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5 Neuroscience Fun Facts for Yogis & Yoginis

5.) IDEA: While our conscious mind feels like the sum of our mental world, in fact, it’s the tip of the iceberg of mental processes. Our decisions and actions are guided to a large degree by happenings below the waterline.

INTRIGUING EXAMPLE: In one study, interview subjects were randomly assigned to hold either iced or hot coffee. No attention was drawn to the coffee and it was set up as a mere accident of happenstance (the HR person directing the interviewees had her hands full.) The coffee was retrieved before the subjects made handshakes with interviewers. Unrelated to their verbal responses, those who had held the iced coffee were disproportionately described more in terms suggesting a cold personality (e.g. calculating, devious, etc.) and those who had held hot coffee were credited with a warmer personality.

RELEVANCE: Get your hands warm before you start making corrections.

REFERENCE: The coffee study is discussed by David J. Linden in his book Touch. However, there are many books on this topic, several that I’ve reviewed. In particular, I can recommend Eagleman’s Incognito and Mlodinow’s Subliminal.

 

4.) IDEA: Emotions play a crucial role in decision-making. We aren’t nearly so rationale and calculating as we think ourselves to be–particularly when there is uncertainty in the mix.

INTRIGUING EXAMPLE: Giovannni Frazzetto’s book describes cases of patients with lesions in their medial prefrontal cortexes who would deliberate ad nauseam and still couldn’t reach a decision.

RELEVANCE: This is why we don’t silence or stamp out emotions, but rather watch them dispassionately while avoiding a mental drift into a frenzy of illusion building.

REFERENCE: The Frazzetto book I referenced is: How We Feel, and it deals with anger, guilt, anxiety / fear, grief, empathy, joy, and love.  However, the patients described in his book were those of Antonio Damasio, and so you may want to check out Descartes’ Errorwhich I’ve heard good things about, but haven’t yet read.

 

3 .) IDEA: Experiences once thought to be supernatural, mystical, or fraudulent are increasingly being understood in scientific terms.

INTRIGUING EXAMPLE: For some, an Out-of-Body-Experience (OBE) is an impossible flight of fancy, while for others it’s a mystical / transcendent state beyond the physical realm. However, in recent years scientists have not only confirmed that people have these experiences, they’ve come a long way toward understanding such occurrences by actually inducing them via electrodes applied to the right angular gyrus. It seems that area of the brain is responsible for integrating sensory information from various senses, and its disruption creates an illusion of one’s consciousness floating outside the body.

RELEVANCE: As many have wisely advised, don’t spend a lot of time chasing siddhis–not only might it stunt your growth toward the ultimate goal, it might just be running after tricks of the mind.

REFERENCE: I highly recommend Anil Ananthaswamy’s The Man Who Wasn’t There. The book looks at the various ways in which “self” has been defined (one’s memories, one’s body, etc.) and it shows how neuroscience has learned a thing or two about the various dimensions of self, and how none of them fully defines an “I.” (i.e. The Buddhist conception of the self as illusion might turn out to be not far off the mark.)

 

2.) IDEA: Our brains can be rewired through practice and training. The property is called neuroplasticity, and it’s often described by the verse: “neurons that fire together, wire together.”

INTRIGUING EXAMPLE: You may have heard about  how London taxi cab drivers develop an enlarged hippocampus, which helps them meet the vast spatial memory needs required of the job. However, an even more fascinating example may be how some blind people have developed a capacity for echolocation–i.e. their mind registers changes as sound bounces off walls, curbs, and other obstacles.

RELEVANCE: One takes advantage of neuroplasticity when one works to be more kind and compassionate by recognizing and changing one’s behavior patterns.

REFERENCE: Fascinating reading on the topic can be gleaned from Kathleen Taylor’s book Brainwashing, but the most widely-cited book on the topic may be Norman Doidge’s The Brain That Changes Itself.

 

1.) IDEA: We have neural circuitry that predisposes us to spiritual belief and inclinations toward the sacred.

INTRIGUING EXAMPLE: The evidence suggests that it’s not so important who or what you believe in, but the more positive the message the better. People of religion have demonstrated both better and worse health outcomes–all else equal–and it seems linked to whether you have one of those smiting gods or a more compassionate one.

RELEVANCE: Belief and surrender–religious or secular–can play an important role in one’s personal development.

REFERENCE: Newberg and Waldman’s How Enlightenment Changes Your Brain deals with these issues in detail.


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