Archive for the ‘Religion and the Brain’ Category

Visual meditation is great for brain/mind training!

December 14, 2008

Welcome back to the discussion on visual meditation and mandalas!

Within major wisdom traditions of meditation, be they spiritual, religious or scientific brain and health training programs, there is typically the path of education or entrainment. Meditation or mental practice, after all, is not the default mode of a mature human central nervous system that is wired for turbo”different detecting” in space/time! Remember, difference detecting is that old survival mechanism that helps all mammals determine: Will that eat me or will I eat that? Is it safe to sleep here or is it not? And now in our modern jungle version where we communicate and travel at the speed of light, our human brains and central nervous systems race faster and faster to keep up with the deluge of information, images, and experiences we encounter day after day!

It makes sense that in response to or retreat from cultures drunk on speed, we would turn to “best practices” of earlier times, namely the ancient art and science of meditation, to help us slow down, to assist us in creating equilibrium in our bodies and in our lives. The good news is that at the dawn of the 21st century, meditation traditions practiced around the globe are finding their way into translation in order to prevent suffering and benefit all humankind. A grand project indeed!

So how does visual meditation figure into all of the hoopla about meditation as being great for creating inner peace. lowering stress and brain training?

Drawing upon both Buddhist and Hatha Yogic traditions, we find two key lessons to enable the learner: Turning Inward and Consciousness of Abstracting.

Turning inward allows us to find the most important radar signaling systems of the human body: Breathing and Paying Attention, both made possible by a “conscious” brain. [I’m using the term “conscious” in the here and now, scientific sense of brain activation.]

Paying attention enables us to “consciously abstract” or selectively focus upon a sign, an feeling, a sensation, a process of movement out of all that we might experience at any given moment.

Now, suggesting that someone turn inward seems to be completely counter intuitive to surviving in a culture that demands external focus for reading signs for survival! In gung ho American culture, think of the mockery we make of the quiet, reflective types — the teen who hides in in fantasy novels, the poet who sits and reflects on life, the college student who prefers to study Art, Sufi Dancing or Zen practice rather than ice hockey!

The irony of course is that in today’s sports training, “turning in” is one of the key training tools of Olympic training practice! (Think of Michael Phelp’s incredible ability to turn inward and “focus.”!!!). So turning inward, drawing one’s attention away from the noise of the outside world and turning it toward the space of one’s own inner life is a key step of Hatha Yoga, Zen, T.M. and Vipassana or Mindfulness traditions.

You might be saying at this point, “O.K., turn inward. And consciousness of what? How exactly do I use a visual image placed outside my own body?

Good question: Here’s the neuro-scoop and poop on using visual mandalas: (more…)

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Spacesuit Yoga is tweeting from Twitter.com!

December 12, 2008

Will soon be adding a blog on complex mandala meditation but in the meantime, you can always find short “tweets” from me, DRG at Twitter.com
And to get you started thinking about or meditating upon a inspiring and complex visual mandala, here’s close-up of one of Phillip George’s boards. (House and Gardens….. Surf’s UP!)

bigmixed2

Meditation, Mandalas and the Brain

December 9, 2008

Greetings readers, a follow up on questions concerning choosing a visual meditation practice:

First a few words about the practice itself:

With respect to stress reduction and the desire to create a sense of inner well being, visual meditations may be ideal for

a) Those who find deep appreciation and calm in viewing visual art; and

b) Those who find the visual complexity of a mandala, the perfect sensory road to travel on in the quest for time/space centering of one’s “self.”

Put in everyday (well sorta) terms, visual meditations call on rehearsed neural circuits that enable the human brain to “pattern recognize” in ways that stretch beyond ordinary looking and seeing. Pattern recognition, after all, is basic to the acts of looking and seeing.   As the great anthropologist and cognitive theorist Gregory Bateson pointed out, “pattern recognition” is that which binds mind to life. Or as AI theorist Ray Kurzweil maintains, pattern recognition constitutes the first sign of biological intelligence (something that can be shared with non-biological intelligence, presuming we program the “thing,”).  Following this line of thinking, rehearsed pattern recognition creates the neurochemical connections necessary for the production of  new “brain maps” —  neural networks that correlate with learning and memory retention.

