By Rick Hanson with Richard Mendius New Harbinger, 2009 Review by Dan Turton on Mar 16th 2010
The qualities of Buddha's Brain by Rick Hanson are difficult to summarize succinctly because the book itself is so variable. Some chapters are excellently researched and full of useful instructions for meditative practices, while are others are repetitive, contradictory, devoid of supporting research and dotted with apparent attempts to pass off personal speculation as scientific consensus. The chapters are summarized below, and are followed by a more detailed discussion of two problems that I see in the book: a tension between traditional Western and Buddhist values that sometimes spills over into outright contradiction and sloppy use of research after the initial section.
Buddha's Brain starts off with an introductory chapter that outlines the format and the purpose of the book, which is to inform the reader about scientific findings that support the idea that progressing along a "path of awakening" (9) can help them improve their brain and "become happier and more effective in daily life" (8). The rest of the book is divided into four parts: the causes of suffering, happiness, love, and wisdom.
Part one, concerning the causes of suffering, contains two very well researched chapters that also include some accessible practical advice on how to reduce personal suffering (see the exercise on page 46 for example). Some readers might find that this section contains too much scientific information, such as naming the relevant parts of the brain and explaining their functions, but I appreciated it because of the authority and depth this approach added. Chapter two adroitly and accessibly explains how humans came to have emotions, focusing on how we came experience suffering, and warns of the perils of disappointment that can arise from chasing carrots and avoiding sticks. Chapter three introduces the interesting idea of first and second darts. First darts are the (often unavoidable) episodes of emotional suffering that we experience as a direct result of being caused pain (physical or psychological) by something in our environment. Second darts are the ones we throw at ourselves as we consciously respond to first darts, such as getting angry at the person who accidentally spilt your coffee. Being angry at someone else is throwing a dart at yourself because being angry is an unpleasant experience (no matter who or what the target of the anger is). Hanson explains the concepts of first and second darts so that he can point out that a lot of our suffering comes from second darts and that, since we throw those at ourselves, we could substantially reduce our own suffering if we stopped doing this.
Part two of Buddha's Brain is on the causes of happiness and is where the general standard begins to slip; the research gets sloppier and the contradictions more constant as the four chapters progress (more on these short-coming later). Chapter four espouses the benefits of 'letting in the good' – being fully aware of all the good things that happen to us every day and mentally embracing them so as to strengthen the neural networks that support happiness. Chapter five encourages readers to practice going to their mental sanctuary so as to relax and feel safe. Hanson argues that seeking sanctuary in this way will reduce our over-reaction to threats, thereby lowering our stress levels and enabling our positive peaceful emotions (which stress hormone repress) to flourish. The research is still quite good up to this point (particularly the discussion of the autonomic and parasympathetic nervous systems) and another great practical exercise appears (on page 89). Chapter six explains the virtues of feeling mentally strong, including having the strength to see your intentions through. A passage in chapter six also attempts to argue why this advice does not contradict the earlier suggestion not to chase carrots and the recommendations of the subsequent chapter. Chapter seven explains and endorses the state of equanimity – having a calm and even mind that can acknowledge and engage with passing thoughts and emotions, while not get attached to them and not being rocked by them in any way. Chapter seven is certainly a disappointing end to this section on happiness; it contains hardly any supporting research and presents a fairly unappealing vision of happiness (at least to my Western eyes).
The three chapters of part three, on love, are particularly skimpy on relevant research, they rely instead on the author's and other Buddhist figures' experiences of meditative practice to inform the theories and practical suggestions they contain. Chapter eight sagely reminds us to try and love rather than hate others by counting them as one of 'us', rather than one of 'them'. Chapter nine stresses the importance of and offers tips to help achieve being compassionate while still being assertive about your opinion. Similarly to chapter eight, chapter ten advises us to try and love others, even if they are being hateful towards us (one example Hanson uses is of a monk having his limbs chopped off by bandits but still loving them because to hate them would just be throwing second darts at himself). More contradictory ideals become apparent through this section, such as wishing for the best for people who are assaulting you, rather than wishing for them to suffer from a cardiac arrest or even just a sudden bout of narcolepsy.
