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Thread: Who are we? A conversation between Buddhism and Neuroscience

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    Who are we? A conversation between Buddhism and Neuroscience

    This is a 'New Scientist' discussion between Tibetan Buddhist monk Gelong Thubten and neuroscientist Ash Ranpura.

    Can ancient views about the mind be reconciled with modern neuroscience?




    Any thoughts about the discussion?

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    There's a lot to unpick there, but well worth watching if you want to understand why some see meditation as a structured programme, and the reasoning behind such a structure. The two elements of science and Buddhism work well to explain the similarities and differences of the two approaches, exploring themes such as what happens when we meditate, what people try to do to their own minds when they do meditate, and the relationship it all has with our ideas of reality.

    They move from what happens in the brain when we meditate, to what happens to ideas of the self, and what place compassion has in the scheme of things. In the latter case they explore the difference between empathy and compassion and why on earth we should develop compassion. Is it not the case that we are all in competition with each other, or is there something else going on? For the Buddhist case, compassion is a natural way for us to behave when we have experienced deep insight during meditation.

    When asked why, the answer is that modern society imposes a delusion that we have to always be competitive, and that it would not be able to exist in its present form without the cultural impetus it imposes to always try to outdo our neighbours, and to be dissatisfied with what we have. The ocean and waves model was used to explain how the ocean is not just the waves that we see, but can mean different things.

    I don't have any problem with any of this so far, even with the differences between the 'hard' and 'easy' problems of understanding the mind. Where I would part company is the idea that science and Buddhist understanding is an either-or situation, that you have to accept one point of view over another. We explore using different skills- maths, science, art, humanities and spiritual strategies being just a few. Things can give us an understanding without removing the understanding that other things can give us.

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    Forums Member trusolo's Avatar
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    Good conversation! I finally managed to finish watching it bit by bit. Both approaches have already proven to be very effective in understanding our mind/brain and our behavior in and inter-relation with the world. The problem with scientific approach is that we need a lot more information about our mind, which is going to take a long time. On the other hand, that is true about practicing the path as well, for similar reasons (difference being we need to collect enough experiential knowledge as opposed to facts and information).

    Our minds or brains can hold extreme operating conditions, for reasons not fully known as yet. For example, very brief mention was made by the neuroscientist of how people can be so confident about witnessing something that can be shown to be impossible in an investigation. Yet, what was (probably) not mentioned was that the other extreme is also operating at the same time. We absorb a lot more information than we are consciously aware of, a fact that is also regularly used in interviewing witnesses. In buddhist terms, this could be the difference between meditation with focus objects and just awareness-based meditation. When one is not meditating both systems are operating and switcing back and forth over milliseconds time frame, constantly.

    To add to that, all the strange ways our brains fills up massive gaps in perceived information with conceptual data to create and present a sensible object is just beginning to be understood at the scientific level. It is going to take time but someday both approaches will understand each other perfectly because we will have that collective understanding from both sides.

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    My interest in such matters stems from my old college physics professor, an optics specialist, who used to examine captured gun sights during WW2 to see if we could learn anything from them. he ran a series of lectures on how he could trick our eyes and our brains and went into the science of theatrical lighting where he could make one colour light seem a different colour just by shining another colour close to it. He showed us that our eyes have a blind spot where the optic nerves leave the eye, and that we should see this as a blank area, except our brains fill it in with what it assumes should be there, so we rarely notice it. Another interesting point is that only a small area is in focus at any time, but we don't notice the huge amount of fuzziness, because the brain gets us to assume that everything is in focus.

    Meditation can bring changes to all aspects of our lives, often through questioning what we perceive, how we think of others, and through the way we become more mindful of ourselves and the world around us. I think there are a couple of important points for meditation and Buddhism if we are to bring about change to ourselves. Science can show us how the brain changes, rewiring itself as we meditate, and can also show us the limitations of our perceptions, so we can have a better understanding of how to change ourselves within a Buddhist context.

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    Forums Member trusolo's Avatar
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    There is another topic I would have really liked to hear discussed. It has to do with synchronization in brain activity, either in different areas or neuron firings. It turns out that research has been done on Buddhist meditators hooked up to fmri and eeg machines while meditating (Richard Davidson of U of Wisconsin is a leading researcher in this field). There is large scale synchronization in brain areas and sometimes between left and right hemispheres.

