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Mindful : June 2018
I’ve developed a six-day workshop called “The Buddha, the Brain, and Bach” with senior meditation teacher Sylvia Boorstein and my wife, Bar- bara Bogatin, a cellist with the San Francisco Symphony. We explore the intersection of contemplative practice, neuroscience, and musical creativ- ity. We touch upon fundamentals of brain structure and function as well as complex dynamical aspects. It’s a curriculum designed to use the deep awareness cultivated in contemplative practice to foster a sense of knowing and wonder, showing that it doesn’t make sense to rely on narratives that tie things up neatly. Jha: I agree with that, but in my work I also find it helpful to orient people to what’s happening with their attention when they get off task and bad things result. Naturally, one of the first things we think of in trying to keep something simple is how would you explain that to a child? Coincidentally, that occurred for me with my daughter. She was seven at the time. She jumped up on my lap while I was working on my computer. She ended up picking up a model brain I had sitting around. Not surprisingly she took the whole thing apart. She lifted up one piece after another and asked, “ What does this do?” With the occipital lobe, I said some- thing like “it helps you to see”; for the temporal lobe, it helps you hear; for the cerebellum, it helps you coor- dinate what’s coming from all your senses, and so on. I was just giving her simple answers, because I was trying to work. At some point, though, I said, “No, let’s not do it this way. Let’s talk about how this actually happens.” Then, I talked to her about how all of these parts never work alone. They always work together, but they work in specific ways together. As an anal- ogy, I asked her to think about what body parts she would use to do a cart- wheel. She said, “I need my hand, and that’s connected to my arm, and that’s connected to the rest of my body.” As I coaxed her through this investiga- tion, she realized she needed all those such as mea- suring electrical activity, the data is ex tremely tricky to interpret, requiring a lot of complex statistics. It also opens the door to a trap in thinking called “reverse inference”: looking at apparent brain activity shown bythefMRIina par ticular region and making an assumption about what is going on there based on what other research has shown about that region. It’s an educated guess, but it does not qualify as conclu- sive evidence of a par ticular kind of brain activity. In shor t, fMRI must be interpreted cautiously. What you see is not what you get. parts and more, and she needed them to move together in a pattern that results in a cartwheel. That’s a pretty good way to think about how the brain works. All of these different parts talk to each other and they need to act together for us to accomplish something we’re trying to do. She seemed to get that you can’t just think of the parts in isolation; you always have to think of how they work together with other parts and with the whole. So I think you can be simple and accessible and also correct, with- out introducing a lot of distortion. Barry Boyce: I appreciate that, since science is supposed to be an honest exploration of what’s going on, not simply a way to find easy explanations for things that are hard to under- stand. In that regard, let’s talk about “executive function.” As discussed above, strengthening this function—the inhibition, problem solving, decision making, reasoning activities identified as the work of the “upper brain,” the central lobes—is an attribute often ascribed to mindful- ness. Is that a fully accurate story? Jha: You get into trouble when you imply that what some people call the “upstairs brain”—referring to execu- tive function—does all this beneficial regulating and balancing. Treating the frontal lobes almost like a char- acter in a story—the good guy, the white knight—can lead to the view that everything that flows from strong executive control is beneficial. The reality is that someone with high working memory capacity and very good executive control could do some very bad things. Just because a par- ticular brain network can do “good things” doesn’t mean that what it does is always for the good. Saron: I would like to drill down a little deeper and ask what’s implied by “executive function.” We need to foster a critical perspective and always pay close attention to the nar- ratives that emerge from the words we use. In the history of science, → June 2018 mindful 49 science