Ommm you rough beast, Ommm.....
May 22, 2003 5:35 AM   Subscribe

Buddhism tames the amygdala Covered recently on Metafilter (here), new research at the University of California San Francisco Medical Centre ( into the "Happy Buddhist" phenomenon ) shows that Buddhist meditation techniques "can tame the amygdala, an area of the brain which is the hub of fear memory." [BBC] -Is this the Rx for a nation of Americans gripped by fear? Do Christianity, Islam or Judaism have effective techniques to tame the amygdala too?
posted by troutfishing (48 comments total) 4 users marked this as a favorite

 
Beer works pretty well at amygdala-wrangling, too. This is an advanced technique, though, and detachment from desire along with powerful refrigeration are the recommended prerequisites.

Rub the buddha's belly. Come on, rub it, you bastards!
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 6:06 AM on May 22, 2003 [1 favorite]


Actually with all the hellfire and satan stuff I'd say Christianity rilies on inflaming the amygdala...
posted by Space Coyote at 6:16 AM on May 22, 2003


Stavros - even though it's probably bad form to be flip on one's own post thread, have you run across the NSA (Nichiren Sokku Gakkai (sp?)) who chant for their desires? Bet you have. Fascinating cult/sect with extensive ties to the Yakuza. Chanting for one's desires. I love it. Maybe this approach could be combined with your advanced beer-amygdala technique?
posted by troutfishing at 6:18 AM on May 22, 2003


Space Coyote - I'd agree. Meanwhile, you're distracting me from my meditation. Ommmm [BMW].......Ommmmm [ $100,000 in cash]........Ommmmm [ hordes of worshipfull minions to do my bidding ] .......Ommmmmm [ World Peace]........Ommmmm [ good sex ]..........ommm [ foot long Subway seafood and crab sub delivered to my door for free ]........Ommmmmmmm.......

Hey! That's not Buddhism!......what were we talking about, the amygdala or something?
posted by troutfishing at 6:25 AM on May 22, 2003


Do Christianity, Islam or Judaism have effective techniques to tame the amygdala too?

Yes, of course they do. No one pays a bit of attention to them anymore, though.
posted by Pseudoephedrine at 6:36 AM on May 22, 2003


The article seems to have a bit of misplaced emphasis. It seemms to be Mediation that does what is here claimed and not Buddhist belief. One need not follow Buddhist belief to meditate, though clearly there is an emphasis in Buddhism upon mediation that there seems a connection between the two. If you have meditated you recognize that you are putting a part of the mind/brain to sleep, or at least giving it a rest.
posted by Postroad at 6:43 AM on May 22, 2003


Actually with all the hellfire and satan stuff I'd say Christianity rilies on inflaming the amygdala...

Actually, in a lot of cases it does the opposite. For one thing I don't fear death. And my faith certainly promotes peace in my daily living. I'm not saying this is true for everyone, but in my case it works quite well.
posted by konolia at 6:48 AM on May 22, 2003


I forgot to mention prayer.
posted by konolia at 6:48 AM on May 22, 2003


I don't know why it is so difficult for 'Westerners' to understand that spending many hours a day in meditation and positive thinking would result in a measurably greater level of happiness. Duh!

No one pays a bit of attention to them anymore, though.

Very true, unfortunately. It would be wonderful if more people found a way to incorporate the meditative parts of their religions (or non-religions) into their lives. Imagine... (And yes, I am aware of what the lyrics say about no religion and no, I don't think there's a contradiction.)
posted by widdershins at 6:52 AM on May 22, 2003


It seems to be Mediation that does what is here claimed and not Buddhist belief. One need not follow Buddhist belief to meditate, though clearly there is an emphasis in Buddhism upon mediation that there seems a connection between the two. If you have meditated you recognize that you are putting a part of the mind/brain to sleep, or at least giving it a rest.

So it's saying that meditation is good and religion's not necessary, save for its impetus in promoting meditation?

