To many people who don’t believe in any religion, Buddhism is generally seen as a “good” kind of religion. It doesn’t start wars and has powerful things to say about the mind and mental self control.
But what does the neuroscience say?
What is enlightenment?
Dr. Hanson believes it’s first important to point out what enlightenment really means. He says according to the Buddhist tradition, “it means it’s very psychological operationalized as a mind, a nervous system, that’s no longer capable of any kind of sustained greed, hatred or delusion.”
Feel good emotions can still be experienced, but you’re not meant to get attached to those feelings. We also become aware of unpleasant emotions, but it doesn’t result in anger or hatred.
According to Hanson, “Buddhism in its roots is very practical, very down-to-earth, and maps very well to modern neuropsychology.”
He says that neuroscience also agrees that there is such a thing as enlightenment: “There are certain psychological states that seem associated with the upper reaches of human potential, if not enlightenment altogether.”
Probably the best psychological term to use for “enlightenment” is “equanimity”, a state of psychological stability and composure which is undisturbed by experience or exposure to emotions, pain or other phenomena that may cause others to lose the balance in their mind.
Perhaps being “at one” with everything around you is a better way to describe it as the above may get interpreted as “being aloof”.
People with great equanimity are fully present, can concentrate their attention with great skill, and have a compassionate and loving attitude towards all that exists in the universe.
Your Brain on Enlightenment
So, how can normal people attain these skills?
According to Dr. Hanson “The brain is built like a house with three floors, from the bottom up,” Dr. Hanson explains.
“The reptilian brain stem is at the bottom; on top of that, beginning around 250 million years ago, we have the subcortex, which is loosely associated with the mammalian stage of evolution. And finally we have the primate level,” which is the most advanced: the cerebral cortex.
“We are walking around with a vast, ancient zoo and museum inside us,” he adds. “We diverged from fish some 350-450 million years ago, but some of the brain similarities are still there, making sound, for example.”
There are two amygdalas in the subcortext and they control our emotional reactions and threat detection. According to Dr. Hanson, this is key. This part of the brain can be identified in our ancient ancestors , yet it can be trained to become even more highly developed in most humans.
Research has suggested that very equanimous people are not numb or apathetic, but can be passionate and angry – it’s just that their emotional responses are controlled. This is caused by the amygdala becoming regulated top down in the cerebral cortex. The alarm bells don’t ring as readily or as loudly, and people recover more rapidly. This is process is aided by oxytocin, informally referred to as the “love hormone”.
How can we actually achieve enlightenment?
According to Dr. Hanson, there are several techniques that can help. He listed four of them:
1) “Repeated internalization of positive emotions” is important, says Hanson. This doesn’t have to be in a “giddy, new age kind of way”, but in authentic ways such as taking pleasure from simple things like friendships or time with our family. You can start a gratitude practice to appreciate even the small things in your life.
2) Labelling emotions also helps. Simply jotting down one word about how your feeling such as “angry”, “competitive” helps us to control our emotions.
3) Stay with a nice moment longer, indulging it in it helps. No need to over analyze, it’s just mental noting.
4) Where focus of attention is concerned, meditation is key by training to mind to focus on your breathe or a particular object. This helps to build up neuro circuits in the anterior cingulate cortex.
5) If striving for virtue and kindness, Dr. Hanson says he likes to practice a technique called “hit and run compassion”, in which a total stranger is chosen on the street, and is secretly and silently wished well for a few seconds.
Is enlightenment simply extreme brain training?
Dr. Hanson says that brain training is how sees it, but it’s important to be clear about the purpose. the neurological signature is a build up of neuro circuits anterior cingulate cortex. “Brain training could also be used to become the world’s greatest sniper. I think the Buddhism journey was motivated by a desire to be free from suffering, as well as emphasizing virtue and kindness.”
The word ‘Buddha’ simply means ‘one who knows’ or ‘one who sees clearly’. So, yes it’s something we’re all capable of having. Dr. Hanson concludes: “Some of us will be more motivated to achieve it than others, just as some people will be more motivated to become great Olympians or football players, but it is achievable. Buddhist psychology maps the best to modern, Western science of any contemplative traditions, because it tends to be at bottom really quite secular. It’s not metaphysical – it’s direct experience based.”