Friday, January 15, 2010

Meditation and Brain Chemistry

I've just finished a book called Buddha's Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love, and Wisdom by Rick Hanson, Ph.D., with Richard Mendius, MD. It presents, in a very straighforward, easy-to-understand way, how the brain works, especially when we are agitated or anxious, and makes a strong case for how Sensory Reality Meditation, and Sensory Reality Therapy, can work.

Very simply, when the fight-or-flight response is activated, for example when someone cuts us off in traffic, an ancient part of the brain called the amygdala lights up. The amygdala is the "alarm bell" that tells us when there is a threat present. This then sets in motion a cascade of other brain chemical reactions, that, in turn start, the fight-or-flight chemicals, such as adrenaline and cortisol coursing through the bloodstream.

The reasoning part of the brain, the prefrontal cortex, is now either completely incapacitated, or the thinking that does happen is so distorted that it can completely mis-appraise the situation. This then gives rise to actions meant to repel the threat. When we look back on it later, these actions are sometimes laughable. After all, there is no real threat. However, we cannot think clearly at all in these moments. We might think that we are the only ones who could possibly be right and everyone else is wrong. We become like the man who was driving down the highway when a bulletin came over the radio warning that a car was heading the wrong way on the same road. "A car going the wrong direction?!" the man said angrily, "There are hundreds of them!" 

To help this situation, we can turn to a present moment sensory experience, such as the feeling of the body breathing. Attention to the breath simultaneously, 1) engages the parasympathetic relaxation response, thus soothing the amygdala, and 2) lets us disengage from the distorted thinking. The prefrontal cortex reboots, and then comes back online being able to see things more clearly and calmly. The body begins to relax, and our suffering is decreased immensely.


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