For one thing I don't fear death. And my faith certainly promotes peace in my daily living. I'm not saying this is true for everyone, but in my case it works quite well.

I don't fear death either, because I'm perfectly comfortable with the fact that life is temporal. Nothing to worry about. I don't live life peacefully and as a good person because I want to go to heaven, I do it because it promotes happiness to those around me.

But yeah, meditation is good stuff.
posted by The Michael The at 6:59 AM on May 22, 2003


Do Christianity, Islam or Judaism have effective techniques to tame the amygdala too?
The Breslover Hasidic sect put a lot of emphasis on meditation (it's not just for bald headed monks you know).
posted by PenDevil at 7:02 AM on May 22, 2003


I actually agree with Konolia, so long as you ignore the pulpit-pounding I'd say you can do allright by christianity for the most part.
posted by Space Coyote at 7:03 AM on May 22, 2003


The article never really mentions the how the study identifies meditation as the operating variable here. It may be just that a belief in and acceptance of Buddhist teachings leads to more happiness, and not practice per se.
posted by moonbiter at 7:03 AM on May 22, 2003


I sure hope this doesn't turn into a "my religion is as good as (or better than) your religion" thread.
posted by moonbiter at 7:05 AM on May 22, 2003


(it's not just for bald headed monks you know).

Yeah. But they look cooler.

On Preview:

Moonbiter: that's what I was thinking. I remember when I first saw the posting an hour or so ago. My first thought was: "Is this a competition?"
posted by tittergrrl at 7:06 AM on May 22, 2003


"Is this a competition?"

No, it's only an exhibition.

and yhbc takes the opportunity, for yet a third time, to make the same joke about how he wants to form an unorganized religion - as opposed to an "organized religion" - and call it "now and zen", but he just can't seem to get people organized.
posted by yhbc at 7:16 AM on May 22, 2003


The studies are published in New Scientist magazine.

Um... New Scientist is not a peer-reviewed journal. It's a popular magazine like Discover, but less reliable.

(The skepticism parts of my brain are lighting up. Perhaps I just need to meditate to get rid of those disturbing thoughts.)
posted by ptermit at 7:20 AM on May 22, 2003


ptermit: Thanks, I wondered about that.
posted by moonbiter at 7:41 AM on May 22, 2003


It seems to be Mediation that does what is here claimed and not Buddhist belief. One need not follow Buddhist belief to meditate

This reminds me of the North American media's reaction to those studies that found that drinking red wine daily reduces your stress level and susceptibility to heart disease. Surely there must be some clear-cut scientific explanation, right? Some chemical or something we could turn into a pill so we can work seemlessly into our hectic over-worked lives? It couldn't possibly have anything at all to do with an entire way of life - that just isn't logical.

Um... New Scientist is not a peer-reviewed journal

Again - who knows? - maybe one day a study will establish the scientific certainty that Buddhist meditation will make you calmer, happier, less irritable. Meantime, my anecdotal evidence, from having spent some time around Tibetan monks, is that many of 'em have got smiles that you can physically feel, they radiate such warmth and contentment. And that was proof enough for me that whatever they were into was doing wonders for their overall mental health.
posted by gompa at 8:59 AM on May 22, 2003


Do Christianity, Islam or Judaism have effective techniques to tame the amygdala too?

Essentially what we're asking is do they have meditation techniques. I'm not sure about Judaism or Islam, but Christianity does have meditation, it just isn't as well known. In fact, early Christianity developed many techniques that are similar to those used by Buddhists, including the use of mantras and breath control. Also, praying in certain ways can act as a form of meditation.
posted by unreason at 9:03 AM on May 22, 2003


Um... New Scientist is not a peer-reviewed journal. It's a popular magazine like Discover, but less reliable.

And as we all know, truth only comes from peer-reviewed journals.

*guffaw*
posted by goethean at 9:20 AM on May 22, 2003


"Is this a competition?"

No, it's only an exhibition.


