Thursday, May 17, 2012

Exploring Buddha's Brain

I'm usually pretty skeptical about mainstream books about Buddhism, so I had my reservations when a friend recommended I read Buddha's Brain. However, I was very pleasantly surprised by its scope, clarity, and readability (especially for a book grounded in neuroscience!).

Buddha's Brain--co-authored by two powerhouses in the cognitive science field: Rick Hanson, Ph.D., neuropsychologist and meditation teacher; and Richard Mendius, MD, neurologist--is a user's manual for the brain. It's basic premise is that the more we know about how the brain functions, the easier it will be to cultivate positive habits, emotions, and brain states. In other words, be happy and suffer less.

Inside, there's plenty of neuroscientific evidence to satisfy even the thirstiest of science geeks, but not too much as to bore or confuse the general reader. In fact, Hanson encourages untrained readers to skip the denser parts, a fact that I really appreciated. Each chapter also ends with a concise summary, highlighting the most significant details, which made reviewing the chapters very easy. There are also practical tips in each chapter about how to foster both a healthy body and mind.

My favorite chapter is the last one,13, entitled "Relaxing the Self." Hanson explores the scientific reality of ontological and psychological emptiness by applying the Buddhist teaching of no-self to neuroscience. He writes,

From a neurological standpoint, the everyday feeling of being a unified self is an utter illusion: the apparently coherent and solid "I" is actually built from many subsystems and sub-subsystems...with no fixed center, and the fundamental sense that there is a subject of experience is fabricated from myriad, disparate moments of subjectivity. (211) 
Stated more plainly "[a]wareness requires subjectivity, but it does not require a subject" (211). This insights is clearly Buddhist. But from a scientific perspective, why do we experience this sense of a separate, independent I, which from a Buddhist point of view, is the chief the source of all human suffering? Because, as Hanson explains, a consistent subjective experience is helpful for an organism's survival, and thus an evolutionary advantage.

So, in other words, humans are hardwired to suffer because our (false) sense of an "I" is advantageous from an evolutionary point of view. Which is why understanding how the brain functions, and thus how our minds are affected by brain states, is so very important.

Buddha's Brain is a light Buddhist text for modern readers. It's a great book to have read and understand, as it reminds us of the mind/body relationship that Zen is so aware of. It's also a perfect title to recommend to people interested in, or curiously skeptical about, Buddhism.

Thanks to New Harbinger for sending me a copy of the book to review.

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