By Rick Hanson
Brain and body benefits of meditation
The anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) is a brain region that is ground zero for a lot of very important functions. For one, it’s the part of the brain that manages what’s called “effortful attention,” which is basically paying attention in a deliberate way.
That sounds like meditation.
The ACC is the part of the brain we use for mindfulness in all four postures, not just seated, but walking, lying, and standing. It’s also the main source of the focused attention we use for talking, and doing other activities that call for deliberate focus. Your cingulate cortex tends to get thicker to the degree you meditate.
For many people, it’s easy to feel when they feel, or think when they think, but to bring mental clarity into being upset, or to warm up cold cognition with heartfelt emotion, is hard. The capacity to do that is centered in the anterior cingulate cortex. So, for example, doing things like compassion meditation, particularly mingling thoughts and feelings of compassion together, stimulates the ACC and therefore strengthens it; you’re firing those neurons and therefore you’re wiring those neurons.
Another region that gets thicker with meditation is called the insula. If you strengthen a part of the brain through meditation, you get to reap those rewards for other uses. For example, the insula is crucial for one of the three main aspects of empathy: visceral resonance with the feelings of another person (the other two aspects are simulating inside yourself the actions
To the extent that we’re in touch with own inner being, including our gut feelings—and this degree of intouchness correlates with the activity of the insula—we become more able to be empathic with others.
True compassion, true loving kindness, requires empathy. I’ve known people who are sort of generically compassionate, and generically kind, but aren’t actually moved by the inner state of the other person.
That’s not the real deal. So it’s foundational to strengthen your empathy. I can tell you from 27 years of marriage, empathy’s a good thing! (And there are of course lots of important places for empathy outside of marriage.) Also, if you understand how to be empathic yourself, you understand better how to ask for it from others.
Meditation is probably the most researched mental activity in terms of neural impact. We know, for example, that meditators have less cortical thinning with aging. As I see more gray hairs on my head every year I appreciate the fact that one of the great ways to promote mental faculties well into old age is through contemplative practice.
One exploratory study has shown a correlation of about a 15 per cent reduction in Alzheimer’s symptoms if a person has a religious background (there was only one Buddhist in the sample, and any kind of religious activity counted, but the study is still suggestive). That reduction of 15 percent is about as much as the best current medication can do for Alzheimer’s.
In another example, Richard Davidson did a very interesting study with people in a high tech company. He had some of them do daily meditation. After just six weeks, the people who meditated had stronger immune systems. They fought off a flu virus more effectively than people who hadn’t meditated.
So meditation benefits us through multiple pathways.
Parasympathetic activation (“rest- and-digest”)—relaxation, in other words—is very supportive of immune system functioning, whereas sympathetic activation (“fight-or-flight”) suppresses immune function. Chronic stress exposes us to illness to a marked degree.
Sleepy meditating is better than no meditation in terms of parasympathetic activation, or dampening sympathetic arousal (wakeful meditation is usually best of all). We can get attached to and even righteous about one specific method, whereas actually meditation has a lot of important general effects not specific to any particular method.
Another major Richard Davidson finding is that people become increasingly happy as they meditate—positive emotions become more prevalent, broadly defined. There’s a greater asymmetry of activation, left front to right frontal. To illustrate this with stroke patients, people with a stroke in the right frontal region tend to become kind of mellow. Maybe they can’t walk well, but they’re often relatively serene about it. But if they have a stroke in the left frontal region, they’re a lot more likely to be grouchy and grumpy.
Why is that?
Because the left frontal region is involved in dampening, inhibiting negative emotional activity, whereas the right frontal region tends to promote negative emotional activity.
In the wild, there’s a lot of survival value to negative emotional activity; right hemisphere activation— which tracks the spatial environment from which most threats originate in the wild—primes you for dealing with threats: in other words, primes you for aversion, for what are called avoidance behaviors, namely fight, flight, freeze, appease.
Maybe sometimes those behaviors are useful; in our evolutionary history, they certainly promoted survival and passing on genes. But today, in different settings and with different aims (like spiritual practice), it’s great to have relatively strong left frontal activation.
Dependent Origination, brain, & equanimity
The feeling tone is a good example of where the Dharma maps well to neuropsychology. In the Dharma, there’s this notion of the chain of Dependent Origination. One part of that chain that contains great opportunities to reduce or eliminate suffering is the sequence of contact > feeling tone > craving > clinging > suffering.
Contact is the meeting of three things: an object, the sense organ that apprehends that particular kind of object, and the consciousness that goes with that particular sense organ. Following contact, the brain produces a feeling tone that is pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral to help you know what to do: approach the pleasant, avoid the unpleasant, and move on from the neutral.
This mechanism is a very effective way to promote survival in the wild and the passing on of genes. Feeling tones are important in evolution and they are a central theme in the Dharma: for example, they are one of the Five Aggregates, and also one of the Four Foundations of Mindfulness.
Say the phone rings. Depending on whether you’re waiting for a call from a dear friend, or doing something really important and don’t want interruptions, you’ll get a different feeling tone: pleasant, unpleasant or neutral. In the brain, the amygdala and hippocampus register pleasant/unpleasant and then broadcast a signal widely.