Please, no wagering.
posted by ZenMasterThis at 9:23 AM on May 22, 2003


Isn't it just a matter of time, then, before all the health club marketeers get a load of this and start packaging "Red Wine & Meditation Classes" wherein time-crunched, stressed-out and amygdala-impaired modern urban professionals can pile into an empty room, sip on a bit of vino tinto for the heart and quietly meditate (or nod off as the case may be)?
Who needs a balanced lifestyle or dharma teacher when all you really need is a corkscrew and some pillows.
posted by chandy72 at 9:35 AM on May 22, 2003


And as we all know, truth only comes from peer-reviewed journals.

Never said it did. It's just that New Scientist doesn't publish studies; it reports on them. It's an inaccuracy in the BBC article that makes me very skeptical... even more than I would usually be with studies of this sort.

But, of course, goethean, I'm just wasting time responding to you. You're the guy who thinks that electrons are a figment of human imagination.
posted by ptermit at 9:53 AM on May 22, 2003


Meantime, my anecdotal evidence, from having spent some time around Tibetan monks, is that many of 'em have got smiles that you can physically feel, they radiate such warmth and contentment.

Your user name is most appropriate, gompa!
posted by widdershins at 11:05 AM on May 22, 2003


I don't live life peacefully and as a good person because I want to go to heaven, I do it because it promotes happiness to those around me.

That's supposed to be the point of Christianity as well: Be kind, humble, and loving in order to help others be happy in this world. Heaven is taught to be a reward for leading that kind of life, not the goal or reason for which to do so.

Being nice to someone because you think it will profit you later on isn't really love at all. It's a subtle distinction, and one that seems to be missed frequently.
posted by jsonic at 11:51 AM on May 22, 2003


I sure hope this doesn't turn into a "my religion is as good as (or better than) your religion" thread.
I forgot to mention prayer.


Meditation, not sure if prayer is the same thing here for Christians. Maybe more closer to the practice of communion. When I pray I think more of turning it over to the Lord. In communion I think what God has done for All.
Or even going to the beach and watching the waves roll by but not thinking about me. Only allowing the joys of this world to splash through my mind.
posted by thomcatspike at 12:27 PM on May 22, 2003


That's supposed to be the point of Christianity as well: Be kind, humble, and loving in order to help others be happy in this world. Heaven is taught to be a reward for leading that kind of life, not the goal or reason for which to do so.

Being nice to someone because you think it will profit you later on isn't really love at all. It's a subtle distinction, and one that seems to be missed frequently.


Agreed. However, I infer a lot more of the "gotta go to heaven" motivation than the "good for good's sake" motivation in Christians I know. If they were pushed on the issue, they would insist "because it's the right thing to do," but man, that Catholic guilt works insidiously, doesn't it? Of course, I don't keep the best company.
posted by The Michael The at 1:41 PM on May 22, 2003


So it's saying that meditation is good and religion's not necessary, save for its impetus in promoting meditation?

Some kinds of Buddhism say exactly that, too.

Prayer can be a kind of meditation, but it's different from what's usually thought of as the buddhist kind.

yhbc: unorganized religion - as opposed to an "organized religion"

It wouldn't be without precedent: Discordia, DoZen.
posted by sfenders at 1:58 PM on May 22, 2003


Who needs a balanced lifestyle or dharma teacher when all you really need is a corkscrew and some pillows.

Um, in my book "a corkscrew and some pillows" are part of a balanced lifestyle.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 3:02 PM on May 22, 2003


That's supposed to be the point of Christianity as well: Be kind, humble, and loving in order to help others be happy in this world. Heaven is taught to be a reward for leading that kind of life, not the goal or reason for which to do so.

*pulls hair out in frustration*

Being "good" never got one single person into heaven. It doesn't work that way.
But since I am too tired to find a pulpit at the moment, you will just have to take it on faith.
posted by konolia at 7:31 PM on May 22, 2003


Ptermit - this phenomenon is not merely in the imagination of the New Scientist editors. Mindfullness meditation, as a therapeutic, is in the process of being enthusiastically embraced by the maistream medical community.

