This is one of those books whose title leaves one unclear as to the book’s nature. The title has religious connotations, but its subtitle, The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love, and Wisdom suggests a secular and rationalist work. The subtitle might clear things up if it weren’t for the fact that there are so many New Agey, spiritualist types who like to glom onto scientific terminology—presumably in an attempt to lend credibility to ideas that are “out there.” Thus, one may reasonably wonder whether this is just another Biomechanics of Chakra Fluffing style book—actually, I made that one up, but if you can see why such a title would be oxymoronic you know where I’m coming from. Without further ado, let me state that this book is rooted in the science of the brain, and, while it uses its fair share of concepts from Eastern religion as pedagogic devices, it doesn’t presuppose need to believe in anything [or anybody] for which there is no evidence. [What remains less clear is whether this book is properly considered self-help or pop science?] This issue with the title may be why Hanson came out with the more secularly-titled Hardwiring Happiness book a few years later that seems to cover similar territory (though, I’ve not yet read the latter.)
The central premise of Buddha’s Brain is that the brain’s neuroplasticity allows one to change the way one experiences life by changing the way one perceives and responds to life’s little trials and tribulations. Over time, one can become happier, more loving, and wiser—i.e. one can have a brain more like the Buddha’s. “Spiritual” matters are always at the periphery of what Hanson is discussing because this type of practice has historically been in the bailiwick of religious traditions—specifically Eastern (and other mystic) traditions that focus on looking inward to be a more virtuous person. However, where said traditions have often relied on assumptions unsupported by current science—such as the existence of a unitary (i.e. universally interconnected) consciousness, Hanson considers the issue from the perspective of our current understanding of the brain. In particular, he focuses on the fact that we are capable of training our brain to respond more positively to events.
Evolution, beautiful and elegant as it may be, has made us pessimistic and prone to disproportionately focus on the negative. This is because survival depended on being ready for worst case scenarios. So we imagine what that worst case is, and endlessly replay scenarios to prepare ourselves for how to deal with said worst cases. While this approach may have enhanced our ancestor’s survival probability, it can easily get out of hand and for far too many people it has. In the book, Hanson proposes three evolutionary strategies (i.e. creating separations [us / them, I / you, etc.], maintaining stability, and threat avoidance / opportunity seizure) that often end up tainting our worldview, raising our stress levels, and causing declining health and well-being. The book does get into the mechanics of stress reduction as well as how to change the way one experiences the world so as to be exposed to less stress.
Rick Hanson is a psychologist who holds a Senior Fellowship at a center at the University of California at Berkeley. He also founded his own center called The Wellspring Institute for Neuroscience and Contemplative Wisdom.
The book is organized into 13 chapters arranged in four parts. The four parts are: I.) The Causes of Suffering, II.) Happiness, III.) Love, and IV.) Wisdom. These parts are preceded by front matter which includes the first chapter which lays out the basics of the brain in layman’s terms as well as discussing the evolutionary survival strategies that sometimes fail to serve us well in modern living. More detailed discussion of the brain is introduced throughout the book at is relevant to the discussion at hand, but the level of this discussion should be approachable to all readers. Each chapter is divided into many subsections to make the reading easily digestible. One of the nice features of this book is that each chapter has a bullet point summary at the end. Actually, the author uses bullet points prominently throughout the book. There is one appendix which explores questions of nutrition for brain health. There is an extensive reference section containing largely scholarly references, as one would expect of a science book.
I mentioned earlier that I wasn’t certain whether to classify this as a self-help or popular science book. In many ways it’s both. It does give a great deal of practical advice about what one can do to change one’s life. On the other hand, it offers more background into the science than your average self-help book—though always at a layman’s level.
I’d recommend this book if you are interested in self-improvement, the science of the mind, or both.