    So on one hand it looks like a good thing but 100% synchronization of things that are rythmic are deadly for humans. If a large number of neurons start firing synchronously, the brain cannot handle it and gets in to a state we know as epileptic seizure - that is what epilepsy is - unpredictable synchronization of neuron firing. We know some of the triggers and we know about principles of synchronization so we can break it up if caught before it is irreversible. Same thing happens in heart muscles also. Also the same reason marching soldiers don’t march in unison on bridges - bridges have collapsed if people walk synchronously.

    The point is - is meditation a gentle controlled way of getting different parts of your brain to work synchronously so that the brain is trained to handle it more and more over time? It could be crucial to our understanding of what meditation does.
    We know that more communication between different parts of the brain is good in general but having it happen involuntarily is not at all good. Does meditation and Buddhist meditation in particular hold a key to successfully expanding our brain functioning? If I was a betting man, I would bet on it.

    If interested in details of brain activity during meditation:

    http://https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/zen-gamma/

  6. #6
    Quote Originally Posted by trusolo
    It turns out that research has been done on Buddhist meditators hooked up to fmri and eeg machines while meditating (Richard Davidson of U of Wisconsin is a leading researcher in this field)
    Sounds horrendous and makes me question the motivation of such research. ..and I don't think attempting to investigate the brain activity of meditating monks (for example) is anything new.

    Quote Originally Posted by trusolo
    Does meditation and Buddhist meditation in particular hold a key to successfully expanding our brain functioning? If I was a betting man, I would bet on it.
    Is "successfully expanding our brain functioning" more important than expanding our non-conceptual awareness and loving kindness and compassion towards other living beings and our environment on planet Earth, though? It kind of sounds more like becoming an equation solving zombie to me!


    Can I ask if you meditate regularly yourself, trusolo?

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    "Two kinds of awareness" (approx.6 minutes).

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    ....with regard to phenomena to be seen, heard, sensed, or cognized: In reference to the seen, there will be only the seen. In reference to the heard, only the heard. In reference to the sensed, only the sensed. In reference to the cognized, only the cognized. That is how you should train yourself.

    When for you there will be only the seen in reference to the seen, only the heard in reference to the heard, only the sensed in reference to the sensed, only the cognized in reference to the cognized, then, Malunkyaputta, there is no you in connection with that.

    When there is no you in connection with that, there is no you there. When there is no you there, you are neither here nor yonder nor between the two. This, just this, is the end of stress.

    https://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipi....095.than.html



  9. #9
    Forums Member trusolo's Avatar
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    Ah,
    1) I should have explained my use of words and what I mean by them:

    “successfully”: without any adverse side-effects, fully positive and beneficial outcomes for oneself and others (if that is possible)

    “Brain functioning” : literally everything that our brain does. That includes all of the things that you mentioned Aloka like compassion, empathy, awareness, ..., everything. Non-conceptual awareness, loving kindness are also happening in the brain.
    When I say “ successfully expanding our brain functioning” I mean a growth of all desirable qualities and reduction of suffering-inducing qualities - for oneself and others and everyone.

    2) If one wants to know how meditation affects our brain, currently this is how we know how to study it. I don’t find it horrible at all, in fact I wish I could have volunteered. I would have loved to see my brain scans while meditating and in other states. Obviously I am aware that it doesn’t do anything to increase wisdom or compassion in me but I still want to know which areas of my brain light up when I meditate or in other states.

    Regarding the scientist I mentioned, Richard Davidson, his research was because of HH Dalai Lama. They came up with the idea together and the monks that volunteered were senior monks from his lineage. How that came about is described in great detail in the Mind Life Institute book Destructive Emotions. That institute holds annual workshop of Buddhists and scientists and philosophers.

    3) It may be difficult to imagine right now that scientific approach can ever have anything to contribute to all the noble mind-states like loving kindness for all but the only reason people are even thinking about the environment and the planet is because of science. Compassion is as old as humanity itself - that we have to turn our compassion and wisom towards planet-wide problems is because we now know how systems and actions affect each other creating a whole web of effects rippling through the planet, thanks to science. We need both types of knowledge, else how can we claim that our actions are guided by wisdom?

    4) Yes I meditate, not much but about 20 mins of sitting and then I try to be mindful throughout the day.

    Last edited by trusolo; 21 May 20 at 05:54.

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    Forums Member trusolo's Avatar
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    On the other hand, I am completely open to the possibility that following say the Buddhist path and reaching even somewhat “enlightened” (possessing very few dukkha-producing qualities) may open up totally new ways of acquiring knowledge about the world/reality and consequently we will not need such elaborate methods emplyed by science currently. I will be most happy if that turns out to be the case because I detest some of the things that go on in the name of science, especially in medical research.
    Last edited by trusolo; 21 May 20 at 06:28.

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