In the midst of growing global crises, including climate change, increasing polarization, inequality, and an overarching sense of disconnection from those around us and the natural world, it’s not a stretch to say that humanity needs change. Without question, the external systems and structures of our world need to be examined and adjusted. Yet a more hidden source of our current problems runs so deep that it is often overlooked. The very mindset that has enabled today’s crises lies inside of us.
This inner attitude takes many forms, but one central element is that we tend to believe we are separate from each other and the world, existing in a persistent way over time that is independent of our surroundings. This view is so entrenched that we rarely see it, let alone question it. And it sets up a subtle, but very real sense of “self” and “other”—a division that becomes woven into the systems we’ve created, which then serve to blindly reinforce and perpetuate it. This sense of separateness, when mixed with power, can result in tribalism, racism, all forms of othering, extraction of natural resources for profit, and exploitation of living beings and the land.
As we wrestle with the question of how to create change, there are many levels on which to work—ecological, political, organizational, societal, and individual. As a neuroscientist, I’m trained to consider these questions at the level of individual brains. Just how much can we change our mental frameworks? And how do we go about transforming our minds? This inquiry is at the heart of much of the work in the field of contemplative science.
Looking through the lens of neuroscience, I am buoyed by the extraordinary transformative potential that not only exists in us, but is actually the foundation of our minds and brains. We now know that the brain’s capacity to learn, to adapt, to change in response to experience is so fundamental that it strikes the wrong note to say that an activity (like meditation) ‘changes the brain’ as if such change is special or unusual. In fact, everything we do changes the brain on some level. Or rather, the brain is constantly changing, and incorporating our every experience into its structure and function.
As recently as a few decades ago, scientists had a much different view of brain development. It was thought that after adolescence, the brain didn’t change much (and neither did we). A person could learn new skills or facts, but more subtle qualities like personality, tendencies, beliefs, and so on were thought to be relatively fixed. We now know that brains—and the minds they help create—can change throughout the lifespan, and are constantly updating their models of the world based on experience. While it may be harder to change as we age (due to more deeply entrenched patterns having been laid down over many years), the capacity and possibility for change is always present.
Habits of Mind
I believe that the most powerful aspect of contemplative practice lies in the possibility to transform detrimental or unwanted habits of mind. How does this happen? There are many lenses through which to approach this question. From a neuroscience perspective, we can start by considering some fundamentals of how brains work, and how they can change.
…the most powerful aspect of contemplative practice lies in the possibility to transform detrimental or unwanted habits of mind.
Our nervous system is specialized to communicate information, and it does so by sending and receiving electrical and chemical signals. On a cellular level, we’ve learned a tremendous amount about how neuronal connections respond to what we experience in the world, strengthening connections that are used frequently and weakening those that aren’t used as much. The ability of the brain to change based on experience is referred to as neuroplasticity, and the adaptability it offers is the basis of much of our learning, allowing us to be efficient at understanding, anticipating, and responding to our environment.
Neural connections exist in extraordinarily complex and dynamic patterns. As we go about our lives, a given experience will activate not just one brain region (as is often implied by oversimplified tropes such as the amygdala being the ‘fear center’ of the brain), but a highly distributed network of neurons and other cells throughout the brain and body. Elements of these networks are involved in sensation, thought, emotion, movement, internal bodily regulation, and so on. And these systems don’t operate separately. We may think of them as distinct—likely because they’ve been studied individually in lab settings, and this artificial separation has leaked into our conception of how minds work. But in the real world, thoughts, emotions, bodily states, and behavior are all mixed together.1
So in the messy, complex unfolding of our daily life, each experience is associated with similarly complex patterns of activity in our minds. And when a distributed network like this is activated repeatedly, its elements become more strongly connected. Over the course of days, months, and years, these patterns become the physiological basis for what we think of as habits.
A key point here is that signals will flow more easily through neurons or circuits that are more strongly connected. That’s how our mindbody system becomes more efficient with practice—it can generate the same output with less input. This is why habits are helpful. As our “default” or easiest response, we generally follow the habit. Physiologically, we can think of energy flowing through our mindbody system in the way that water flows through a landscape. Just as water will follow the path of least resistance—paths that have already been carved, such as a riverbed—neural signals tend to flow through us via the circuits that have been used many times before, those well-worn grooves of the mind.
