TEDxBrownUniversity – Willoughby Britton – Why A Neuroscientist Would Study Meditation

TEDxBrownUniversity – Willoughby Britton – Why A Neuroscientist Would Study Meditation

Translator: Tanya Cushman
Reviewer: Rhonda Jacobs So I’m really happy to be part
of this historic event at Brown. I think it says a lot
about where we are in history, a time when communication
and information transfer between countries
and hemispheres and states is greater than it ever has been before. And that can cause some problems and some wars, but it also can create great opportunities to bring together people
with different perspectives, different religions, different expertise to solve some of
the world’s greatest problems in ways that have never been tried before. And we’re talking about the big problems like happiness, suffering, war and peace. So I’m a neuroscientist in the Department of Psychiatry
in the medical school, which, if you go to Brown,
is pretty far away. It’s actually not far away,
but it seems like it is (Laughter) from the main campus. I’m in an interesting dialogue
with people on the main campus in religious studies
and in East Asian studies. What the dialogue that – So psychiatry considers me a lone nut, but I’m actually a part
of a much larger dialogue between science, medicine and contemplative traditions
of major world religions. And so when I use
the word “contemplative,” I’m talking about a wide range, a family,
of mental training practices, which are designed to cultivate
positive qualities of mind. So, primarily, one of those qualities
would be attention. So being able to bring your attention
back to an object, you know, that you’re intending to pay attention to. So in addition to attention, we’re also talking
about positive qualities like compassion, patience, generosity – things like that. So this greater dialogue
is called contemplative studies. This is going on all over the world;
it’s not just at Brown. Within contemplative studies,
we have contemplative science – so studying, empirically
and scientifically, contemplative practices like meditation. And within contemplative science,
we have contemplative neuroscience – so neuroscientists studying
the effects of meditation. So why would neuroscientists
be interested in contemplative practices? That’s what I want to talk about today. I’m sure you’ve seen lots
of really flashy, sexy magazine articles about the Dalai Lama
and monks getting put in scanners and things like that. I’m actually not going to talk about that. I want to talk about – sorry. I want to talk about why
the average neuroscientist might be interested – or someone in psychiatry – might be interested
in contemplative practices and sort of take a step back and walk you through some of the discoveries and forces
within neuroscience and psychiatry that have led us to this dialogue. Okay? So the first one is some of the things
that we’ve come to learn about the nature of happiness itself. It would make sense,
and we’ve sort of assumed, that if we get everything we want and we get rid of
everything we don’t want, we’ll be happy. Makes sense? Totally logical. Totally wrong. That’s just not the way
the data has turned out to be. We’re one of the richest
countries on the planet, but we’re not really one of the happiest. And the people who are
the richest in our country aren’t, you know, necessarily much happier
than the poorest people in our country. So that’s a problem. Getting what we want
doesn’t actually equal happiness. From psychiatry, we go
from the opposite spectrum. If you get rid of
like, desperately unhappiness, then we’ll be happy. But that also hasn’t
turned out to be true. And in fact, we knew this
about 60 years ago. In 1948, the World Health Organization defined health as the complete state
of mental, physical and social well-being and not just the absence of disease. But we’ve spent so much time
in psychiatry focusing on mental illness that we don’t really have a sense
of what mental health is. So that’s a problem. Another thing that we know
about happiness, that we’ve learned about happiness, is that it seems to be inextricably linked
to the faculty of attention, or more specifically, our pervasive tendency or habit
to not pay attention. So there was a really great article
that was published in Science last year by Matt Killingsworth. He’s a researcher at Harvard, and he sent out an iPhone app
that just probed people throughout the day and said, “What are you doing? And are you paying attention
to what you’re doing?” And he found that half of the time, people were not paying attention
to what they were doing; their minds were somewhere else. So we have this very pervasive habit to not be paying attention
to what we’re doing. And he also found that people’s minds – the title of the article was
“A Wandering Mind is an Unhappy Mind.” He actually found that when your mind is wandering
and it’s not focused on what you’re doing, whatever you’re doing –
it could be taking out the trash – if your mind is wandering,
it’s actually less happy. So here’s a habit that we have: half of our lives
we’re spending doing this habit, and it’s not actually serving us
in terms of making us happy. So I’m going to be talking
a lot about habits and happiness. So, clinical neuroscientists
have also found a connection between attention and happiness. So the areas of your brain, the frontal part of your brain
