BOOK REVIEW: Buddha’s Brain by Rick Hanson

Buddha's Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love, and WisdomBuddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love, and Wisdom by Rick Hanson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Amazon page

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.

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6 Science Books That Martial Artists Should Read

When one has a passion for an activity,  it’s easy to get tunnel vision and miss out on the many avenues of information by which one might improve oneself.  I’ve done many posts on martial arts books, but I thought it might be useful to do one about books that aren’t about martial arts per se, but which have none-the-less contributed to my thinking as a martial artist.

 

1.) On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society by LTC Dave Grossman

OnKillingWhat it’s about? Psychologically, it’s a lot harder to kill another human being than one might think. Even when one is a combatant in a just war, the reluctance to kill–even one’s sworn enemy–is intense. Grossman examines the roots of this reluctance, what methods have been employed to get soldiers over it, and what the cost of doing so is.

The book also goes into a topic one might find surprising: video games. Not to give too much away, but military researchers discovered that getting infantrymen to kill required conditioning them to shoot targets that look human. This resulted in moving from bulls-eye targets to silhouettes, pictures of humans, and even Firearms Training Simulators (i.e. FATS, systems that run shoot / no-shoot scenarios on a screen, like an interactive movie.) It turns out that shoot-em-up video games may contribute to a child’s conditioning to be willing to shoot another human being.

Why it’s a good read for martial artists? Martial arts vary radically in realism and relevance to combative situations, but it’s easy for students of the martial arts–even martial arts that seem “hardcore” and self-defense oriented–to have unrealistic notions about the realities of combat. As François de La Rodefoucauld said, “One cannot answer for his courage when he has never been in danger.” By reading this book one might, perhaps, begin to rethink one’s assumptions, and change how one prepares to defend oneself and others.

Further reading on related topics:  I’ve heard good things about the works of Rory Miller–particularly Facing Violence and Meditations on Violence, but I haven’t gotten around to reading his books yet. If you have, please feel free to comment with your thoughts.

 

2.) The Rise of Superman: Decoding the Science of Ultimate Human Performance by Steven Kotler

RiseOfSupermanWhat it’s about? Kotler examines a state of mind that is widely call “flow,” and how extreme athletes are tapping into flow to achieve unprecedented advances in performance. There are a number of ways by which this state of mind can be defined, e.g. neurochemically (i.e. a neuro-cocktail of serotonin, anandamide, endorphins, dopamine, and norepinephrine), neuroanatomically (transient hypofrontality), neuroelectrically (high theta / low alpha wave–i.e. between meditation and resting wakefulness), or psychologically (intense concentration on a challenge that’s just beyond one’s present skill level.)

Kotler proposes that risk is an important trigger for entering a deep state of flow, and that this is why extreme athletes are proving so much better at achieving these states (and translating them into radically increased performance) than many other groups who seek to master flow.

Why it’s a good read for martial artists? It should be noted that not only is flow not a newly discovered state of mind, but it sounds a lot like the state of mind that martial artists have sought for centuries in the practice of their arts–often in conjunction with disciplines such as Zen or Vajrayana Buddhism. What is new, which makes this book worth reading, is an understanding of the science behind flow states. By moving beyond the hazy mix of truth and falsehood embodied in systems of spirituality, one may be able to find a way to more reliably increase one’s performance.

Further reading on related topics:  Flow in Sports: The Keys to Optimal Experiences and Performances is a book that is co-authored by the granddaddy of flow research Dr. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.

 

3.) Becoming Batman: The Possibility of a Superhero by E. Paul Zehr

Becomingbatman

What it’s about? (Arguably, this is a martial arts book, but I’m including it because one wouldn’t get that from the title or blurb.) This book’s central question is whether a real life person could achieve the level of crime-fighting bad-assery that is the Batman, and–if so–what combination of genetics, training, and conditioning would be required. It also addresses what would be the cost in terms of wear and tear on one’s body and how long one could be expected to maintain said abilities. (Also, for the martial artists of feminine persuasion, how Batgirl or Catwoman might fair in combat against Batman.)

