Neuroplasticity, a key concept in modern neuroscience, refers to the astonishing adaptability of the human brain. This term captures the brain’s capacity to reshape its structure and function in response to experience and change.
This concept opposes the once-held belief in western science that the adult mammalian brain was rigid and unchangeable. Today, a wealth of scientific research underscores that our brain’s function can evolve through mental training, similarly to how physical exercise changes the body.
Central to neuroplasticity is the dynamism of the brain’s neural networks. These networks are continuously adapting, forming new connections between neurons, and even birthing new neurons in a process known as neurogenesis.
These neuroplastic changes in the brain are influenced by our daily life experiences. Every thought and emotion we engage with can initiate changes in brain activity, which, in turn, impacts how our brain operates. As a testament to this, mindfulness meditation, a practice deeply rooted in Buddhist thought, has been shown to drive observable changes in brain circuits.
In this post, we shall explore neuroplasticity from both a Buddhist and neuroscientific perspective, how the two are complementary and how they differ. We’ll also take a look at some techniques that you can employ to try changing your mind for yourself.
Complementary nature of neuroscience and Buddhism
Neuroplasticity and the field of neuroscience as a whole may seem distant from Buddhism at first look. Neuroscience focuses on the study of the brain whereas Buddhism studies the nature of the mind. Yet, they both agree that what they study is subject to change â€“the brain and mind change and therefore can be changed.
In the realm of understanding consciousness, neuroscience and Buddhism converge remarkably. Neuroscience, through meticulous brain research, offers an empirical lens to the neural systems of the human brain. It investigates neural correlates of thoughts and emotions, using state-of-the-art technology and scientific research methodologies.
On the flip side, Buddhism provides a profound, introspective view of consciousness. Buddhism explains the mind, which Neuroscience has yet to provide conclusive research for. The Buddhists and other Indian pundits have been exploring and documenting the mind for over 2500 years.
Despite differing approaches, neuroscience and Buddhism intersect in their goal to alleviate suffering. Neuroscience seeks to understand and treat psychological disorders through the study of brain function and neural networks, whereas Buddhism encourages self-awareness and mental well-being through contemplative practice.
This shared commitment, paired with the parallel concepts of neuroplasticity and Buddhist thought about the mind’s potential for transformation, underlines their complementary nature. Together, they build a bridge between modern science and ancient wisdom, each enriching the other in the shared pursuit of understanding the human mind.
How is Buddhism different from neuroscience?
Delving further, neuroplasticity embodies the Buddhist doctrines of impermanence and dependent origination, resonating profoundly with the scientific literature of modern neuroscience.
Impermanence, a central Buddhist principle, encapsulates the concept that all elements of existence are in a state of continuous flux. This aligns with the inherent brain plasticity that sees our brain’s neural networks constantly modifying and adapting.
Dependent origination, another key Buddhist teaching, asserts that no entity exists independently or remains immune to change. This parallels neuroplasticity’s principle that changes in our brain circuits aren’t autonomous events; instead, they are triggered by various factors such as our thoughts, behaviours, and life experiences.
Moreover, this interaction is reciprocal. Modifications in our neural systems can also influence our thinking and behaviour, highlighting a mutual dependency between neurological and psychological shifts.
While Buddhism may concentrate more on the psychological aspect and neuroscience on the neural, both fields are intrinsically concerned with the processes of change and adaptation. This convergence strengthens the bridge between contemplative traditions and brain research, emphasising their joint contribution to our understanding of the human mind.
Neuroscience and Buddhism’s view of suffering
Buddhism provides a profound framework for understanding suffering, categorising it into three distinct categories: the suffering of suffering, the suffering of change, and all-pervasive compounded suffering. Neuroscience, a field immersed in scientific research on the human brain and its neural correlates, adds depth to this understanding, highlighting how our brain function aligns with these types of suffering.
The suffering of suffering, as outlined in Buddhist thought, encapsulates the palpable hardships we confront in our daily life, including experiences of pain, illness, or loss. From the perspective of neuroscience, such experiences can instigate specific brain activity, activating neural systems linked to distress and discomfort. However, this perspective also draws attention to the brain’s inherent plasticity, implying that our response to such suffering can be reshaped through mental training and mindfulness meditation practices.
The suffering of change involves the stress or dissatisfaction that arises from our attachment to fleeting moments of happiness, which are inherently impermanent by nature. This Buddhist view harmonises with the insights of affective neuroscience, which reveals how our brain circuits can become programmed to seek positive emotions and resist negative ones. Modern neuroscience, however, provides reassurance that such patterns aren’t fixed. Through plastic changes, our brain can learn to navigate these emotional states more effectively.
Finally, the all-pervasive, non-compounded suffering is a more nuanced form of suffering in Buddhism, reflecting our deep-seated, yet flawed, perception of reality. This form of suffering stems from our ingrained belief in a stable and autonomous ‘self.’ This Buddhist concept intriguingly aligns with neuroscience’s exploration of self-regulation and consciousness, which underscores the constructed nature of our self-perception.