For example, think about an everyday task that you are able to perform without much effort, perhaps brushing your teeth or tying your shoes. At some point, you learned that activity and it took quite a bit of effort and repetition. After lots of practice, your shoe-tying circuit is now very strongly connected (sometimes this is called ‘hard-wired’), and requires minimal effort to activate. You don’t even have to think about it; it’s habitual. And because habits are based on our past experience, they’re intimately interlinked with processes studied in cognitive science like memory, learning, schemas, concepts, and predictive processing. It’s unfortunate in some ways that these processes tend to be studied separately, as they are all pointing to the way that our mindbody forms patterns through experience.
So habits—these neurobiological short-cuts—are a wonderful thing. They help us navigate the world efficiently and often without much cognitive effort. But they can also be problematic, especially when the habits cause us unnecessary suffering, or reflect an inaccurate view of reality. It’s important to widen our understanding of mental habits well beyond behavioral tendencies. Habits of mind can also include emotional response patterns, like becoming anxious in the face of uncertainty or stress, building up defensive walls in the context of a relationship, or lighting up with joy upon seeing the face of a loved one. Habits also play out in our cognitive realm, like ruminating, being hard on ourselves, or assuming certain beliefs and traits about others based on limited information (stereotypes).
From the Buddhist perspective, one of the deepest habits we have is the tendency to view ourselves as a kind of separate, enduring entity. This particular mental habit is built up and reinforced by many factors, from our basic biological need to distinguish ourselves from the world in order to survive, to cultural and philosophical frameworks highly prevalent in Western societies, like individualism and reductionism. And this sense of separateness or disconnection is a core aspect not only of our own suffering, but of the crises we face in the world.
The Power of Practice
Contemplative practice, like any repeated activity, shapes our minds and brains, and in turn, affects the way we think and behave. I vividly remember the first time I noticed this in my own life. I’d been meditating regularly for just a few weeks, and found myself waiting in line at the local pharmacy. The woman ahead of me was taking a long time with her transaction, and people were getting impatient. Normally, I too would have become agitated, feeling an energy rise in my body and an urgency to move things along. Stories would take shape in my mind about this woman—and judgments. Why wasn’t she more prepared? Doesn’t she realize she’s keeping people waiting? But strangely, my body remained calm, and so did my mind. I wasn’t in a rush, this was simply what was happening right now. So I just waited.
Calmness in that kind of a situation was such an unusual experience for me that I remember feeling a bit shocked, even pleasantly baffled. As a neuroscientist, I wondered what was happening in my brain. Could a complex tendency like an emotional response be shifting due to meditation? Scientists are far from having all the answers to this question, but from a neuroscience perspective, we can return to the idea that repeated activity will strengthen pathways.
Contemplative practices are as diverse as the traditions they derive from, but one thing they all have in common is that they are meant to be repeated many, many times. Whether seated or moving, with eyes open or closed, building attention or compassion, we engage again and again with practice, with the goal of changing something about ourselves (even when that change might be learning to accept ourselves as we are). Often what we practice is not habitual. Indeed, the skills we learn in meditation don’t necessarily come easily, and they run counter to our normal modes of operation.
One example is the attitude we’re often encouraged to have when practicing: engaged curiosity without negative judgment or harsh criticism towards whatever may be arising in the mind. This certainly wasn’t my habitual attitude when I began practicing. Like many people find when learning breath-focused meditation, I would experience a subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) self-judgment whenever I noticed my mind had wandered off the breath. With time and practice, this critical attitude can morph into acceptance and curiosity based on increasing familiarity with one’s mind. Slowly, with time and repetition, we re-pattern those mental and emotional habits.
Interestingly, those new patterns can be applied in a range of situations. Going back to the story of my experience waiting in line at the pharmacy, it might be that because I’d been practicing being non-judgmental about whatever was arising in my mind, I could more easily accept situations I was experiencing in the world. Of course, discernment is also needed. This doesn’t mean we accept and go along with injustice or harm to ourselves or others, but stepping out of an immediate judgmental habit can allow space for this discernment. Creating a new default stance toward ourselves and our experiences that is accepting, even friendly or loving, can truly change our lives.
