Filed in Science, Health

Brain Karma

Is delusion hardwired?Wendy Hasenkamp, PhD

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It seems that everyone wants change: the latest tech gadget, a different job, a better relationship. Things “as they are” are somehow just not quite satisfying. Buddhists will recognize this situation as evidence of the first noble truth: dukkha (suffering or inherent “unsatisfactoriness”) is simply part of existence.

We often assume that happiness can be achieved by changing something in our external environment. But this assumption overlooks the fact that much of our suffering is perpetuated by our own minds. Our mental patterns can shape the way we respond emotionally to others, the way we perceive events, and whether we view the world and others as basically good or inherently flawed. They also affect simple, everyday aspects of our lives. Mental and behavioral habits underlie the vast majority of our experience, and most operate without our awareness. Under the influence of such patterns, we can end up living on autopilot.

In Buddhism, these tendencies of mind are central to the idea of karma, according to which each moment of consciousness is conditioned by previous moments, and the sum of our previous experience is the cause of each subsequent moment of experience. Our actions (including thoughts as well as observable behavior) leave a trace in our minds, making it more likely that similar actions will occur in the future. The Korean Zen teacher Daehaeng Kun Sunim summarized it well: “People are often careless about the thoughts they give rise to, assuming that once they forget about a thought, that thought is finished. This is not true. Once you give rise to a thought, it keeps functioning, and eventually its consequences return to you.”

These ancient ideas about karma—at least as they relate to a single lifetimeare mirrored with surprising detail in the foundations of modern neuroscience. One of the most fundamental principles of neuroscience is known as Hebb’s law, also called cell assembly theory. In his 1949 book, The Organization of Behavior, the Canadian psychologist Donald Hebb laid out a principle that is often summarized by the phrase “Neurons that fire together, wire together.” In his seminal work, Hebb proposed that “any two cells or systems of cells that are repeatedly active at the same time will tend to become ‘associated,’ so that activity in one facilitates activity in the other.” This is the basic premise of neural plasticity—the ability of the brain to change through experience.

The mechanisms of neural plasticity are being revealed through an ever-increasing and nuanced body of research, showing how our brain networks are physically created and updated on a micro-level. Imagine two neurons connected such that activity in the first neuron makes the second more likely to fire. If we repeatedly stimulate the two neurons simultaneously, after a few hours, the same initial stimulation of the first neuron will lead to a larger electrical response in the second neuron—a change due in part to the release of more chemical neurotransmitters from the first cell and the presence of a greater number of receptors for that neurotransmitter on the second cell. These molecular changes serve to facilitate the relationship between the two neurons so that they are more strongly coupled. If repeated co-activation takes place over a longer time, the neurons will physically change their shape, sprouting new connections to solidify this effect even more.

The description above is a simple example of an interaction between two cells, but of course in the living brain, it is a process taking place at millions of connections every second. And each neuron is in conversation with thousands of others, creating an almost impossibly elaborate web of activity. Through the continual process of neural association, we slowly build up strong networks related to the things we experience frequently. These neural networks reflect our personal knowledge about a given object, person, or situation—in the form of sense perceptions, memories, emotions, thoughts, and behavioral responses.

As we move through our lives, brain circuits that are used more frequently become “hardwired”; that is, they are easier to activate than new or unused connections. Because less energy is needed for these familiar circuits to become active, patterns that are practiced become quite literally the “path of least resistance.” In many ways, the brain is an energy conservation machine: it uses 20 to 25 percent of the body’s cellular energy (while comprising only 2 percent of the body’s total weight), so there have been strong evolutionary pressures for the brain to be as efficient as possible. Just as water will flow through a well-worn riverbed instead of carving a new path into the bank, when the brain is faced with a choice between two actions, the one that is familiar, that has been repeated, will win out because of its energetic favorability.

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