Rick Hanson Part 1

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RICK HANSON: HEALTHY MINDS AND BUDDHA’S BRAIN (PART 1)

JOHN PETROZZI:  Hi. Welcome to Living is Easy. I’m John Petrozzi.

Today, we’re lucky enough to be speaking and having a conversation with Dr. Rick Hanson, who has written a really interesting book which is called “Buddha’s Brain.” It’s a really fascinating read and it delves into the science and also the practice of how we can change our minds and change our actual brain function.

Buddha was a master of his thoughts. He became wise and calm and an intuitive person. But essentially, Rick says in his book that he’s got a brain that’s not dissimilar to ours. It’s just that he trained it and made it work a whole lot differently to how we work our brains.

So, hi, Rick. Thanks for coming on the show today.

RICK HANSON:  Thank you.

JOHN PETROZZI:  So Rick, what was your inspiration for the book? And really, what’s your background in science? How did you come to write the book?

RICK HANSON:  Sure. As a person, even going way back to being a kid, I’ve always kind of wondered what was involved in people becoming happy. You know, I looked around me and I saw some happiness, but also a fair amount of just anger and fear and sadness, a lot of which just didn’t seem that necessary. But as a kid, you never know really why things are the way they are. But that began my own journey.

I got trained at UCLA as an undergrad and then did a variety of different meditative and psychological practices, also some business consulting. Then, I went to graduate school, in both Developmental and Clinical Psychology. I then got very interested in both brain science and the practical teachings of the world’s great contemplative traditions, these people who have been training their minds in very deep ways, across all traditions – Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, and Sharmanic traditions (you know, the native people here in Australia, of course, have been doing that as well), and of course, Buddhism, the tradition I’m most trained in.

So the exciting thing is that today, brain science has basically doubled in the last 20 years. People know twice as much today about the “three pounds of tofu between the ears” than they did 20 years ago. That has created tons of practical tools that we can now use in everyday life to manage to “tune,” if you will, and put the brakes on or give it a gas, the black box between our ears. That’s really the basis of whether we’re happy or sad.

JOHN PETROZZI:  Yeah.

RICK HANSON:  So that’s what really got me turned on and that’s what led me to write my book.

JOHN PETROZZI:  So interesting. The way the brain works is just a phenomenon that, I suppose, we’re going to learn more about as the future unfolds. But I remember when I was back at uni, some of the textbooks said the brain doesn’t change, it’s just the way that it is, and that it’s a circuitry that is fairly predictable. It’s got a whole bunch of reflexes in it that work all the time and you can’t do much about changing it. If you have some brain damage, then that’s sort of bad luck, you’ve lost those neurons forever.

Then, closer to the end of the degree, I had a professor who was speaking about neuroplasticity. I thought it was really fascinating because she started to talk about how our brain can actually change. She was saying that it is plastic; it can change depending on your thoughts and depending on how you use it and what kind of activities that you do. So what is neuroplasticity, what’s your definition of it, and how can we make it benefit us?

RICK HANSON:  Sure. Well, your professor there was completely correct. You know, a computer is a good metaphor for the brain. Imagine a variety of different modules that have been, the legacy of biological evolution over literally hundreds of millions of years of evolving the nervous system. So we have, for example, sections that do language. Like right now, speaking and listening are handled by two parts of the brain that are each about the size of your thumb. The other modules do emotional responses, arousal, memory, or reflection or spiritual intuition. Those are all handled by different parts.

Those don’t change, for sure, but the wiring in them, in other words the connections and the activity patterns of the little neurons. There are hundred billion little neurons inside your head, and that’s another trillion of support cells. Each one of those little neurons makes about 5,000 connections with other neurons, giving you literally 500 trillion synapses, little connections inside your own head. Each one of those little synapses is like a little switch; it’s either on or off. Based on whether it’s on or off, it sends signals.

So as thoughts move through the mind—both conscious mental activity, as well as unconscious activity inside the nervous system—information moves around. As it does move around, it actually rewires the brain. There’s a famous saying, “Neurons that fire together, wire together.”

So better or worse, the activities of the mind sculpt the brain. That’s why with, again, this modern insights from science, people can increasingly and skillfully—that’s the key point: skillfully—direct their attention, and then start learning to engage different kinds of mental activities, drop mental activities that are not so good, that will gradually cultivate over time the brain [0:05:35], literally rewiring the modules that promote happiness, love, and wisdom, which is what we really care about. In other words, the brain is a means to an end. [I’m not sure with] the neuroscientist, you don’t care about it; it’s anything other than a means to an end.