"Mindfulness training also yielded suggestive results in an as yet unpublished workplace study that Kabat-Zinn conducted in 1997 with Richard Davidson, PhD, of the University of Wisconsin’s Laboratory for Affective Neuroscience. Davidson and Kabat-Zinn conducted a randomized clinical trial of the effects of the MBSR’s eight-week program on a biotechnology company’s largely young and healthy employees. After the eight weeks, individuals in the experimental and control groups underwent immune-function testing and electroencephalograms to measure their responses to such stressful stimuli as recalling and writing about unpleasant personal experiences. The results suggested positive changes in brain and immune function.

Cost-effectiveness studies are underway on Cigna Health Care patients with irritable bowel syndrome, fibromyalgia, and chronic fatigue syndrome. Kabat-Zinn is measuring the cost of treating patients before they took the MBSR program and a year afterward, and comparing the results with health care expenses of patients in a control group to see if there are cost savings attributable to mindfulness training.

He is also studying data on some 500 people who have participated in the MBSR’s free inner-city stress reduction program in Worcester, MA, where classes are taught in Spanish and English. The satellite program is “a model for expanding beyond the predominantly white–middle class receptivity to mind-body work,” Kabat-Zinn says.

Meanwhile, Kabat-Zinn’s MBSR program has spawned some 240 offshoots—including similar programs at major university medical centers at Duke, Stanford, the University of Wisconsin, and elsewhere; and in other countries including Canada, England, Norway, Argentina, Germany, and Mexico. “There is also a significant research effort germinating,” says Kabat-Zinn, and “we are seeing the emergence of a new discipline having to do with the multiple applications of mindfulness in medicine and health care.”

Mindfulness and the Physician
More than 2,000 health care professionals—30% of them physicians—have learned MBSR from Kabat-Zinn and his staff at UMass Memorial Medical Center professional training retreats. “When these physicians come to realize the enormity of what we are asking of people, their respect for their patients who engage in MBSR increases greatly, because they find that it’s terribly hard keeping their minds on their breath for even a few minutes,” notes Kabat-Zinn.
"

Source of this quote: here
posted by troutfishing at 7:48 PM on May 22, 2003


Konolia, don't pull out your hair! don't despair......unreason and pendevil made your case effectively.

"early Christianity developed many techniques that are similar to those used by Buddhists, including the use of mantras and breath control. Also, praying in certain ways can act as a form of meditation." (unreason)

I might also add the (little known) practices of the Cathar "Perfect" who led the "Albigensian heresy" which provoked the Catholic Church to launch the first Inquisition. The "Perfect" were celibate, vegetarian, and had a number of specialized breathing and meditative techniques.

I asked the "Islam, Christianity, Judaism?" question to cajole in the resident mefi experts. I already knew the general answer (of course they do!) but wanted to know the infinitely fascinating specifics.


Gompa - I once had the benefit of hosting some Tibetans (with a group of Americans too) who were "marching" (walking actually) down the East Coast to Washington D.C. to protest for the independance of Tibet from Chinese rule. The Dalai Llama's older brother was there (he teaches in Bloomington, Indiana at Indiana State), but another Tibetan present greatly intrigued me - a monk, in hs 60's, who had been recently released from a Chinese prison where, I was told, he had been tortured on and off for decades.

He smiled from every pore and every inch of his being and I was graciously humbled.
posted by troutfishing at 8:07 PM on May 22, 2003


No, mr troutfishing, that wasn't my point either. *sigh*.

If anyone wants to ask me what the heck I meant, email me. No sense in tormenting the regulars.
posted by konolia at 8:10 PM on May 22, 2003


No sense in tormenting the regulars.

There is nothing better.
posted by Satapher at 11:11 PM on May 22, 2003


The Dalai Lama talked about this The Path To Tranquility. He said that he's (and I would assume a truckload more people are) working with scientists to improve understanding of Buddhist principles. Maybe this is just a coincidence, but I think this is a trend that will continue, and I don't think Christianity can follow suit. In 1999, this book was published, and there is already a major example of scientists proving the concepts of Buddhist meditation.