Practice, in other words, creates greater synaptic connections in our brains that form and correlate with sense perceptions, images, ideas, feelings and intuitions. With respect to using visual meditation as a way to reduce stress, some evidence suggests the less complex visual image, the easier it is to perceive and focus attention upon.  Let’s take. for instance, the act of attending to a single image like this week’s Hubble Telescope shot of a globular cluster of stars in the Northern Sky!

hubble

Northern Sky, Globular Cluster M13 captured by the Hubble Telescope

If you’re prone to nature mysticism (C.F. William James), then you might first sense the awesome beauty of the cosmic start system. If you’re given to the metaphysics of geometry, you might pause on the elegance symbology of a cosmic circle. But if you’re interested in using the image of a cosmic star system to train your attention toward calmness and stability, then I suggest bringing along with visual attention, your sensory awareness of ordinary breathing. As one learns from the ancient Buddhist practice of mandala gazing, its the repeated experiential pairing of “looking” and “breathing” that helps one move from image perception and analysis to image experience. Meditative looking, to put it neatly, is embodied.

Today, neuroscientists reporting on perception and cognition, tell us that visual meditation experiences, like all other visual experiences, are synthesized in the visual cortex, related to other areas of the brain, e.g. the somasensory cortex. By adding breathing to the mix, visuality is further grounded in the body of experience.

Or to put it another way,

Bringing the art of breathing to the art of meditative visual image gazing transforms the neuroscience, if you will, of the visual experience.

What then do we make of the complex patterns one finds in Buddhist mandalas or Islamic mosque imagery, such as we find anew on Phil George’s sublime surfboards?

To be continued in my next blog….

Synaptically yours,

Dr. G.



Neuro-leaders, donde esta?

October 27, 2008

Dear readers,

News on the home front;

First, commentary continues to flow from Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor’s talk on Oprah. A neuro-leader if there ever was one. Please enjoy the discussion that ensued on this site.

One of the questions to arise: Should we be devoting our lives to training our brains for bliss, or should bliss pursuits be relegated to the cloistered arena of mystical experience? Of course, the dualist framing of the question is unfortunate for as Taylor herself points out, right-brain enhanced joy is not licenced or owned by religious seekers.  Think of the pattern recognition operations that go on in the mind of painters or fabric designers?

For those interested in a critical, psychological analysis of American mystical experience, try starting with a standard and truly royal read: William James’ VARIETIES OF RELIGIOUS EXPERIENCE. James, the father of American psychology and a spacious thinker on the question of brain-mind relations, takes one on a tour of the diversity of American religiosity. Seems we in the U.S., have not strayed too much from our turn of the century predecessors.As James is one of my favorite American thinkers, I can’t help but think he would be totally turned on by the big movements in neuroscience and neuro-education — the sort Taylor insinuates in using neuro-anatomy to tell her deeply personal story of survival and transformation! I only wish James were alive today to join me at the upcoming 2008 Neuroleadership Summit in NY. I will be blogging on the event — and upon my return will be offering my services to those looking for consultants to design and set up neuroleadership and neuro-fitness programs in their companies and institutions

In the meantime: to embolden your own neuro-leadership program, try and practice a few of the basic “brain tips” mentioned on this site:

Mid-day napping

Bringing breath awareness to your athletic or other human performance training

Spinal rolls: juicing up the joints of the spine for greater blood and chi flow!

And a new one to be discussed in future blogs: Think Popeye and eat your spinach!

May the Breath Be With You!

Dr. G.

Summer Fireworks Celebrate the Year of the Brain!

July 3, 2008

Well the summer solstice is here bringing with it much news from the neuroscience sector. 2008 is truly proving to be the Year of the Brain!!!!

In case you haven’t noticed, more brain empowerment and anti-aging gizmos and gadgets are entering the internet market designed to increase neuroplasticity. (Look for my upcoming blogs on sharpbrains.com and on the recent UCLA conference on anti-aging and regenerative medicine!)

Yet the more compelling story is the heightened critical mass awareness of brain function and brain injury made possible by Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor’s TED talk (see my coverage of Bolte Taylor’s talk and the generous comments to issue forth since I reported on Taylor’s TED presentation — February and March archives of this blog.).

I am emboldened by the fact that Dr. Taylor’s talk has reached numbers of people whose lives have been challenged by stroke and other traumatic brain injuries. Much to my surprise however, is the way Taylor’s talk has inspired others to come forward with stories of spiritual enlightenment. To those of you who have generously shared your thoughts and stories vis a vis Taylor’s life story, thank you. I will continue to use this blog as a vehicle for bringing the most up to date news and links to info concerning all things “brainy’ and brain-related.