But as a means to an end, regular people in regular lives can absolutely change their brain over time for the better. Obviously, in the extreme, this is limited. I mean, if you’ve had a disabling head injury or a terrible stroke, it’s often possible to recover some function, even all functions. But sometimes, yes, it is indeed a permanent injury if you bang one of those modules hard enough.

But in regular life, the capacity to use the mind—to change the brain to benefit the mind—is quite extraordinary, and we’re just at the very beginning of discovering how to do that. And my book, “Buddha’s Brain” is like a first draft, operating manual and toolbox for the brain. But as the years go by, I mean, the sky is the limit.

JOHN PETROZZI:  Yeah, it’s interesting, isn’t it? essentially, what it is that you’re saying, Rick, is that if you’re driving down the same streets to get to work every day, turn left, turn right predictably to get to your destination, our brain essentially works in the same way kind of like a habit. But what you’re saying is that we don’t have to rely on these unconscious habits, because if we do—I remember you mention in your book—if you do sort of rely on these unconscious habits, it takes away some of the fun or some of the spontaneity, and also some of the potential we can gain from our brains.

RICK HANSON:  Right. Where that shows up especially for people is, you know, not so much driving left or right, which is fun to do; it’s deliberately change a habit. Like people normally cross their arms one way, you know, cross them the other way and notice how odd it feels, even though the truth is it’s perfectly symmetrical. I mean, that’s a great illustration of the power of habit.

But more fundamentally, we have emotional habits. When I get home from work and it’s kind of messy and cluttered, my wife’s in there with my two young adult kids, you know, my habit is to get irritated at the mess, and I just want to place a piece on whatever. Well, that’s an emotional reaction. Those emotional reactions are driven by habit, both by the habits of how we look at things and then our own kind of emotional reactivity and our overall stress level. These days, the normal stress response system that we’ve developed through evolution, which was built for short-term acute spikes of stress, if you will—running from the tiger about to get our kids—is on chronic midrange overdrive. As a result, many, many people experience the effects of chronic stress, both in terms of physical and mental illness or drops from well-being.

One of the things that is actually, I think, really important for people to do, and they can learn how to do it, is to activate what’s called the “parasympathetic nervous system.” It’s the “rest and digest” antidote to the “fight or flight” sympathetic nervous system. By dialing up the parasympathetic nervous system, little things that use its functions like relaxing the tongue, or really taking a long exhalation—because the parasympathetic handles both of those functions—if you activate a function, you stimulate the nervous system or portion of the nervous system that’s involved in that function.

Anyway, as you do that routinely, any single time you do it won’t make much change in your brain, but if you, for example, do those skillful, targeted, stress-relief practices routinely, that will over time, literally, thicken neural tissue, or in the regions of the brain that are involved with that.

If I could give a couple little examples of thickening of the brain—

JOHN PETROZZI:  Yes, please.

RICK HANSON:  —that are really kind of amazing. I mean, one of my favorites is London taxi cab drivers who are handling the twisty-turny streets of London and having to memorise all those streets. At the end of their training, where they’re doing a lot of memorisation of maps, the part of the brain called the hippocampus, which is involved in visual-spatial memory, gets literally measurably thicker, because there are more synaptic connections and little capillaries bringing blood and other metabolic supply to that part of the brain.

Another example is people who routinely practice mindfulness, whether in a formal way as in meditation, or less formally, just in the process of doing Pilates or doing art, even.

JOHN PETROZZI:  Yeah.

RICK HANSON:  The part of the brain that’s involved in the deliberate control of attention, fancy term alert, anterior (which means frontal) cingulate cortex inside the middle of the brain. That part of the brain actually gets measurably thicker. A lot of other studies have shown that people who routinely train their attention—you know, attention is incredibly important; it’s like a combination of spotlight and vacuum cleaner:  it illuminates where it rests upon, plus it sucks it into the brain. Because whatever we really focus attention on profoundly stimulates neural activity with regard to that particular thing that we’re paying attention to.

JOHN PETROZZI:  That makes sense.

RICK HANSON:  So anyway, people who routinely do a mindfulness practice thicken that part of their brain and become better able to control their attention, which has a lot of implications, including things like ADHD or just dealing with staying awake in a business meeting in the afternoon.

JOHN PETROZZI:  Yeah.

RICK HANSON:  Another benefit is that people who routinely pay attention to their body, let’s say, through a meditative practice, actually thicken another part of the brain called the insula, which is called interoception, the internal state of the body as well as gut feelings, and interestingly, the emotional states of other people. So by tuning more into our own bodies on a routine basis, we literally thicken that part of the brain that helps us read other people better, which, of course, is great for relationships of all kinds, whether it’s an intimate one or just dealing with people who are working with you or your customers.

JOHN PETROZZI:  Fantastic.

RICK HANSON:  Isn’t that fantastic how a mental activity can actually change neural structure and studies have shown this.

JOHN PETROZZI:  It’s just amazing. But let’s get a break, and when we come back, I’d like to talk to you more about intuition. Just stay with us.

RICK HANSON:  Great.

[Break]

JOHN PETROZZI:  Hi. Welcome back to Living Is Easy. Today, we’re speaking to Rick Hanson, Ph.D. who’s written a book called “Buddha’s Brain,” and it’s a fantastic read.

Rick, just before the break, you were speaking about how we can sort of strengthen parts of our brain, and you gave a couple of examples. There were the taxi drivers in London and also people who practice meditation and strengthen parts of their brain. Can you tell me a bit more about intuition, because you mentioned before that by focusing on ourselves internally—breathing or whatever it is, maybe you can explain it to us—that we develop more of our empathy or intuition.

RICK HANSON:  Right. Well, first, the word “intuition,” of course, people use it in different ways. Let’s talk about it kind of within the frame of western science in the beginning here. Because obviously, sometimes, when people talk about intuition, they include spiritual information; that’s really outside the frame of reference really of western science. With regard to intuition, that’s produced at some ultimate level by the brain. People mean them in different ways, of course.

Let’s talk about intuition about what other people are feeling. We are, as human beings, by far and away the most social relational loving animals on the planet by far. As we evolved, different circuits of the brain developed that are much more developed even then those in our nearest animal relatives, the chimpanzees and also the bonobos, another species of what are called the great apes that are genetically roughly 98% identical to us; that other 2% is tremendously about relationships.

So we have these circuits essentially when we’re reading other people or tuning into them or getting an intuition. We do it in terms of kind of simulating what’s going on inside of them. So we have neural circuits that simulate actions; those are the mirror neurons circuits. Then we have neural circuits that simulate the emotional states of other people; those are mainly in the insula, as I already mentioned. And then there are neural circuits in the prefrontal cortex right behind the forehead that simulates sort of the thoughts, the feelings, the desires, the personality, and characteristics of the other person.

These simulations are on automatic; they’re running all the time. That’s why, often, we’re with somebody and we’re not really thinking about it, but we suddenly get a vibe, like either a good vibe or a bad vibe from the other person. We’re picking up information, you know. There are actual studies that show that if you show people faces but you show them so fast, like two-tenths of a second, that people cannot consciously see them, they’re still tracking them unconsciously and getting a vibe about that face, even below the level of  conscious awareness. People would say, “I never saw that picture,” but they actually did, and as a result, they have a funny kind of vibe.

JOHN PETROZZI:  That’s interesting.

RICK HANSON:  The challenge, though—and here’s the trick, as I say in the book—science says we have a negativity bias in the brain. So I put it, “the brain is like Velcro for negative experiences, but Teflon for positive ones,” because in evolution, tracking threats was much more important than tracking opportunities. Opportunities matter but, you know, if you miss a carrot a day, you’ll get a chance at another one tomorrow probably, but if you fail to avoid a stick today—whap!—no more carrots forever.

JOHN PETROZZI:  Isn’t that interesting?

RICK HANSON:  The point is, when we’re reading other people, often we tend to incorrectly read other people in almost a paranoid way. We overestimate the threats coming at us from them, and we under-track the positive, caring, and cooperative possibilities in the other person. That’s why I think paying attention to what your brain is doing is actually really helpful because you can put in correction factors and actually feel safer, also more attentive to what the opportunities are in other people than maybe as a person’s normal default state.