Expanding the Self
One of the ways we may be able to transform our sense of self is through practices that upend our presumed separateness. In loving-kindness and compassion practices, for example, it’s common to begin by extending warm feelings to oneself or a close loved one. Once the practitioner is able to generate those feelings, she can slowly consider others in ever-widening circles (e.g., strangers, difficult people, even entire communities or the whole planet), and extend the same feelings to those beings. Often the instruction includes consideration that other beings, at their core, are similar to oneself in that they don’t want to suffer, and they want to be happy and free. This is a subtle way of repeatedly blurring the boundaries between self and other. With practice, we begin to develop a new default—a way of looking at the world as more “self-like,” and our conception of self is broadened.
One of the ways we may be able to transform our sense of self is through practices that upend our presumed separateness.
Other contemplative approaches leverage our connection with others, and the care that we’ve received in our lives (even when sometimes that care hasn’t been apparent to us). These relational practices seek to build our capacity to notice that care, and draw on it as a source of strength. And more recently, contemplative interventions have begun to incorporate dyadic or group practices done with one or more other people. All of these approaches can be powerful in their ability to shift the way we see ourselves and others.2 Through repetition we can shift old mental habits, even in these foundational domains.
Meditation and the Brain
A natural question that contemplative scientists have asked is, if meditation can change mental habits, and mental habits have neural underpinnings, do these changes show up in our brains?
The answer is, it’s complicated. Much has been made of the potential of meditation to change the structure or function of the brain. Initial findings (often based on small sample sizes and rudimentary experimental designs) identified changes in the brain related to meditation; however, this picture has become complicated as we’ve increased the rigor of our scientific investigation. While some early claims were made about particular brain areas or networks that appeared to be consistently changed from meditation, more recent work has failed to find such changes3 when studying a large number of people and using more rigorous design and analysis. A given study may find brain changes in a particular group of people practicing a particular style of meditation, but often these results are not found in other studies.
Though it may seem counterintuitive, this does not mean that individual brains are not altered from contemplative practice. Indeed, given what we know about how neural circuitry changes with repeated experience, we would certainly expect that a consistent meditation practice would alter the brain of the practitioner. So why is the research not more clear?
Science runs into a number of philosophical and methodological problems here. While neuroscientists acknowledge individual differences between people, there is also a tacit assumption that all brains are similar enough that they will change in the same way due to experience. This is reflected in the way research studies are conducted, usually averaging across many individuals to see if the effects in each brain are consistent.
At a gross level, the assumption of similarity is reasonable—when you zoom out, most people’s brains are organized similarly (major structures and pathways), in the same way our bodies are organized similarly (body parts and systems). This is especially true for foundational brain processes like sensation, control of movement, or regulation of breathing and heart rate. As you move to more abstract and associative processes like thought and emotion, the circuitry and patterns of connection begin to diverge across brains, reflecting the uniqueness of each of our personal histories. Like fingerprints, each of us will be slightly different.
So with repeated meditation, each brain will be changing based on that person’s history, lived experience, style of practice, mental habits, and many other factors. That is to say, brains will change differently, meaning there may not be consistent, repeatable changes that will occur across the board. Add to that the diverse array of contemplative practices and the effects they seek to achieve, and it’s perhaps not surprising that scientists have struggled to find replicable effects of meditation on the brain. (Note that some lines of research under development move away from the standard “averaging” paradigm, investigating and leveraging the unique patterns in each brain.4 I think this will be a necessary shift for all of cognitive neuroscience as we seek to understand the diverse minds that make up our world.)
These challenges are further framed by the larger question of, are brain changes really the desired outcome of contemplative practice? I would argue no; what most of us seek to change are the patterns and habits of mind that show up in our everyday lives as problematic thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. While these habits certainly have neural and physiological correlates (e.g., brain function and structure), I don’t know anyone who meditates in hopes of beefing up their prefrontal cortex, or strengthening the functional connectivity between two brain networks. People practice to change the way they experience their lives. Studying how meditation affects brains remains a fascinating and important direction for cognitive science, but it may not be the most relevant question for understanding whether and how meditation can bring benefit. For example, if after years of meditating, a scientist told you your brain had changed, but you saw no difference in your experience of yourself and the world, would it matter?
