What Would Buddha's Brain Look Like?
"Siddhartha's Brain" is a recent book by veteran science and medical journalist James Kingsland. (His blog, Plastic Brain is worth following.) His book weaves the story of the Buddha's life and core teachings together with a comprehensive review of the latest research into the physiology and neuroscience behind practices like meditation and mindfulness. And it does so in a highly readable and engrossing manner.
Kingsland suggests that the Buddha was one our earliest and most insightful psychologists who prescribed a set of practices to help us all move towards a healthy mental state. With this idea as a backdrop, he systematically explores the thousands of research reports that scientists around the world have produced in recent decades. Given the explosion in mental health related illnesses and the efficacy of meditation in treating them (even in some cases moreso than medication) he shows that the practices the Buddha espoused 2500 years ago are more relevant today than ever.
As Kingsland shows, the research is suggesting that meditation and mindfulness, even in small doses, can make us happier and healthier people. Scientists are showing that these techniques can be used to alleviate stress, anxiety, depression, chronic pain and addictions. They have shown that meditation can improve concentration, empathy, emotional self-control, and enhance personal relationships. And there are even some preliminary results showing that these techniques can boost immune function, reduce the chance of dementia and Alzheimer's and even slow the aging process.
Kingsland covers these topics and uses them to show (in a non-didactic, non-spiritual way) that meditation is an essential ingredient for achieving our full potential as humans, for reaching our own personally-optimal psychological and physical state of well-being. And he does this in a way that is based on the science of the mind, on the best of the peer-reviewed studies by the highest quality neuroscientists of our day. It really is a much needed and unique addition to the many books purporting to espouse the benefits of mindfulness and meditation (not to mention being a pleasure to read).
What the book misses (and it is a minor miss in the context of an excellent book) is the overarching theory of self and non-self that is so crucial to realizing the optimal state of well-being (or what in the old days they used to call enlightenment). If you don't include as part of your theory the confusion and suffering that comes from identification with our body/brains, then the benefits of meditation and mindfulness, though real and worthy, are ultimately going to be limited. He tip-toes near it in a discussion around buddhist ethics towards the end but doesn't give it the more fulsome treatment it deserves.
The other quibble I have is that likening the brains of todays advanced meditators with the Buddha's misses the probable difference between theirs and the "fully awakened one's" (aka the Buddha). Like the brain of Jesus (probably), my bet is that the Buddha's brain was quite beyond anything we would see in scans of someone who happen to clock up (an admittedly very impressive) tens of thousands of hours of meditation. For example, I would guess that the Buddha's amygdala could be pretty quiet if a tiger where to launch at him in the jungle whereas Kingsland suggests that it would do the normal fear response before quickly adjusting.
Someone of the Buddha's attainment 1) probably wouldn't attract an attack from a tiger or the equivalent situation; 2) if he did, he would probably anticipate it before it happened and thus be able to calmly respond; 3) if he didn't anticipate it, he is of a level that he could probably heal the situation/calm the "tiger" (or the equivalent danger in whatever similar situation); 4) if the situation was not meant to be healed, he might in fact consciously trigger the amygdala to fire to enable the fight or flight response in the body; or 5) perhaps it would be his time to die and this was the manner in which it would come, in which case he would die with equanimity.