In “Buddha’s Brain”, the authors—a neurologist and a neuro-psychologist—share the latest neuroscience discoveries that explain how our minds work. In this Buddha’s Brain summary, we’ll give 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. For the full details, examples and tips, do get a copy of the book, or get a detailed overview with our complete book summary bundle.
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 key 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.
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. [You can get a detailed overview of these ideas from our complete 15-page book summary]. 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.
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. In the book / our full summary, we explain how suffering is tangible and can actually be observed in our bodies in the form of stress-related hormones, increased heart-rates etc.
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There are 2 important body systems that we should be aware of:
• The Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) 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.
• On the other hand, the Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS) 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 the book and our full 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. In the book / complete summary, we address specific strategies to cultivate happiness, love and wisdom, in 3 different segments. Here’s a quick overview:
• HAPPINESS. To overcome our natural negativity bias, we need to boost the positive experiences that make us happy. In the book / 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.
• 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. In the book / complete 15-page summary, we explain 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).
• 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 book / full 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.
Review these ideas and tips at a glance with our book summary and infographic!
Other Details in Buddha’s Brain
In 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. In this article and our Buddha’s Brain summary bundle, we merely provided an outline of the scientific background, and focus more on the applicable insights. For more details and resources, please visit rickhanson.net.
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