Not just a Discovery Channel special where they show monks sitting out in the cold all night, but something everyday people can apply to their lives now.

I think there is a danger in scientific studies like this, because it is so easy to compare them to the Russian psychic experiments; or for that matter, the Russian super-learning experiments. It all seems like conspiracy when you look at it that way. On the other hand, Buddhist principles are not mysticism, and should be scientifically confirmable.
posted by son_of_minya at 1:08 AM on May 23, 2003


Many years ago, somewhere in the mid 1980's, I heard on the radio an interview with scientists who were scanning the brain of an "enlightened" buddhist monk. I believe he was Tibetan, but I'm not sure.

His brain seemed to react in an unexpected way to stimuli that should have been familiar. The usual pattern for un-enlightened people was to show a certain pattern of brain activity that would be strong the first time, then diminish rapidly on repeated tests. The enlightened brain had a slightly different pattern, and it didn't change much even after many reps.

I don't remember enough details to find any reference to this study. Anyone heard of it?
posted by sfenders at 6:36 AM on May 23, 2003


...I did find this which seems to be describing something similar based on theory rather than experiment:

NGS theory explains the role of attention in deautomation through its neural definition of the terms. Attention is the ability to restrict or broaden the subset of neural groups that are active in the dynamic core. Automatic processing is by definition outside of the dynamic core, and may or may not have the potential of entering it. When an automatic process is brought into attention, it no longer becomes automatic nor remains as functionally isolated from interacting with other processing areas. This means that its recreation is less based on memory and more on the continual and reciprocal interactions with the cortical sensorimotor maps. Rather than having the sensorimotor maps activated at the end of an automatic loop, they are richly interacting with the memory of the global-mapping as it is recreated. This process explains the increased creativity experienced when attention is focused on an otherwise automatic task (like during musical performance for example), and, in the context of Buddhism, explains the increasingly spontaneous character of meditators through practice.
posted by sfenders at 6:45 AM on May 23, 2003


troutfishing - what konolia was pulling her hair out over, judging from this phrase "Being "good" never got one single person into heaven", would be the question of salvation by grace vs salvation by works. Believe me, you don't want to open that can of worms, at least not in this thread.

With regards to the health benefits of meditation, Buddhist or otherwise, I've read a number of reports of studies over the years suggesting substantial health benefits related to consistent meditative practice in a variety of traditions, including in Christian monastaries. What I haven't done is track those reports down to the original source material to determine whether the studies were solid and replicable or shoddily performed pseudo-science. If anyone has any links to any such original source material, I'd be grateful.
posted by tdismukes at 6:48 AM on May 23, 2003


I don't know why it is so difficult for 'Westerners' to understand that spending many hours a day in meditation and positive thinking would result in a measurably greater level of happiness. Duh!

Indeed. If you're meditating many hours a day, those are hours you're not working. And not working for several hours would make anyone happier. I recommend it highly.
posted by kindall at 7:33 AM on May 23, 2003


Susan Blackmore: Waking from the Meme Dream.
'... There are two systems I know of that are capable of dismantling meme-complexes (though I am sure there are others). Of course these systems are memes themselves but they are, if you like, meme-disinfectants, meme-eating memes, or “meme-complex destroying meme-complexes”. These two are science and Zen. '
'Science works this way because of its ideals of truth and seeking evidence. It doesn’t always live up to these ideals, but in principle it is capable of destroying any untruthful meme-complex by putting it to the test, by demanding evidence, or by devising an experiment. '
'Zen does this too, though the methods are completely different. In Zen training every concept is held up to scrutiny, nothing is left uninvestigated, even the self who is doing the investigation is to be held up to the light and questioned. “Who are you?” ... '
posted by plep at 7:49 AM on May 23, 2003 [1 favorite]


Being "good" never got one single person into heaven.

