One way to naturalize Buddhism is to discern the moral lessons it might offer after shedding its metaphysics. Another way is to scrutinize the physiological effects of its practices. As Owen Flanagan explained on PEL’s first “naturalized Buddhism” episode, not all Buddhist sects practice meditation. But of course, many do, particularly within the Japanese Zen tradition so popular in the West. The lecture above comes from Dr. James Austin, Emeritus Professor of Neurology at the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center. Austin believes Zen meditation has discernable physical benefitsthat can be studied neuroscientifically. His numerous books reviewing the neuroscience behind Zen meditation receive both positive and dismissive reviews. Owen Flanagan (who, like Austin, publishes through The MIT Press), gives the following cautious praise for Austin’s work:
Analytic philosophy of mind sees persons as much less substantial and ego centered than Cartesian rationalism, which posits that my essence is my immutable self, my soul. Neuroscience finds no soul, no central headquarters that is me. And Zen teaches how to flourish in a world where you are nothing rather than something. Austin’s Selfless Insighttakes us on an insightful tour of a certain postmodern space where we meet the Heraclitean processes that we are.
Click here to read some free online chapters from Austin’s 1998 Zen and the Brain.(Snapshot synopsis: the long-term effects of meditation may release excitotoxins which slowly etch away those parts of the prefrontal cortex responsible for generating self-concern. Further, the very act of meditative focus disrupts the Papez circuit within the brain’s limbic system, which is responsible for assigning emotions to our perceived experience.)
For a balanced assessment of the strengths and weaknesses of Austin’s thesis, I recommend people look to the chapter written on Austin in John Horgan‘s excellent Rational Mysticism.Or, you can listen to a two-part interview with Austin on the Buddhist Geeks podcast, which Mark referenced on the second “naturalized Buddhism” episode.
Julian Baggini provides the harshest review I have found, through frankly I thought his critique was a little too glib to justify its snark:
The other vice Austin betrays is the liberal use of neurological research where it is inconclusive or irrelevant. Given that no one doubts meditation changes your mental state, pointing out that fMRI scans reveal changes in the brain too is hardly revelatory. This kind of stating the obvious reaches its apotheosis when Austin points to the startling discovery that in research into mindfulness meditation, which is largely about directing attention, data “tend to point” to brain areas that are – guess what – “related to the regulation of attention”.
As a more sympathetic reviewer points out, Austin isn’t merely talking about whether meditation changes one’s mental state. He also provides a fairly detailed map of the several pathways into the brain traveled by meditative practice:
Specifically, Austin is keen to show that different meditative styles (focused, concentrative vs. open, receptive) train both top-down (dorsal) and bottom-up (ventral) forms of attention. Meditative practice isn’t an ‘all or nothing’ homogenous affair but rather a diverse set of distinct practices, each of which potentially harbours distinct neurophysiological consequences.