How relevant is Buddhism to positive psychology?

Every noticed how when something is vaguely Eastern and mystical, it sort of gets a special kind of regard from people? Maybe it’s the way almost every old Asian character in film and TV is incredibly wise and insightful, or something.

Anyway, I’ve noticed it. So I wanted to raise a few critiques of the science/Buddhism collaboration – which I think it’s a good thing overall – but might be a good example of the phenomenon I’ve just described. I’m quite interested in how old philosophies, systematically developed over thousands of years would compare to scientific testing (I found “The Happiness Hypothesis” a good book on basically that). But I think we have to be careful about these old philosophies, and how generalisable they are between cultures.

Monks, at the behest of the Dalai Lama, are being sent over for use as lab rats, umm, sorry, participants, in neuroscientific and other studies. Some very interesting stuff has come out of it, but I’ll just pick one – monks, after tens of thousands of hours’ of meditation practice, have far greater activation in the left prefrontal corted (PFC) than the average joe. The amount of activation correlates with the amount of practice, too.

The left-right prefrontal cortex asymmetry, is related to affect and well-being (with the left being associated with the positive emotions). The left side lights up, the right cortex dims down. When the left PFC lights up, certain limbic responses are also dimmed. So far so good. Also, changes seem to occur in the brain which affect it’s baseline state. Basically the results seem to be permanent, or at least, not limited to the time you are in meditation.

Is that what we want? It makes some intuitive sense. If positive emotions are good, good, good, and negative emotions are bad, bad, bad, such baseline alterations in brain function could be seen as a good thing.

But what else does the right PFC do, that we might not want to chronically inhibit through hours of meditation training? And what else does the left PFC do that we might not want to accentuate to a high degree?

On one hand, it seem a bit presumptuous to say that these monks, with their accumulated knowledge of 8,000 years, and all their wisdom and training, might be wrong; but right and wrong is kind of a fluid concept here.

Because really, what do these monks do all day? Some have completed 40,000 hours of meditation, blowing the 10,000 rule right out of the window. But what do you have to do to get to that amount? You have to do pretty much nothing else but meditate! Does the wisdom of someone who has sat in a cave all his life apply to the modern Western lifestyle?

Monks come over here all the time, but they get a pretty specialised experience of the West – as far as I know at least, maybe I’m showing my ignorance here. But they seem to give seminars, get accosted by various neuroscience labs, etc. They don’t get off a plane, try to find a job, settle down, start a family, pay taxes etc., do they?

So maybe inhibition of other brain functions might not be as apparent to them as it would be to someone with a different lifestyle.

Here’s one example. This study indicates that right PFC activation is involved in the monitoring of episodic memory retrieval, in order to make appropriate responses, as well as episodic memory retrieval. Also, I would add that people with injuries to the right PFC are often happy, but also impaired in other ways. Just Google “right prefrontal cortex” and see all the stuff it does/is associated with.

I guess I’m arguing against the extreme Buddhist position of devoting your life to meditation, which doesn’t really come up in practice very often. It’s not possible to meditate for 40k hrs and live a normal life, so the points kind of moot. And certainly less intense meditation practices are looking more and more like they are beneficial to modern folk too.

But, we don’t really know a lot about the more realistic, in-between grey areas (say, 10k hrs). I think it can be easy to give Buddhism a kind of special status, given that it’s the most… systematic, of the religions (apparently its members see it more as training than as a religion). And to my knowledge it is the only religion that has gladly and willingly opened up its ideas and principles to potential falsification – which is worth a lot.

It’s still important to be guided by data and theory, though. I’ve read a number of papers which have either tested monks, meditation, or some other concept related to Buddhism, and I’m sure I can pick up the high regard in which the authors hold Buddhism coming through between the lines. A bit of emotive language here, an unsupported statement there, maybe some Buddhist jargon thrown in… Nothing major, but enough to notice it. I wonder if anyone else has noticed the same.

Maybe we’ll do 30 years of research and find out that the Buddhists were right about everything all along, and why didn’t we just believe them 30 years ago and save the time? Because no matter how passionate one might be about Buddhism, if you’re going to believe one thing without evidence, what reason do you have to not believe someone else without evidence? You don’t have one.

Besides, it was Mr Miyagi who said:

“Daniel-san, never put passion before principle. Even if win, you lose.”

And as everyone knows, you can’t argue with Mr Miyagi.

2 Comments

  • Jan says:

    Interesting blog. As far as I understand, it is the respect/awe people of the west have for Buddhism that bothers you. Do you think this makes their studies less objective? or is it possible that they have grown to respect Buddhism after having read enough impressive literature on it?

    That many hours of meditation comes with being a monk. Monks seek something beyond making a living and paying taxes. A monk’s life and purpose is very different to that of people like us. I don’t think it is extreme. It is like calling a professional athlete extreme.

    The aim of the experiments is both to allow the west to learn about their ways but in turn also be exposed to modern science. No one is asking any one else to be a monk. But even fifteen minutes of mediation a day can have amazing effects. While science may take 30 years to prove it and explain it, you can try it in the coming weeks and feel it for yourself. Maybe then you would be in awe too?

    • Warren Davies says:

      Do you think this makes their studies less objective? or is it possible that they have grown to respect Buddhism after having read enough impressive literature on it?

      The bias of the author is something you always have to take into account when you’re reviewing research. It comes through consciously or unconsciously, unless you’re very careful. Just something to look out for.

      That many hours of meditation comes with being a monk. Monks seek something beyond making a living and paying taxes. A monk’s life and purpose is very different to that of people like us. I don’t think it is extreme. It is like calling a professional athlete extreme.

      Yes of course there is a lot of relativity here. There are many things about our lifestyle that would seem extreme to others, to other standards, or even to our own standards. I actually do think a professional athlete is extreme.

      While science may take 30 years to prove it and explain it, you can try it in the coming weeks and feel it for yourself. Maybe then you would be in awe too?

      I have meditated on-and-off for years so I know the benefits first-hand. It makes a difference. I’m not in awe, but maybe that’s because I’ve done maybe 500 hours and not 10,000?

      Thanks very much for commenting!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *