Neuroscience and Spirituality: An In-Depth Look at the Intersection

Science and the Spirit

The intersection of neuroscience and spirituality seems preposterous to some. Generations have passed between the scientific revolution of the Enlightenment period and the present day, each passing decade seeming to garner more followers of scientific determinism: the idea that we are no more than constellations of atoms that behave in predictable and unchanging ways.

According to such fundamentalists, belief in any power greater than the self—or rather the decaying mass of cells we happen to call the self—is incompatible with our discoveries in the areas of consciousness, evolution, genetics, and even physics. A growing camp of scientists, however, are beginning to more fully understand the detriments of subscribing to any sort of extreme fundamentalism, whether it be political, religious, or scientific. By closing the door on other perspectives, we limit our view of the world. Simply put, we cannot learn if we are not willing to see.

Interdisciplinary scientific research has allowed us to observe that the biological processes of the human body do not occur in isolation. Whether we are discussing disease, development, or reproduction, we now acknowledge the importance of extrinsic factors—such as environment and social status, among others—in shaping the course of our physical existence. Throwing the human brain into the mix complicates the matter.

We move beyond the idea that these biological processes are linear and unidirectional. We come to the conclusion, after having first traveled so far in the opposite direction, that everything seems to be connected to everything else, and the flow of information progresses along the threads of a complicated spider web in which every point of intersection can be influenced by every other point.

If this sounds familiar, don’t worry. We’re still talking about science here. And so much more. We’re talking about existence itself. (But as a scientist, I have to admit that I am biased toward the opinion that they are one and the same.)

Spirituality seems to be a universal construct in societies across the globe. Indeed, research has indicated that we may be predisposed as a species to believe in something greater than ourselves. Note, however, that spirituality exists apart from any specific religion to which one might subscribe. I mean to discuss spirituality as a philosophy—a way of seeing and interacting with the world around us—without delving into the religious doctrine or practices of any particular group

Spirituality is then the filter through which we come to process our reality, and much of what we have learned from research into cognition, mindfulness, and meditation presents us with an interesting twist: Spirituality in this context may involve conscious effort to avoid the kind of consciousness we have evolved to experience.

Flourishing with Mindfulness

Buddhism is a term well-known to the Western world, yet few understand it as separate from the myriad religious traditions that have existed across time and across the globe. Buddhism itself is not a religion but a collection of truths and principles meant to guide us on our journey throughout life. You do not convert to Buddhism from the religion into which you were born. You adopt the principles as part of your own personal spiritual experience.

The four noble truths of Buddhism do indeed have a connection to modern neuroscience. Mindfulness itself is a key component of one of these truths. In Buddhism, it is the key to unlocking the path to what is known as nirvana (an absence of worldly desire). In the burgeoning field of positive psychology, it is the key to unlocking the path to a state of flourishing.

The four noble truths of Buddhism are so simple that their profundity is exceedingly complex, requiring a lifetime of dedication to understanding them. Fortunately, that is exactly how much time we are given.

The truths can be summed up as follows: If you are alive, you will suffer. The cause of that suffering is attachment. But, as it turns out, you can end suffering. Mindfulness is one of eight components specifically mentioned that can help us to end our suffering. As far as affective, cognitive, and social neuroscience are concerned, Buddhism pretty much has it right.

As we begin to practice mindfulness in our daily lives, we come to understand that suffering is a part of human existence—that no person can be happy one hundred percent of the time. Such an expectation only leads to further suffering. We come to understand that all things shall pass, whether positive or negative in our eyes, since they and we ourselves are part of an ever-changing reality we may never fully know.

We end our suffering by becoming more aware that the world is filtered through a lens whose focus is constantly changing. Through mindfulness, we become aware of the constant flux. We may even begin to experience the peace that comes with simply existing in that state of flux without complex cognitive processing. This is the scientific reality of the concept of nirvana, research on the lasting mental and physical health benefits of which becomes more abundant each passing year. Again, in beautiful synergy, the change—the progress—is constant.

 

image: [::shodan::]

Carolyn’s Mood Hacks: Regard the World as a Dream

 

Though things and people in our everyday waking life appear very substantial and solid, quantum physics shows that everything, including our own bodies, is made up of a whole lot of emptiness with a dash of swirling, vibrating particles thrown in.

Because we imagine that the world is substantial and permanent, though, we tend to get very attached to having our way and very set on avoiding things we don’t like.  This habit of attachment and aversion promoted by the illusion of solidity sets us up for experiencing unstable moods, depression and anxiety.

Research shows that during our night-time dreams, our body responds just as vividly to what’s occurring in the dream as it would to what occurs in waking life.  Science writer Dylan Drobish explains this eloquently: http://moodtraining.com/2012/10/the-dreaming-brain/

Not many people are able to stay lucid during their night-time dreams.  Even fewer are able to stay lucid during their waking dreams.  But the commitment to doing so is the essence of what it takes to become free from being ruled by moods and circumstance.

So look around yourself right now  - and try saying to yourself “this is just a dream.” Don’t just say it – actually allow for the possibility that your present experience could be just as intangible and ultimately insubstantial as one of your night time dreams.  How do you feel? A little lighter?

Carolyn’s Mood Hacks: Take a Siesta

In Hispanic cultures, people commonly go home for lunch, undress completely, get back into bed and take a nice nap.

This mid-afternoon sleep corresponds to the time of day when the balance between homeostatic sleep propensity and circadian rhythms is just right for nodding off.

