The neuroscience of Buddhism

Barry Kerzin meditating with EEG for neuroscience research

Here’s my take on how Buddhist meditation provides positive psychological change from a neuroscience perspective.

I undertook a Vipassana meditation camp that involved 10 hours of their meditation technique per day for 10 days, followed by 2 hours of meditation per day for the following year (at least).

While there are a number of techniques in which they train you, the underlying premise was that you would get to a point where you were single-mindedly and equanimously observing ones thoughts. I.e., when a thought would occur, instead of involving oneself with the thought, as one normally does while thinking, one is to objectively observe the thought and any bodily reactions to the thought that ensued.

In doing so, one finds that instead of growing stronger and more engaging, the thought self-neutralizes and dwindles and you find yourself back in a calm state where there is no conscious train of thought going on.

According to them, doing this removes ‘karma’ from the mind. My understanding was that karma is any action, memory (good or bad), habit of thought, etc.

From a neurological perspective, what this reminded me most about was the fairly recent discovery that whenever we recall something, that memory enters a kind of labile state and is temporarily forgotten only to be re-written shortly afterward.

This had some relevance to PTSD treatment in that they found that if test subjects were treated with a beta blocker (propranolol) and asked to recall their traumatic memories, because the memory was rewritten in a state of less anxiety, on future recollection that memory produced less anxiety in a permanent way.

To me, it seems like what the meditation is doing is modifying the emotional association with any memory that is spontaneously recalled and observed during the prevailing meditative calm that the other aspects of the meditation produces.

Over time, almost all memories will have occurred, been observed and neutralized by the meditator, leading to a state, eventually, where all memories have little or no emotional content, thereby producing their desired end point of ‘total equanimity’.

Apparently, being freed of all earthly attachment in this way is their idea of bliss, and it might well be.

I found the meditation experience incredibly euphoric at times, particularly from the third day onwards.

So, while meditation is quite time consuming, it could probably be enhanced by certain drugs like beta blockers. I think this is the same process that’s going on in using MDMA therapy for PTSD. The memories are re-associated with the nice emotions engendered by MDMA.

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