research on the neuropsychology of beliefs, morality, compassion and spiritual experiences.

“The neurological benefits of meditation are undeniable. Our research has documented how meditation, prayer and spiritual practices alter both the structure and function of the brain,” he said. “Meditation can be modified to improve academic performance, and our newest research shows that it may even slow down the aging process of the brain. Thus our research touches on some of the most important concerns of society.”

With that, Waldman will present Spirituality, Compassion and the Brain, a workshop on March 8 at the Center for Spiritual Living in Thousand Oaks, to be preceded by a morning lecture on “The Neurons of Empathy.”

“Few people understand how the brain works, so I use animated videos and even a cauliflower named Mildred to explain in simple terms some of the powerful effects that meditation and spiritual practices have on the brain,” said Waldman, co-author of two books, the acclaimed “Born to Believe” and the soon-to-be released “How God Changes Your Brain,” in which he and neuroscientist Andrew Newberg demonstrate how different forms of meditation and prayer improve memory and reduce anxiety, depression and anger.

Some new techniques

“Also, Dr. Newberg and I have developed several new ways to enhance neurological performance,” said Waldman, whose research along with Newberg’s findings has been featured in The New York Times, Newsweek and Time and on National Geographic TV.

“For example, did you know that yawning can make you more alert and relaxed more quickly than any other stress-reduction technique?” Waldman said. “In my talk, I will discuss the eight best ways to exercise and improve your brain, and each way is documented by hundreds of supporting research studies.”

His talk will include other research findings, including examples of how people envision God, and why all people, including nonbelievers, have a “God” neuron or circuit in their brain.

“I’ll play audio samples of people speaking in tongues, showing how the brain is altered in ways that promote creativity,” Waldman said. “I’ll explain why the reality we experience is not the reality that actually exists out there and why prayer does not influence another person’s health but why it may be an invaluable practice to boost one’s own immune system and health.”

Doing good on two levels

Additionally, “I’ll explain why optimism — which you can also call faith or hope — is the most important element in maintaining a healthy body and mind,” he said, adding, “I’ll demonstrate how a 12-minute chanting exercise improves memory in cognitively impaired patients.”

In the current climate marked by fear and diminished trust in our very foundational structure, Waldman draws attention to spiritual practices and the outstanding results that can be produced when these practices are consistently applied, said Sue Rubin, senior pastor at the Center for Spiritual Living.

“The goal of Mark’s talk is to draw people’s attention away from outward focus into the conscious awareness of what we all can do through the discipline of inner spiritual practice offering the opportunity for people to gain a greater sense of their own empowerment and choice,” Rubin said.

In a world filled with so many competing and conflicting values and beliefs, anything we can do to ease the tensions among people is important, Waldman emphasized.

“My goal is to generate greater understanding and compassion between people who hold different religious and political beliefs ” he said. “I want to do whatever I can to help people get along better with each other.”

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Brain activity altered during religious experience

In America there’s a feeling of Christmas. But that’s not the only winter holiday going on. Jews are lighting Hanukkah candles, Muslims recently feasted on Eid al-Adha, and pagans celebrated the solstice. So it’s a good time for researchers to consider spirituality—from a scientific point of view.

One experience central to major religions around the world is that of transcendence, the idea of almost losing a sense of self to the feeling that there’s something bigger out there. Now scientists at the University of Missouri say they’ve located that experience in our brains. All the people studied, from Buddhist monks in meditation to Francescan nuns in prayer, experience this transcendence. And they all have decreased activity in the right parietal lobe of the brain. That area has to do with senses such as orienting yourself in the space around you. The study was published in Zygon: Journal of Religion & Science.

Interestingly, people with injuries to the right parietal lobe report increased levels of spiritual experiences. The researchers are quick to say that this connection doesn’t minimize the role of religion, and that religious or spiritual experiences might decrease activity in that region and thus increase that special feeling of transcendence. Just in time for the holidays.

From Scientific American.

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Religion: with god on our side

Psychology Today: Psychologist Nick Epley explores how we attribute beliefs and attitudes to other minds, including those of deities. In ongoing research at the University of Chicago, he and his collaborators are finding that people’s own beliefs line up much more closely with the beliefs they attribute to their gods than to those they peg on other people. If you manipulate people’s views, their gods’ assigned views change, too. Read more here.

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Faith beyond the frontal lobes

Washington Post: Elin Danien quietly listens to a meditation tape, eyes closed, as the radioactive tracer is injected into her IV, freezing a picture of the blood flow in her brain. As a research associate at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, Danien is sharp enough to organize an upcoming exhibit on the Mayans but finds herself increasingly forgetful. Now she is part of a study to determine whether meditation can improve brain functioning — to measure how traditional spiritual practices alter the structures of the brain itself. Read more here.

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A stroke of insight

jill bolte taylor

Jill Bolte Taylor was suddenly struck by an awareness of a deep connectedness with the world, a profound spiritual realization that her body blended with the world around her, that she was a being composed of energy, connected to other beings composed of energy. “The energy of my spirit seemed to flow like a great whale gliding through a sea of silent euphoria,” she later wrote.

And this all happened because of a stroke.

Taylor was well-placed to observe the changes taking place in her brain as a blood-vessel ruptured in her left cerebral hemisphere, because she was a neuroscientist working at Harvard’s brain research center. Her first thought upon realizing that she was having a stroke was “Cool! How many brain scientists get to study a stroke from the inside?”

Taylor has written in a book, “My Stroke of Insight,” and spoken at a TED conference (see video) about her experiences.

She explains in the video how the brain is split into two hemispheres, and how each has a different personality. The right brain thinks visually and kinesthetically, and sees connections. It creates empathy and and creativity. The left brain sees details, and details about those details. It thinks in words. It creates the sense of ego and separateness.

On the morning of her stroke, Taylor’s left-brain was knocked out of action by a blood-clot the size of a golf ball. She lost the ability to speak, read, to use a telephone, or to recognize faces. At the same time she stepped into the right brain world of connectedness and empathy.

Fortunately for Taylor, her left hemisphere was not permanently destroyed, and over the course of eight years she made a complete recovery.

Today, she says, she is a new person, one who “can step into the consciousness of my right hemisphere” on command and be “one with all that is.”

To Taylor, the experiences which she had, and which she can still have at any moment, are not mystical or supernatural, but are natural and part of the potential experience of each person.

This assessment rings true for practitioners of Buddhist meditation, who recognize that through their practice they are not exploring exotic realms or religion but are connecting with a different way of experiencing — a way of experiencing that is inherent to the mind and the brain’s capacities.

Taylor is of great interest to both meditators and scientists, although often in different ways. Meditators are excited to hear of a scientist who has shared their experiences and who can articulate in scientific terms how those experiences arise. Scientists tend to be more wary of anything that leads to “mystical” experiences, and can be suspicious that Taylor may be “losing it,” as a former colleague of hers put it.

Taylor has changed as a result of her experiences. She no longer experiments on live animals, since she now has a greater sense of empathy. And she’s keen to spread her message: “I believe that the more time we spend choosing to run the deep inner peace circuitry of our right hemispheres, the more peace we will project into the world, and the more peaceful our planet will be.”

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