JOHN PETROZZI:  Isn’t that interesting? So, way back in, I think, it was 1950s or 60s or something, when the motivational speakers were doing the routes and speaking about positive thoughts. Did they have it right in the sense that our brain, like you’re saying, is naturally geared towards negativity or survival? And they we’re just trying to implant positive thoughts into us to say, “Whenever you do have a negative thought, try and replace it with a positive.” Is that sort of delusional or a fantasy land? Or is that an actual fact that you think we need to do through the research that you’ve done, Rick?

RICK HANSON:  Yeah. I think the right path is kind of right down the middle. What I mean by that is that a person can make two kinds of errors, right? They can either think there is a tiger in the bushes when there is not. Or the tiger there is chained or old or a baby or just a picture, or they can miss the fact that there really is a tiger in the bushes.

Both mistakes are important to avoid. The problem is most people, me included, make the first mistake much more often than the second one, because that’s the mistake Mother Nature wants us to make. In other words, Mother Nature is willing for us to make a mistake 99 times and think there is a tiger when there really isn’t one, to avoid making the one mistake which would be fatal.

JOHN PETROZZI:  Isn’t that interesting?

RICK HANSON:  Exactly. So that said, I think it’s only important to pay attention to the real threats in the world, whatever they are. Maybe a person doesn’t feel that great and he really ought to go see the doctor, or they’re in business with someone who really isn’t that trustworthy, or they’re living with somebody who is getting mad a lot more than they really need to be, or they’re in a job situation where they’re not saving any money and they need to start thinking about that. Okay, there’s a place for that.

But we usually vastly overestimate the threats around us, and that’s why I think that, you know, as I talk about “taking in the good” is so important. In other words, because the brain is like Velcro for the negative, but Teflon for the positive, as we go through the day, half a dozen times a day, I think it’s really important to notice good facts, genuine facts. We’re not fooling ourselves; we’re not looking at the world through rose-coloured glasses. We’re seeing what’s true, in terms of conditions in the world, like just being alive, or good events (ranging from just getting the laundry folded or the emails done to someone pays us a compliment, or what not), or noticing good facts about ourselves (that we’re a decent person or patient or determined, honest, whatever).

Anyway, as we do that, register those good facts in your body and almost feel them. Let yourself feel good for 10-30 seconds, and as you do, send them in ten minutes sinking into you. Each little time you do that will, again, not change that much neural structure, but if people develop the habit of doing that, as we said in the very beginning, half a dozen times a day, day in and day out, within a few weeks and definitely within a few months, they will definitely start feeling different, in terms of confidence, resilience, and overall happiness.

JOHN PETROZZI:  And healthy, too, won’t it?

RICK HANSON:  Yeah, totally. And it’s very practical, no one needs to know you’re doing it, and it can make you feel better. That’s why, to go back to your question, I think if you are feeling bad, you’re having a negative thought, examine it, see what it a legitimate tiger to deal with, and then discard the rest. And then, when you’re done, figuring out what to do about the real threat, including whatever you can, and often there’s limited opportunity, so you just have to work inside your own head as much as you can.

But when you’ve figured out what you can, then move on to something positive, because those neurons are firing together. If they’re firing, they’re wiring. So most of us walk around ruminating about negative things, you know, the conversation we wanted to go differently, the person who doesn’t love us enough, the reasons we’re angry at ourselves, we feel like a failure in some ways, blah-blah-blah. As we do that—darn!—those neurons are firing away. Guess what? They’re wiring away.

JOHN PETROZZI:  Yeah.

RICK HANSON:  That’s why it’s important, like you talk about so often in your show, you know, to shift attention to factually positive things and then rest attention upon them. There’s a great saying—and I’ll close on this—in Buddhism, that the mind takes the shape of whatever it rests upon, for better or worse. The mind, through evolution, tends to rest upon the negative; that’s why we have to deliberately and consciously shift it over to what’s legitimately positive and rest it there.

JOHN PETROZZI:  Yeah. And science is proving that now and showing it through research.

RICK HANSON:  Right.

JOHN PETROZZI:  Rick, let’s go to another break. This is going to be a two-part series, so when we come back from the break, if you can give us some tips on how we can start to monitor our thoughts or make some positive changes for our brain. And then next week, we’ll continue on today’s show and speak more about how we can change our brain and change our thoughts.

RICK HANSON:  Great.