I find myself shocked to agree with konolia on a religious issue.

Though the nature of our agreement on the quoted text comes from perfectly opposite views.
posted by five fresh fish at 10:13 AM on May 23, 2003


sfenders, that study is described in Charles Tart's "Altered States of Consciousness." The subject was a Zen monk. There's another study in the book of a meditator practicing Raja Yoga meditation which had the opposite results; the meditator completely cut off all stimuli so that his brain didn't react to it at all.
posted by homunculus at 12:11 PM on May 23, 2003


Sfenders/homunculus: There are two forms of meditation.

One form aims to achieve a state of no-thought: a cessation of conscious brain activity. No thinking and no sensing.

The other form aims to achieve a state of complete awareness: recognition of all sensory input.

It sounds like Tart's Zen monk was achieving the second form; the Raja Yoga meditator the first form.
posted by five fresh fish at 3:31 PM on May 23, 2003


homunculus - cool, thanks. I'd been wondering about that. Charles Tart looks to be pretty far out there. Parapsychology, trans-psychology, etc. Hard to judge how crazy he might be. Interesting stuff, though.

fff - two kinds of meditation, yeah. "holding fast" and "letting go" they say in the zen koans, right? Something like that.
posted by sfenders at 5:58 PM on May 23, 2003


homunculus - Tart followed suit later with "Waking Up..." [neo-Gurdjieffian territory] and nsfenders awesome quote sums up the territory:

"Attention is the ability to restrict or broaden the subset of neural groups that are active in the dynamic core. Automatic processing is by definition outside of the dynamic core, and may or may not have the potential of entering it. When an automatic process is brought into attention, it no longer becomes automatic nor remains as functionally isolated from interacting with other processing areas. This means that its recreation is less based on memory and more on the continual and reciprocal interactions with the cortical sensorimotor maps."

Becoming less of an automaton...a fine goal.


FFF - are the two forms you mention really only one?

tdismukes - yes, that's the territory indeed. I asked Konalia what she meant and she graciously took quite a bit of time to answer me. I can't refute her explanation if it, in fact, stems from her personal experience. I, for one, believe in the "many universes" tale now told by modern physics, and the logical extension of this tale is the validity of mutually contradictory "reality schemes", meaning that both my Buddhist viewpoint and Konolia's salvation through Christ may be valid.
posted by troutfishing at 9:08 PM on May 23, 2003


are the two forms you mention really only one?

From Katsuki Sekida's commentary on the Mumonkan:

"...there are many different kinds of samadhi. Absolute samadhi is a total involvement and integration, with no object and no activity. Positive samadhi is a total involvement with some object or activity. Thus a painter, as he picks up his brush, will become completely concentrated in his involvement with painting -- his painting samadhi. A musician will be in his playing or listening samadhi. But these are involuntary states. Voluntary samadhi can be attained first through absolute samadhi, which constitutes the essential foundation for all samadhi. Being well practiced in absolute samadhi, you can enter positive samadhi at will. Truly, it is a delightful thing!"

Maybe absolute samadhi is what you get having extinguished the "Self process" by excluding everything "except for the currently active sensorimotor maps" from the dynamic core. Or maybe it's more like excluding everything.

Some other form of samadhi might be what happens when you kill the Self process by excluding everything except a mantra. "Near-absolute" samadhi?

Then there's positive samadhi, which I'd have to assume is the state your average enlightened zen dude is in when he's hanging around with scientists. I imagine it's pretty much whatever your brain does once it's learned to do something with all that sensiomotor stuff other than stare at it in silence, but without falling back into the Self-reinforcing feedback loops.

So anyway, there's at least more than one kind.
posted by sfenders at 10:52 PM on May 23, 2003


On second thought, I'm thinking maybe "samadhi" just means all that "sensorimotor" stuff is included in the awareness. So excluding it would properly be called something else.
posted by sfenders at 11:00 PM on May 23, 2003


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