The Neuroscience of Buddhist meditation and spiritual practice

A great video for you today which I found highlighted over on The Examiner, covering some of the latest thinking within the neuroscience community on the physiological effects of spiritual practice within the brain – with a particular focus on Buddhist mindfulness meditation.

I have embedded the hour and a half long video here for you, and the write-up over on The Examiner gives you a quick synopsis of its content.  I definitely recommend that you take a look, as Dr Daniel Siegel brings up some very interesting points that deserve our attention.  The lecture is quite long, and the majority of it is dedicated to the discussion of different aspects of the brain.  If you are just interested in the part directly referring to meditative practices, you will have to skip through to the second half.

There is one particular point of the video that I wish to highlight further, which is the necessity for secular societies to develop mindfulness practices – which are usually the arena of spiritual traditions.  He provides evidence that shows how such practices can directly lead to greater connectivity and integration of the aspects of our brains that promote empathy and compassion for others.

It is great to see this work being done in a scientific context.  What was previously seen as the domain of spiritual communities is now rapidly becoming important to the neurological community as they try to understand how different aspects of the brain relate to one another and in turn effect our behaviour and ability to create a more peaceful and coherent society.

Some of the fundamental findings of these neurological investigations show that the practices being discussed all share two important aspects: an awareness of awareness, and an awareness of intention.  They allow us to relate to ourselves and our automatic processes on a meta level, which is one of the primary distinctions between humanity and our evolutionary siblings.

Dr. Siegel is arguing here that such practices, through continued and regular use, lead to the development of connectivity between the insula and prefrontal cortex areas of the brain and have been shown to have therapeutic effects within brain trauma patients that seemed beyond the help of modern medical practice.

What is occurring when we develop these areas of our brain is that we are changing the way that we perceive and evaluate the outside world, leading to a more empathetic, balanced, and attuned response to the world around us.  Dr Siegel argues that through the regular use of these practices we can form patterns of neuronal firing that will eventually integrate into our automatic responses and become an effortless process that does not require conscious effort.

It is a fantastic overview of the convergence of modern scientific study with ancient spiritual practice and teachings, and represents an understanding from the scientific community that empathy, attunement, and compassion (along with a number of other positive traits) are a fundamental aspect of a healthy mind and healthy society that must be promoted in practical terms.

If we are to continue into the future as a healthy and cohesive global society, it is imperative that we foster practices that develop our empathetic aspects – because without doing so our ‘progress’ will merely increase our capability to create disorder and chaos.


2 Responses to The Neuroscience of Buddhist meditation and spiritual practice

  1. Eddie Adams says:

    I'm so glad you got something out posted. Kudos to the peice you wrote too. =)


  2. GLPer says:

    For a powerful deconstruction* of the contemporary dialogue between Buddhism and Neuroscience, I recommend historian Donald Lopez Jnr's 'Buddhism and Science: A guide for the perplexed'. This book probably upsets a lot of popularly held views on the subject . . . I'm sure Buddha would approve.

    *NB. “deconstruction” does not mean “render invalid”!

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