The Brain Knows

Have [Judson] Brewer and his colleagues finally found a clue to how the reduction of suffering looks in the brain? Not the activation of a specific region, but a more general deactivation, a neurological letting go that parallels the experiential one?


“Even in novices we saw a relative deactivation across the brain – like the brain was saying, Oh, thank God. I can let go. I don’t have to do stuff, I don’t have to do all this high energy maintenance of myself. One interpretation of that – and there are many others – is that the brain knows what it needs to do. It’s a very efficient machine; we just have to stop getting in the way.”

This kind of neurobiological perspective is a movement towards what Brewer calls “evidence-based faith,” where science may be able to help teachers and practitioners fine-tune the approaches they take to practice. Contemplatives may recoil at the idea, but for Brewer, addressing suffering is the priority, a project science can help with. As proof-of-concept, Brewer has just published two studies [here and here] that show how meditators can watch live feedback from their brains inside the fMRI and use it to decrease their DMN activation in real-time. And he’s just received an NIH grant to study how this could work for non-meditators – more quickly, and hopefully, one day, more affordably. “The aim is to see if neurofeedback can give regular folks feedback on subtle aspects of their experience …stuff they wouldn’t notice otherwise,” he says.

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See also: "How to Get Out of Your Own Way (and the Brain Science Behind It)," by Judson Brewer, Huffington Post, May 13, 2013