Why it’s a good read for martial artists?   There is tons of great information relevant to martial artists about the toll of extreme practice and regular fighting on one’s body (e.g. concussions, broken bones, etc.), what the limits of human performance are, by what means those limits are approached, and how realistic it is to have an unreciprocated policy prohibiting lethal weapons.

Further reading on related topics: Actually, if you know of any books on related topics, I’d love to hear about them. There are a number of such books, but they’re on textbook pricing (i.e. insanely expensive.)

 

4.) Extreme Fear: The Science of Your Mind in Danger by Jeff Wise

ExtremeFear

What it’s about? This book is about the mental and physical effects of mortal peril, and why some people’s performance excels under dire threats while other people just let themselves die while cowering in a fetal ball. The book asks what we can all learn from those people who manage to keep their heads about them when death seems certain.

In the interest of full-disclosure, as of this writing I’ve not completed this book. I just started it and am only in the second chapter. However, so far it’s been both informative and interesting.

 

Why it’s a good read for martial artists? Much like On Killing, I think this book may be valuable because there are many martial artists with daydream-induced misconceptions about how they will perform in dangerous situations. This book may help one evaluate one’s true state of preparedness, and discover how to go about making changes to improve one’s level of preparedness for a worst-case scenario.

Further reading on related topics:  If you want a scholar’s account, the book Anxious by Joseph E. Ledoux may be more your style. (Wise is a popular science writer.) I see that Ledoux is cited a lot in books I’ve been reading as of late, but I can’t say I’ve read any of his books yet. However,  I know he’s widely regarded as one of the foremost experts on fear. It looks like his book isn’t so much on mortal peril as Wise’s book, and covers all kinds of anxiety and fear.

 

5.) Faster, Higher, Stronger: How Sports Science is Creating a New Generation of Superathletes–and What We Can Learn from Them by Mark McClusky

FasterHigherStrongerWhat it’s about? The super-long subtitle says it all. It’s about how athletic performance is being improved by bringing scientific methods to the study of sports, and–as the second half of the freakish subtitle suggests–it explains how amateurs can put this information to good use. There are some methods used by elite athletes that aren’t at all suitable to the run-of-the-mill martial artists (e.g. don’t consume mass quantities of baking soda.) However, there are other approaches to nutrition and training that are readily translated to amateurs without much downside.

Why it’s a good read for martial artists? You may or may not think of yourself as an athlete. I can hear some martial artists saying, “I don’t practice a sport, I’m a martial artist. I deal in lethal combat, not games. yada, yada, yada…” Maybe so, but fitness, nutrition, and conditioning matter. If you want to be able to hold your own against more skilled opponents, you need to improve your capabilities and capacities. Fitness matters. If you think technical proficiency will get you through any situation, you haven’t run up against someone who is both technically skilled and highly fit–and when you come up against said person, your disillusionment will be swift.

Further reading on related topics:  As with the Becoming Batman book, most of the books on this subject are textbooks and are outrageously priced. If you know of other books in this vein, I’d love to hear about them.

 

6.) Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love, and Wisdom by Rick Hanson et. al.

BuddhaBrainWhat it’s about? This book turns the lens of modern science on the serene, immovable state of mind that martial artists have historically sought out through Buddhist and yogic systems. It discusses how Buddhist practices help people to be more cognitively effective and less prone to emotional manipulation or disturbance.

Why it’s a good read for martial artists?  If one reads the works of warriors–ancient and modern, one will discover that the greatest warriors place a premium on the importance of the mind.

Consider the famous swordsman Miyamoto Musashi. Musashi was exceedingly successful in defeating his enemies by making them angry. He would show up late and behave disrespectfully, and he would make his own mind imperturbable. This allowed him to easily defeat warriors who were considered at least his equal in terms of technique.

Further reading on related topics: There are many books that look at similar questions.  Zen and the Brain is probably a better book in terms of the amount of information / insight provided, but it’s a much more daunting read. I wouldn’t put the latter in the category of “pop science” as much as just “science.”  (Zen and the Brain is also a much older book.)

 

These are my recommendations, I’d love to hear about yours in the comments section.