In Dependent Origination, what follows feeling tone is craving. We crave the pleasant, and the ending of the unpleasant. Either way, it’s a kind of craving. After craving comes clinging, a sort of a more congealed, substantiated, enacted, “you’re in it” form of craving. And then, what follows clinging? Suffering.
Equanimity can break the chain right between feeling tone and craving, like a big, jumbo scissors. You let the feeling tone be. It gets into the “mud room” of your mind—that outer room where the muddy boots and wet jackets get left— but it doesn’t enter the central “living room” of your mind. Equanimity increasingly allows us to just be present with the pleasant, the unpleasant and the neutral, alike, without getting reactivated around them.
Equanimity is a very deep matter in Buddhism. It is one of the Seven Factors Of Awakening, and one of the hallmark characteristics of the jhānas (states of concentration).
Notice, for example, the difference between calm and equanimity. Calm is when you don’t have reactions. You’re chilled out. But with equanimity, you’re not reacting to your reactions; they stay in the mud room. It’s as if the reactions are surrounded with a lot of spaciousness. You prefer the pleasant to continue and the unpleasant to end—that’s okay. But you don’t even react to not getting that preference. You just surround it with space, and that’s where freedom is. I think that’s how people like the Dalai Lama can be sorrowful about what’s happening in Tibet, and yet simultaneously have enormous equanimity around it.
Calm is based on conditions, and thus not that reliable. But equanimity is based on insight, wisdom, and is thus much more dependable. For example, disenchantment is a key factor of equanimity. We start to realize, “Won’t get fooled again.”
Ice cream tastes like ice cream, orgasms are orgasms, being angry is being angry. Winning an argument, being right and showing them the error of their ways is just that. After a while you go, “so what?” Wisdom allows you to let go of the lesser pleasure, chasing the pleasant or resisting the unpleasant, for the greater pleasure of equanimity.
What happens in the brain when people become equanimous?
In a sense, equanimity is unnatural, since we evolved to get really good a reacting to the feeling tone. Our ancestors that were all blissed out, and not driven to find food and mates, and not driven to avoid predators and other hazards… CHOMP, did not pass on their genes.
The ancestors who lived were extremely easy to activate into states of “greed” and “hatred;”realizing this helps bring self-compassion to a path of practice that involves, in part, moving upstream against evolutionary currents.
And it is important to remember that when we are not activated, our natural resting state is characterized by the Five C”s: Conscious, Calm, Contented, Caring, and Creative.
It’s just that we are very vulnerable to signals of opportunity and threat—and especially to signals of threat, since in evolution it is more important to dodge sticks than to get carrots: if you miss out on a carrot today you”ll probably get another chance at them tomorrow, but if you fail to duck the stick today—POW—you won’t have any chance for carrots tomorrow.
I think this is the evolutionary reason for the Buddha’s emphasis on dealing with aversion, since aversion to threats is so central to human existence.
In your brain, equanimity entails insights and intentions centered in the prefrontal cortex as well as prefrontal buffering of the feeling tone signals pulsed by the amygdala. It also entails the stable spaciousness of mind characterized by increased gamma wave activity of the brain. These neural developments are the fruits of sustained practice.
Seeing the origins of mental activity
One of the possibilities of meditation, or practice broadly, is to get us closer to the bare processing of “this moment, this moment, this moment.” The brain takes the noisy, fertile chaos of billions of neurons networked together in intricate and transient circuits, and then it forms assemblies which may last a few tenths of a second, or a few seconds at most.
When you observe your mind you can see the outer signs of this neural activity by watching your thoughts merge into solidity and then crumble and disperse.
Just before a new neural assembly forms, there’s a space of fertile emptiness, where structure hasn’t yet congealed. Once a representation becomes fully established—an image, an emotion, a view, a thought—it is no longer free. You can have freedom around it, but whatever it is, that representation is set until it disperses.
So abiding increasingly in that fertile, generative space, in which neural assemblies take form, is a central process along the path of awakening. I think the people who are really far along in the practice are increasingly abiding in that territory. Thought is occurring, but they’re living more in that space of fertile freedom.
* Reprinted from Insight Journal 2009 with permission from the author
Editor: Sherrin Fitzer
Rick Hanson, Ph.D., is a psychologist, Senior Fellow of the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley, and New York Times best-selling author. His books include Hardwiring Happiness (in 14 languages), Buddha’s Brain (in 25 languages), Just One Thing (in 14 languages), and Mother Nurture. He edits the Wise Brain Bulletin and has several audio programs. A summa cum laude graduate of UCLA and founder of the Wellspring Institute for Neuroscience and Contemplative Wisdom, he’s been an invited speaker at Oxford, Stanford, and Harvard, and taught in meditation centers worldwide. His work has been featured on BBC, CBS, and NPR, and he offers the free Just One Thing newsletter with over 100,000 subscribers, plus the online Foundations of Well-Being program in positive neuroplasticity.