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Buddha's Brain - Book summary

In “Buddha’s Brain”, Rick Hanson shares the latest neuroscience discoveries that explain how our minds work. In this free Buddha’s Brain summary, you’ll get an overview of the key ideas in the book, including how traditional Buddhist contemplative practices can be used to awaken our minds and create positive change.

Buddha’s Brain: An Overview

Our brains are made of 1.1 trillion cells, including 100 billion neurons, which are constantly transmitting signals and information via synapses. Scientific discoveries show that our brains continue to change throughout our lives, and there are several implications:

• Every thought and feeling that we have generates mental activity, which flow through our neural circuits, shaping our neural structures in the process.

• By managing our mental activities, we can change and shape our brain, for greater happiness, love and wisdom.

Why We Suffer

We all suffer from feelings of frustration, stress, hurt, loneliness etc. In Buddhism, suffering is said to come from 3 poisons: greed (chasing after rewards), hatred (avoiding threats) and delusion (of how things really are). These can actually be understood and observed from a scientific perspective as well.

Evolution & Suffering

In a nutshell, mankind has evolved with certain coping mechanisms, including creating artificial separations, seeking stability and rewards while avoiding/minimizing threats. In the book, the authors explain why these are important for our survival, but may conflict with how the world works, since everything is interconnected, constantly changing, and there’s no way to satisfy all rewards or mitigate all threats. Our complete 15-page version of Buddha’s Brain summary covers these ideas in greater detail. Humans also have a negativity bias (since threats are more vital to our survival), hence we focus more on the threats and negatives than positives.

First & Second Darts

In order to deal with information gaps and uncertainty, brain also creates its own virtual reality, making assumptions and reconstructing memories or events. We feel pain at 2 levels: physical pain vs emotional/mental pain.  Physical pain (or “first darts”) are inevitable, e.g. when we fall down and hurt ourselves. However, we often shoot second darts at ourselves, e.g. when we get angry at ourselves for falling down.  Second darts are self-inflicted and optional. Our full summary explains how suffering is tangible and can actually be observed in our bodies in the form of stress-related hormones, increased heart-rates etc.

Balance between PNS & SNS

There are 2 important body systems that we should be aware of:

1. Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) It is largely responsible for our body’s responses when we’re faced with a threat.  Your body naturally snaps into red alert, with signals, chemicals, and stress-related hormones being released to bring us to full alertness, so you’re ready for action.  A key challenge is when your second darts put us on red-alert all the time, damaging you physically and mentally.

2. Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS) This is your normal resting state; it helps you to stay calm and clear-headed, and quietens the mind to support contemplative insight.

The SNS is like the accelerator of your car while the PNS is like the brakes—you need both systems to work together, and we explain the ideal PNS-SNS balance in our complete Buddha’s Brain summary.

Shaping our Brains for Happiness, Love and Wisdom

The key idea here is to manage or reduce the negative thoughts, feelings and experiences (which strengthen our neural pathways for suffering) and to encourage or strengthen the positive thoughts, feelings and experiences.  Our 15-page summary addresses specific strategies to cultivate happiness, love and wisdom, in 3 different segments. Here’s a quick overview:

Buddha's Brain summary_happiness-love-wisdom

1. Happiness

To overcome our natural negativity bias, we need to boost the positive experiences that make us happy.  In the full Buddha’s Brain summary, we share tips such as: (a) 3 strategies to internalize the positives, (b) how to stimulate your PNS to calm your body and mind, (c) how you soothe your fears and avoid overreacting to threats, (d) how to seek refuge to recharge yourself, (e) how to fortify your intentions by aligning your motivation hubs and reinforcing feelings of energy & determination, and (f) why/how you can seek equanimity, i.e. be centered, so you don’t react to your reactions.

2. Love

 We all have 2 wolves inside us: one of love and one of hate. Whichever wolf we feed will grow stronger, and the key is to nurture your Wolf of Love. Our 15-page summary explains the concepts of empathy, compassion and loving kindness and how you can cultivate each of these feelings which bring up the chemicals associated with love (and makes us feel good).

3. Wisdom

Mindfulness is the ability to direct your attention at will. It determines what flows through your mind and thus how you shape your brain. Hence, the more mindful you are, the more control you have over how you shape your brain to achieve true wisdom.  In the complete summary, we explain(a) how to train your mind to be more mindful, focused and less distracted, (b) how to differentiate between your awareness and passing mind-objects, (c) how to use meditation to improve 5 factors behind concentration, and (d) why your sense of me or I is just a fleeting concept that you should not be overly-attached to, and how you can relax that false sense of self.

Getting the Most from Buddha’s Brain

Ready to awaken your minds and create positive change? This free Buddha’s Brain summary merely outlined the scientific background, and focus on a few applicable insights. You can get the full details, examples and tips with our complete book summary bundle which includes an infographic, a 15-page text summary, and a 27-minute audio summary.Buddhas Brain summary - book summary bundleIn the book, the authors include many other biological terms and details about the brain and how the various exercises relate to these concepts. These include information about parts of the brain, how neurons function, key neurochemicals, neuroplasticity, as well as an appendix on diet and supplements to support healthy brain functions. You can purchase the book here or visit for more details and resources.

Looking for more insights on happiness, mental health and mindfulness?  Do check out additional summaries for: Peace is Every Step, The Power of Now, The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck, and Mindfulness in Plain English.

About the Author of Buddha’s Brain

Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience Of Happiness, Love & Wisdom is written by Rick Hanson, Ph.D.–an American author and psychologist. He’s the Senior Fellow of the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley and has written and taught widely about personal well-being, psychological growth, and contemplative practice. His clinical practice includes adults, couples, families, and children.

Buddha’s Brain Quotes

“You can do small things inside your mind that will lead to big changes in your brain and your experience of living.”

“When you understand why you feel nervous, annoyed, hassled, driven, blue or inadequate, those feelings have less power over you.”

“Suffering has clear causes in your brain and body, so if you change its causes, you’ll suffer a lot less.”

“Positive experiences can also be used to soothe, balance, and even replace negative ones.”

“When your attention is steady, so is your mind.”

“Being mindful simply means having good control over your attention.”

“Attention is like a spotlight, and what it illuminates streams into your mind and shapes your brain.”

“Paradoxically, the less your ‘I’ is here, the happier you are.”

“Self is like a knotted fist: when you open the hand to give, there’s no more fist—no more self.”

Click here to download Buddha’s Brain book summary and infographic

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