JOHN PETROZZI:  Just stay with us.

[Break}

JOHN PETROZZI:  Hi. Welcome back to Living Is Easy. We’re speaking with Dr. Rick Hanson, author of “Buddha’s Brain.” Just before the break, we said that this is going to be a two-part series, so join us next week for the final part of the show.

But, Rick, just before we go, if you’ve got another five minutes or so, can you speak more about some tips you can give us or some information you can give us, in terms of how we can start to make some positive impact on our brain function and our mind function?

RICK HANSON:  Sure, I’ll give you a few right off the top that I think are really fundamental. I mean, for example, I’ve already mentioned, routinely relaxing the body, activating the parasympathetic nervous system, through, you know, little methods that are brain-savvy, like relaxing the tongue or taking several long exhalations.

I’ve also mentioned the importance of “taking in the good,” you know, when good things happen—instead of letting them just go right by, which is the typical habit of most of us—take 10, 20, 30 seconds to really savor them. As you do that, you’re going to get a lot of neurons firing together, and therefore wiring together; stitching positive experiences into the fabric of your brain, and therefore the fabric of yourself. So we definitely talked about that.

A couple more foundations practices, especially for becoming kind of more attentive and more mindful, getting control of that spotlight which tends to skitter around for most of us. One great way to start is just through self-compassion; that’s not feeling sorry for oneself. It just means giving oneself the same sort of wish that one be happy and supportive concern that we would give to a dear friend. This is an area of very big research.

So if a person just takes a moment when they’re not feeling that great or something’s worrying them or upsetting them or bothering them, to bring a kind of warm-heartedness to themselves; again, 5, 10, 20 seconds, just privately, no one needs to know you’re doing that. That will light up what are called the “attachment” or “affiliative circuits” inside the brain and start giving you more of that feeling of being on your own side, and a calming and settling that establishes kind of a base from which a person can deal with the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, you know, yield to stuff that comes along. That’s definitely one thing to do.

I think the second thing to do that’s actually really useful for people, in terms of steadying the mind is to look for positive experiences, because—I’ll spare you the gory details—when we’re happy in a steady way, that helps steady attention, because in a way, that’s neurologically clever; it keeps the gate closed to new information coming in, not for important information coming in, but it helps us not be distracted when we kind of open up to feelings of contentment or peacefulness or even happiness. And those, I think, are really, really good things to do.

The last thing I would say is just to establish a sense of what you might call “refuge.” In other words, in the sense that you can imagine things that make you feel safe and strong. I’ve done a lot of rock climbing, so I imagine being in the wilderness or climbing, that makes me feel both safe and strong paradoxically, why the rock climbing. But anyway, anything like sitting your cats in your lap or being in your grandmother’s kitchen or cuddling up with a good book, whatever makes you feel safe and strong.

Establishing that base, and then looking out at the flow of your mind from that base is a really, really useful thing to do. You know, that’s what people have done across the world, not just in Buddhism. I mean, for me, I have a great respect for Buddhism, but the book is not really about Buddhism. It’s about using modern neural science, informed by the contemplative traditions, to give people practical tools they can use inside their own head, and these are just examples of them.

JOHN PETROZZI:  Great. Thanks, Rick. We need to wrap it up here, unfortunately, but we’re going to join you again next week and finish the final part of this interview. Next week, I’d like to talk to you more just about the brain and more exercises that we can do to change our thoughts and imagination and a whole lot of things. I’d love you to join us next week.

RICK HANSON:  Great.

JOHN PETROZZI:  Thanks, Rick. I really thank you for coming on the show. I hope you enjoyed yourself.

RICK HANSON:  Oh, it’s fantastic. I love Australia.

JOHN PETROZZI:  Fantastic! It’s been great to have you on the show. Thank you.

RICK HANSON:  Thank you.

JOHN PETROZZI:  And that was Dr. Rick Hanson, Ph.D., who’s written a book called “Buddha’s Brain.” He’s a neuro-psychologist and also a meditation teacher, so we’ll talk about that next week, too.

If you’d like to listen to this and other podcasts, just go to our website; it’s called livingiseasy.com.au, and just click through the podcasts and find what you want to listen to.

Thanks for joining us today. Join us next week for the second part of this interview. This is Living Is Easy. I’m John Petrozzi. Until next time, stay well and stay happy.