In other words – the body’s homeostatic need for sleep begins to build the moment we wake up in the morning.  It increases until the later afternoon, when the circadian signal chimes in and promotes wakefulness, or, “our second wind.”  There’s a dip in the early afternoon when the drive for sleep has been building and the circadian signal for wakefulness has not yet turned on.

We in America tend to push through this afternoon sleepiness by caffeinating ourselves or eating sugary foods – to the ultimate detriment of our health and mood.

If you’re luck enough to work at home or near to home, consider just actually going to sleep when you’re sleep in the afternoon.  It’s what your body and mood wants you to do.  And the habit of taking siestas has been correlated with a 37% decrease in the risk of heart attacks – probably because mid-day sleeping is a great way to reduce stress.

 

image: [Moyen_Brenn]

Pain Medication Addiction Epidemic Recognized

In a recent newspaper article, a Nebraska State Patrol investigator called the abuse of prescription drugs an “epidemic” in the state.

Aly Hassan, M.D., assistant professor of psychiatry in the University of Nebraska Medical Center College of Medicine, agrees. “Clinically, it’s a very common problem,” Dr. Hassan said.

But why now? Why is this happening at this moment in time?

Part of it, Dr. Hassan said, is that we’re treating pain differently than we did even not so long ago.

“Remember, the ’90s was the decade of treatment of pain,” Dr. Hassan said. There was a shift in medicine, a change in policy. “An important aspect of that was to consider pain as the fifth vital sign.” The four primary vital signs are body temperature, pulse rate, blood pressure, and respiratory rate.

You’ll see it often in doctors’ offices and clinics: signs on the wall which urge you to rank your discomfort from 1-10.

And there’s good reason for that, Dr. Hassan said. It’s not that people are not as tough as they used to be. Pain is a serious thing, and should be treated seriously.

“The experience of pain is not only somatic. It’s not just the nerve being stimulated,” Dr. Hassan said. Acute pain can affect not just quality of life, but quality of health. You can even see it in a person’s vital signs.

“When you solve acute pain, all that normalizes,” Dr. Hassan said.

It’s no wonder the medical field was starting to emphasize the treatment of pain.

But with that came all of these drugs.

In 2011, hydrocodone was the most prescribed drug in America, according to WebMD.

At first, many in the medical community were not worried about drug addiction. If you give a pill to someone in pain, when the pain goes away they’ll stop taking it, right?

“The pain patient can be treated with narcotics with little risk of developing the self-destructive behavior characteristic of addiction,” concluded a 1990 report “The Use of Narcotics for the Treatment of Chronic Pain,” by the Sacramento-El Dorado Medical Society.

But, Dr. Hassan noted in 2012, the makeup of many of these drugs are compatible with addiction in that they absorb very fast, and the half-life of the medicine staying in your system goes very fast. And then you want another.

“The opiates are very addictive for that reason,” Dr. Hassan said.

Physicians are in a tough spot. That doesn’t absolve them of responsibility.

“This is beyond the level of an individual practitioner,” Dr. Hassan said. “This is really a state problem or even a national problem.”

 

source: [newswise]

image: [Charles Williams]

Meditation Monday: Sympathetic Joy

Mudita, or sympathetic joy, is one of “the four immeasurables” in Buddhism, also known as “the brahma-viharas” or dwelling-places of the gods.  The immeasurables are considered in the Buddhist tradition to be divine emotions that can be boundlessly radiated towards all living beings and which resonate with the truth of non-separation.

Sympathetic joy is the opposite of envy.  It’s the quality of rejoicing in another’s good fortune rather than coveting it.  It’s said that sympathetic joy is the antidote to boredom: because when we’re only excited by our own successes, we can have long dry spells of dullness.  But if we’re accustomed to celebrating the successes of everyone – well then, there’s always something fun to celebrate!

Envy is a serious mood-killer.  It’s a painful emotion that serves no productive purpose.  As such, it’s considered a mental poison.  The way to get free of it is by cultivating its opposite.

To cultivate sympathetic joy, sit down someplace comfortable.  In succession, bring to mind yourself, then a friend, then a neutral person, then an enemy.  To each person you bring to mind, visualize them feeling happy and accomplished and send them the following good wishes:

May you keep the prosperity you have, and may it increase!

May you keep the virtue you have, and may it increase!

May my joy in your joy increase!

May you experience the world celebrating your successes!

 

If you keep up this practice over a period of weeks and months, you’ll find that your ability to feel envy gradually diminishes and instead you’ll feel happy much more frequently.

 

[image: gurdonark]

 

Carolyn’s Mood Hacks: Try a Mini-Bodhisattva Vow

When we’re in great and persistent emotional pain, it can feel like nothing will ever end it.  I had this experience recently – a black cloud of shame and depression settled on me and suffocated out all the light in my life.  I could hardly remember ever feeling good, let alone believe it could happen to me again.  My thoughts – no matter how I tried to shift them – kept swirling in eddies of regret and despair.

Not fun.

I did manage to get myself out of that very nasty funk, though – and an important thing that gave me the strength to do that was just this: I promised to the Universe that if it showed me how to get out of my horribly obstinate and oppressive misery, I would devote the rest of my life to helping other people get out of the same kind of pain.

I call this a mini-Bodhisattva vow because it’s similar to the promise that Bodhisattvas make to relieve all beings from suffering – except, you know, smaller.

And well – wouldn’t you know – it worked.  Within a week of concentrating heavily on that altruistic intention, I stumbled on a resource called EFT that dramatically altered the way I was feeling for the better.  I guess the universe really does favor those who are willing to help others.

Yay!

So what kind of pain are you in? And are you willing to commit to helping others to be free of it?

 

image: [Wonderlane]