The final part of Buddha's brain is on wisdom and contains three moderately well researched, but still generally contradictory chapters. Chapter eleven proclaims the benefits of being able to focus your attention, but provides practical advice of mixed efficacy to achieve this; one tip recommends simply telling yourself "May my mind be steady" (183). Chapter twelve informs readers that concentrating on feelings of joy and rapture can help focus our attention and still our mind. Chapter thirteen advises us to relax 'the self', especially considering that the self is just an illusion. by discussing research into the neuronal constituents of 'the self' in a very illuminating manner, this chapter persuasively argues that what we think of as our self is really just a story pieced together by our brain to make sense of the great swath of experiences that our brains have remembered. Again, this chapter is very contradictory, but at least Hanson admits it (217). And, in further defense of Hanson on this point, it is very hard to discuss the idea that we have no 'self' using Western language without being contradictory ('I think that I have no self' does not make sense on any normal reading because in Western Parlance 'I' refers to the self).
The first major problem that I have with Buddha's Brain is that many of the suggestions in it appeal to ego-centric Western ideals, while many others insist on the wisdom of selfless Buddhist ones. This conflict arises in contradictory messages between chapters, such as a comparison of chapters 6 and 13 reveals; Hanson recommends having the strength to see our intentions through (which requires taking ourselves seriously), while also encouraging us to give up thinking of our self. The Western versus Buddhist ideals conflict also arises within chapters, such as in chapter nine where Hanson advises us to be compassionate to others while also being assertive. The fact that being assertive and compassionate at the same time is much more easily said than done is (unintentionally) highlighted by an example Hanson gives of how he would achieve this tricky balancing act; Hanson follows a compassionate understanding sentence with "but" and then his opinion. Anyone with knowledge of counseling knows that following a compassionate statement with 'but' and a contradicting statement undoes all of the good work that the compassionate statement might have achieved. Another obvious conflict is in chapter ten, where the notion of karmic rebirth (if we live morally, then we come back as something better in the next life and vice versa) is used to justify why we don't have to be angry at or punish those who have wronged us. Most Western readers will find the idea of karmic rebirth to be a 'nice' but implausible one and so would think the right thing to do would be assertive and stand up for yourself against those who maliciously harm you.
The second major problem I have with this book is the haphazard way that research is used. The first section of the book, and a few other subsections, contain lots of relevant research. Unfortunately, though, most of the book contains claims that are not fully supported by the reference given or, more commonly, are not supported by research at all (in some cases this even occurs when relevant research has been conducted). Of the many authoritatively stated but unsupported claims, one example is on page 187, where Hanson claims that you can quieten your mind (the random thoughts that pop into your head) by using "the power of prefrontal intention". The claim is not explained, let alone supported by the results of any kind of test. In the same chapter Hanson presents the speculative theory of another researcher as if it were an uncontroversial fact – that "the brain will sometimes start to hallucinate imagery just to have new information to process" (179 – my emphasis added). Finally, an example of Hanson not citing research for his claims despite that research being readily available can be found in chapter four; Hanson claims that actively thinking about the good things that happened to you each day can help you become happier, but doesn't refer to research by positive psychologist Martin Seligman and his colleagues that provides fairly rigorous support for this claim. This sloppy application of research would normally be forgiven in a self-help book, but this particular book claims to be using the latest in science to inform practical methods for becoming happier, rather than relying on speculation and persuasive language.
On the whole, this book adds some credibility to the claim that certain meditative practices can make us happier and also provides some useful exercises for addressing specific problems we might have. However, it is far from perfectly executed; more time on digesting and presenting relevant research in the later chapters and a chapter discussing the tension between Western and Buddhist ideals would have made Buddha's Brain a much more satisfying read.
Dan Turton is a PhD student and lecturer in the Philosophy Department at Victoria University of Wellington and is currently researching the neuroscience of happiness amongst other topics. His research specialty is happiness and his areas of competence include moral and political philosophy, especially normative and applied ethics. He is also a collaborator on the International Wellbeing Study.