The good news is that when we look at experiential changes, the evidence is more clear. Meta-analyses, which combine many previous studies to find consistency, have found that mindfulness-based interventions are associated with improvements in depression, pain, and smoking/addiction.5 Outcomes such as stress, anxiety, and sleep are less consistent, but often people experience benefits here too. More recently, meditation has been studied for its effects on positive emotion and prosocial behavior,6 and results are promising (though again not always replicated).
At the end of the day, for any given person, the most meaningful test of meditation’s effectiveness will be their own experience. Are they kinder to themselves and others? Do they have more insight into their own minds? Has their sense of self and interconnection expanded? Many of these common, yet subtle, outcomes of practice are difficult to measure scientifically, but all of them reflect a change in habitual patterns of thought, emotion, and behavior—leveraging the neuroplasticity that exists within us.
The Power of Community
One of the ways my own mind has shifted during my years in contemplative science is realizing the narrow view that was reflected in my traditional neuroscience training. From that perspective, any mental (and sometimes physical) problem was reduced into the brain, and the brain was viewed as a machine—albeit a vastly complex one, but a machine nonetheless—with separable parts that could be manipulated in various ways. And if we could just figure out all the parts and how they worked, we’d be able to fix any problem. This view is helpful, as far as it goes. To be sure, it’s led to amazing discoveries, medications, and interventions that reduce suffering and save lives. And at the same time, as my view of the mind has widened to include the rest of the body and also our physical and social environments, I can see why many attempts to solve problems with a solely brain-based approach have failed. When we view a problem through just one lens, we are often missing the larger picture that can reveal other facets that may be more integral to the issue at hand.
This applies to the contemplative space as well. In the early days, much of the research was focused on the brain, and how meditation might change or improve its structure and function. This is likely a reflection of several narrow perspectives common in Western society—namely neurocentrism, that mental experience derives only from the brain, and individualism, that the practice done by an individual will be the main driver of any effects, and those effects will show up only in that person.
What’s missing here is the important role of context in transforming minds—both physical and perhaps more importantly, social. In many domains (e.g., religious, political, cultural), the people we surround ourselves with are a huge influence7 on the beliefs, mindsets, and perspectives we come to hold. Research comparing meditation interventions to those providing social support often find the beneficial effects to be equivalent between the groups, suggesting that the social connections developed over the course of group contemplative interventions are likely playing an important role in positive change. So it’s not only the practice, but the community (sangha) that will shape the way we see the world.
The people we surround ourselves with are a huge influence on the beliefs, mindsets, and perspectives we come to hold.
Lessons for our Lives
How does all of this apply to our lives? One major takeaway is that forming habits is the nature of how brains work, and in most cases, our habits are valuable and helpful in how we live day-to-day. When we come across habits of mind that cause suffering or are problematic, we can have some compassion for ourselves, knowing that these patterns developed from a natural biological process, not from some internal “flaw” or shortcoming.
Another takeaway is that the capacity for change is built into our mindbody systems, so there are always pathways for transformation. In fact, change is not only possible, it’s inevitable. At the brain level, we know that neuroplasticity is inherent—so it’s not a question of whether brains can change, but rather, what is being incorporated as they change?
This highlights the need for intention and care on many levels. The information we take in, the experiences we have, become the basis for our future habits of mind. Knowing this, we can bring discernment to the ways our minds are being shaped. Repeated practices like meditation can play a major role in shifting patterns that no longer serve us. Capacities like awareness, acceptance, and love are all trainable. And how we view ourselves and others is also a kind of habit that can be changed with practice.
We should also be aware of other activities in our daily lives that are shaping our minds, ranging from media consumption to technology use to work and social interactions. In particular, the communities and social structures we are embedded in have a significant influence on our minds. Do these promote division or connection? Do they reinforce the idea that we are all separate, or do they remind us of interdependence? To the extent possible, we can surround ourselves with those who share our values and can support us on the path to change, while also remaining open to those with other viewpoints, remembering that community is strongest when it’s diverse. And importantly, we ourselves are elements in these systems, so the mindsets that we hold as individuals will, in turn, influence those around us.
As we move forward, we need to continue looking through many lenses—from neurons to neighborhoods, from bodymind to biosphere—to see the many ways we can transform our minds, and thereby our world, towards a state that reflects the reality of our interconnection.
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