July 13, 2010

The biology of mindfulness

daniel siegel, minfulness, buddhism & science, new humanism, rick heller

In a new interview with The New Humanism's editor Rick Heller, Daniel Siegel (above) lays out the neurological fundamentals of smelling a rose, the mental architecture of a mirage—and of always wanting a new toy (just not the iPhone 4). He has taken a particular interest in understanding how past experience conditions our perceptions, and he describes himself to Heller this way:

I'm a narrative scientist. I'm fascinated with how the stories we have embedded in our life histories shape how we perceive things. Not to be insulting to any religion but there is this phrase that "there is no such thing as immaculate perception."

Siegel is the author of The Mindful Brain and, more recently, The Mindful Therapist. He is also co-director of the Mindful Awareness Research Center at UCLA and co-investigator at the Center for Culture, Brain and Development, but he is not a Buddhist. He discovered meditation five years ago, and approaches mindfulness meditation without a Buddhist bias—in other words, his narrative has not been conditioned by Buddhism. So his statement that "there is no such thing as immaculate perception" would through a concept like "bare attention" into doubt, or at least relegate it to the realm of the religious (not necessarily a bad thing).

Still, the results of his studies tend to promote the benefits mindfulness meditation, as he tells Heller:

You've given the brain a capacity with mindfulness meditation to approach things rather than withdraw from them. You could say you're shutting off the right frontal area and turning on the left [the right governs retreat, the left, approach]. You get something when you do that. You get the ability to approach things that are challenging. It's really the neural signature of resilience.

Heller's is a nice, readable interview that doesn't bog us down in jargon, so take a look. The interview is a part of a series of interesting articles on scientific research on mindfulness meditation, which I earlier blogged about here.

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