Richard Davidson and his neuroscience team at the University of Wisconsin asked this question. To answer it, they took experienced Tibetan monks to their lab to scan their brains in action. Is the Buddhist brain fundamentally different than the average?
This generated some discussion on one of the neurofeedback lists I participate in. One of the answers was from Dr. Val Brown, a psychologist and creator of a neurofeedback system that is based on seeing the brain as a nonlinear system. I wanted to share his answer with you as it fits nicely with helping us evolve a new understanding of the brain -- not a computer or machine, but a living, evolving self-regulating system. (I've done some slight editing and highlighting for blogness...)
Is the Buddhist Brain Different?...
The answer is: no. Although it appears that the answer is: yes.
The brain itself isn’t different.
We all share buddha nature.
Fundamental consciousness is always present and available and can’t not be. The manifestation( s) of fundamental consciousness may appear to be different at any particular time because of what we each have “practiced” throughout our lives up to that point.
If the practice is compassion meditation, the manifestation (or “realization”) will appear one way.
If we practice addiction, the manifestation will appear another way.
But the fundamental nature of consciousness is the same regardless of what we practice, what we have practiced or what we choose to practice or not practice.
If the fundamental nature of consciousness weren’t the same for us all, then training/practice — of whatever kind — would have NO effect. We would simply remain as we were, no matter how much we practiced. Polish a brick as much as you like it will never become a mirror.
The mind already is a mirror and simply needs to return to fundamental consciousness to (re)discover what it has always been and can’t not be — without creating enormous suffering for itself and, usually, others.
"Thinking mind" so much wants to create divisions and that can make dialogue difficult, especially when it concerns what the buddhist community refers to as the view, the practice and the realization.
One of the biggest delusions is to think that “enlightenment” or “compassion” is something to be achieved. It is always already there as the nature of fundamental consciousness. The illusion is thinking/believing that it isn’t already there but must be “achieved”. And yet, practice can “bear fruit” -- or not. Sounds like more dichotomies but it actually is just a statement of the non-dual nature of reality. In the end it’s all a lot simpler than we think....
Now let’s go down another aspect of this. Yes, one can pinpoint differential activation patterns using EEG, fMRI, etc, etc. And those differential activation patterns emerge after practice. For compassion practice there can be a rather specific pattern — but it isn’t absolute. For addiction there may well be another — and it is no more absolute. For depression another yet again. And on and on — and none of them are absolute either.
However, here’s the interesting part...
The traditional practice to manifest compassion pays no attention to CNS localization. No localized EEG feedback is given. One simply follows a certain mediation practice — and the CNS sorts out the rest all by itself.
Isn’t that amazing?
No, it’s reality, but it can seem amazing IF one believes that the CNS is highly localized and composed of parts. How do the parts KNOW to localize compassion in that same place after years of practice when the practice itself is not localized IN the CNS itself? Again, this sounds like more dichotomy but it isn’t. It’s simply pointing out that reality embraces all of that complexity and ambiguity.
Here’s a comparison point.
The heart is localized to the left side of the chest. Despite that, we don’t have to lean to the right doing aerobic exercise to “balance out” cardio-vascular activity. Nor do we have to lean to the right to “emphasize and deepen” that effect.
No, we simply exercise whole body, aerobically (even just walking!) without regard to trying to “re-balance” or “accentuate” and the body sorts out all of the relevant “localization” effects on its own. Isn’t it a real relief to NOT have to keep track of all of those differentiations and try to “do them right”?
Yes, we can “make” differences and those may — or may not — inform practice and then the manifestation/ realization that emerges from those differences. But, as Harry Stack Sullivan observed: “We’re all more simply human than otherwise”. A buddhist perspective might say: “We’re all more simply fundamental consciousness than otherwise — unless we create ignorance and suffering”. Then the differences begin to emerge and, as the xinxin ming says: “an inch of difference and heaven and earth are set apart...”