For those have not seen Jill Bolte Taylor’s TED presentation, simple go to

http://www.ted.com and search for Jill Bolte Taylor talk

or copy the link below and place it in your url searchbox

http://www.ted.com/index.php/talks/

jill_bolte_taylor_s_powerful_stroke_of_insight.html
With the issue of stroke in mind, readers please consider the critical implications a new bill recently introduced into Congress for immediate consideration, namely, the National Neurotechnology Initiative Act.

The NNTI is a $200M/year initiative designed to foster new discoveries and accelerate the development of new and safer treatments for the one in three Americans living with a brain-related illness, injury or disease. Championing the NNTI are Senators Pete V. Domenici (R-NM) and Patty Murray (D-WA) and Representatives Patrick J. Kennedy (D-RI 1st) and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL 18th) who have called upon Congress to act quickly on this important legislation.

According to the NNIT Act website, this legislation will accelerate the development of treatments for Alzheimer’s disease, autism, addiction, ALS, anxiety, depressive disorders, epilepsy, hearing loss, migraine, multiple sclerosis, obesity, pain, Parkinson’s disease, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), schizophrenia, age-related macular degeneration, sensory disorders, sleep disorders, spinal cord injury, stroke, traumatic brain injury and many orphan diseases of the brain and nervous system.

One can only image the medical advancements to benefit from the passing of the bill. And in during this savage war-time, with scores of American troops returning home with traumatic brain injury and PTSD, enlightened legislation promises to up the ante on neurological research and application. Think of Bolte Taylor’s talk and take action!!

A neurotech advocacy group – http://www.neurotechindustry.org– has provided sample letters to use to write to Congress men and women in your districts and states, asking them to approve the bill. PLEASE CLICK ON THIS WEBSITE FOR LETTERS AND ACCESS TO YOUR CONGRESS MEN AND WOMEN!

More to come on brain matters.

In the meantime, may the long days of summer ahead provide you with a chance to take time out to nourish, empower and embody brain!

The Neuroscience Revolution: Neural Buddhism and Proust

May 14, 2008

Well, May has rolled into town. The jacarandas are turning Los Angeles into a “purple haze” and the star jasmine buds send wafting scents of Pacific Rim sweetness into the air.

As seasons change, so does the discussion regarding neuroscience and its far reaching affects visual art, literature and religion. As all of the authors suggest, one gets the feeling that we’re clearly in the midst of revolution, with Frankensteinian fantasies that loom large. For your pleasure and curiosity, an article and books of note:

1. Today the New York Times ran an online article by David Brooks entitled “The Neural Buddhists.” Brooks ponders the limits of a materialist perspective held by 20th century scientists in light of the cognitive, existential and religious implications of neuro-plasticity. His claim? The debate between science and religion is moved into the non-reductivist territory of “neural-mysticism.” (Sadly, here again we see mysticism used as the over-arching frame for Buddhist practice — which by the way is recognized as a religious practice throughout Asian countries.)

See: OPINION | May 13, 2008
Op-Ed Columnist: The Neural Buddhists
By DAVID BROOKS
The cognitive revolution is not going to undermine faith in God — it’s going to challenge faith in the Bible.

2. Art historian Barbara Marie Stafford has published her thoughts on neuroscience and art history in her latest book ECHO OBJECTS, a frothy, in depth study of art history from a neuro-aesthetic perspective. Stafford, influenced by my colleague Warren Neidich, takes his “brain makes culture, culture makes the brain” thesis and translates its implications into a claim for the reciprocal alignment between neuroscience and the humanities.

3. SEED Magazine editor in chief Jonah Lehrer takes on the art and humanities, especially the “lit crit” crowd in his first book PROUST WAS A NEUROSCIENTIST. Lehrer, trained in neuroscience and literature, joins critical thinker Brian Massumi to claim we don’t need to know neuroscience to make or understand the mysteries of art but we sure can learn some fascinating stuff about the brain if we do so! I depart from Leher and Massumi as I’ve found, by sharing neuroscience insights with art students regarding the relations between the visual and soma-sensory cortex), light-bulbs of thinking brighten… and new perspectives about 2-d and 3-d media come about.

The question of how we study neuroscience and to what end remains before us: In an age that celebrates the autodidact and the social networking of learning, surely a little look under the hood of our own “minds” couldn’t hurt.

As far as I’m concerned, Dr. Frankenstein, feel free to enter and teach us what you’ve found!

May the Breath and the Creative Brain be with You!

Dr. G.