In essence, while Buddhism provides a multifaceted approach to comprehend suffering, neuroscience offers insights into the biological underpinnings of these experiences. Their convergence not only broadens our understanding of suffering but also points towards pathways for cultivating resilience and well-being.
Change Your Mind: Neuroplasticity & Buddhist Transformation
Viewed from a Buddhist lens, our entire perception of the world is mediated through our mind. If we aspire to enhance our experience of the world and cultivate a more positive life, the pathway to this transformation lies in training and changing our mind. This perspective aligns seamlessly with the principles of neuroscience, particularly the concept of neuroplasticity.
Neuroplasticity, a cornerstone of modern neuroscience, provides empirical evidence that our mind is indeed malleable, capable of change and growth. This notion substantiates the Buddhist ideal of mental transformation, establishing a harmonious dialogue between these two domains.
The transformation Buddhism advocates centres on minimising suffering â€“ arising from attachments, relentless desire, and dissatisfaction â€“ and fostering a sense of inner peace. A neuroscientific perspective identifies such attachments and suffering as behaviours and attitudes which potentially impede the development of our neural networks, hindering us from embracing change or discarding old habits that curtail our growth.
In neuroscience terms, when we encounter a new situation, existing neural pathways, shaped by negative attitudes, are reinforced and fortified. These pathways then become our default brain circuits, shaping our habitual responses to situations that trigger these attitudes. This scientific understanding underscores the Buddhist emphasis on mindful practice as a means of reorienting our attitudes, reshaping our neural pathways, and ultimately changing our minds.
Towards new behaviour and growth
Understanding that our reactions to life’s varied circumstances are dictated by our ingrained attitudes and behaviours offers a potent starting point for self-transformation. Grounded in this insight, we can consciously choose to gravitate towards positive attitudes and thus, foster a more balanced relationship with our inevitable experiences of suffering. This shift doesn’t imply an eradication of all desires but rather, a focus on altering our neural responses when such desires arise within us.
From a neuroscience perspective, such transformative process hinges on the concept of neuroplasticity, which underscores the malleability of our brain circuits. Through dedicated mental training and meditation practices, we can facilitate the emergence of new neural connections and enhance the brain’s plastic changes. The changes in our neural networks then enable us to alter our habitual responses to life situations, steering us towards an improved emotional state and overall well-being.
Change Your Mind and Your Brain Will Follow
Understanding the flexible and impermanent nature of our minds is crucial in both Buddhist thought and neuroscience, paving the way for transformative change. By practising mindfulness and fostering kindness towards ourselves, we can break free from negative emotions and behaviours that have become habitual due to the brain’s plasticity. This process goes beyond merely reacting; it encourages us to engage in self-reflection, to understand and acknowledge our emotional states without harsh judgement.
In practising such self-awareness, we essentially engage in mental training, much akin to a form of mental exercise that promotes well-being. This shift towards gentleness and understanding catalyses the nurturing of compassion, not only towards others but towards ourselves.
This practice aligns with the Buddhist concept of loving kindness and constitutes an integral part of the contemplative traditions. By promoting openness and acceptance, we dismantle barriers that restrict growth and create space for new neural connections within the adult mammalian brain.
This symbiosis between changes in our emotional responses and our brain’s physical structure is at the core of neuroplasticity and Buddhism. Both disciplines agree on the possibility and importance of transformation. As we align our daily life with this understanding, we echo the wisdom found in the life institutes, providing practical strategies that promote peace and reduce suffering.
The dialogue between Western scientists and Buddhist monks in the field of neuroscience fosters a deeper understanding of the human brain and the path to ultimate change.
Buddha’s Brain: Neuroplasticity and Meditation
Meditation practice, a cornerstone of Buddhist tradition, is now recognised by modern neuroscience for its profound impact on the human brain. Harnessing the brain’s plasticity, regular meditation fosters significant neural changes. As a trainable skill, meditation shapes brain circuits, contributing to the alteration of the nervous system and enhancing overall brain function.
Scientific research supports these claims. Richard Davidson, a renowned researcher from the Massachusetts Institute, has extensively studied the neural correlates of meditation. His work shows that mindfulness meditation increases brain activity in areas associated with positive emotional states and well-being. Hence, Buddha’s brain isn’t a metaphor but an invitation to mould our brain towards more joy, peace and compassion through focused contemplative practice.
Learn More: How Meditation Changes the Brain
Geshe Tenzin Namdak, Vanessa Zuisei Goddard and distinguished contemplative neuroscientists Dr. Juan Santoyo and Dr. Ekaterina Denkova, will guide you through the various ways that meditation influences the brain, enhances our focus, allows us to release ingrained patterns and promotes collective well-being.
We look forward to sharing this powerful learning experience with you on July 8th during the next Science Day V, an event available also in Italian thanks to the partnership with Lama Tzong Khapa Institute.