called the prefrontal cortex, which are related to attention, they tend to be underactive ubiquitously
across all kinds of clinical syndromes. So not just depression,
which is what I study, but also things like schizophrenia, substance abuse,
eating disorders, anxiety and, of course,
attention deficit disorder. So the more problems with attention – all of these things have – in all of these disorders
you’ll see a weak prefrontal cortex and problems with attention. Now, this is important
because the prefrontal cortex tonically modulates or inhibits
the limbic system, which is our emotional system. So if you have a weak attention system,
or prefrontal cortex, your emotions will be really reactive. A really good example of this syndrome, which is, in neuroscience,
called “hypofrontality” or “not enough up front,” (Laughter) is adolescence. So adolescence – our limbic systems
are kicked into gear, so we’ve got lots of passion
and lots of emotions, and no prefrontal cortex to limit that because it hasn’t developed
completely yet – not till it’s sort of – when you get out of college,
maybe you’ll have some control. (Laughter) So, literally, it’s, you know,
emotions out of control, and I think we all remember
our adolescence, and I don’t know about you,
but it wasn’t a particularly happy time. (Laughter) So another thing
coming out of neuroscience, which I think is probably one
of the most important discoveries – it’s not even a discovery anymore;
it’s more like a principle – in neuroscience that I think has the ability to change
the way we think about ourselves is something known as
“experience-dependent neuroplasticity.” And basically, our brain
changes with experience, and we get good at what we practice. So that’s the very basic way
of thinking about it. So if you exercise your physical body, certain muscle groups get stronger, certain movements get easier. Eventually, they become
effortless and automatic. The brain is no different. The neural networks
that you exercise become stronger, and eventually the thought patterns
and mental habits that are being represented
by those neural networks get stronger and become
effortless and automatic. And the ones you don’t use, just like if you don’t use
certain muscles, they get weaker. And the ones that you
never even considered using, well, they’re not going
to really grow either. And the second thing to know
about neuroplasticity is that the most powerful way
to change your brain is not actually medication; it’s actually behavior because that’s what it was designed
to change in relation to. And not just any behavior – specifically, mental behavior
or mental habit. So William James called habit
“the basic structure of mental life.” So habit – I’m going
to be talking a lot about habit. So when you exercise your physical body, you know which muscles are the strongest
because they’re the biggest and when you pick up something, it’s easy. So that’s easy to know. But how would you know
which neural networks are the strongest? How would you know that? And the answer is that they’re the ones
that are the most easily activated and the most easily available
to your consciousness. So we’re going to do
a little audience participation here. I need your help for this one. So I want you to – I’m going to give you
a mental thought to bring to mind. I’m going to time you to see how quickly
you can bring it to mind. And I know that you’re quick
because you all got tickets to this thing, and they sold out in 60 seconds. So I know you’re quick at some things. So if you feel comfortable,
close your eyes so you’re not distracted, and I want you to bring to mind something you don’t like about yourself. Okay? Okay. You can open your eyes now. And that was about three seconds. Anyone, can you raise your hand
if you just couldn’t think of anything? Okay. So we got like maybe 3 out of 120. That’s a very strong neural network
you’ve got going there, and that’s – so you’re, basically,
Olympic athletes of self-criticism. (Laughter) Good job. So that’s a strong neural network, and you didn’t get there
because that just happens to be strong. We know that it gets strong
because you practice. And so you’ve actually
been practicing that habit probably for a really long time
and probably every day, and probably every hour, and maybe even moment to moment. And I chose that particular
neural network and mental habit because that is one
of the foundational ones: when it gets really big,
it becomes major depression. So we know it’s not one
that we necessarily want to get good at, but here we are –
we’re all really good at it. And it seems to have a purpose, you know, but I can tell you
that it tends to lead to problems. So a couple questions. One, did you know that you
were practicing that all the time? Two, did you want to be practicing it? Do you want to be good at that? Is that really something
that you want to be good at? And if the answer is no
to both of those things, what other neural networks are you strengthening unintentionally? Because the judgment neural network
is really related to, you know – it has a couple other modules, and if you’re that quick
to find fault with yourself, how quickly are you going to be able
to find fault with others? Or find fault with –
I was going to say your spouse, but looking at you guys, I don’t know
how many of you actually have those – but your girlfriend,
your boyfriend, whatever, your children, other people’s religions – that kind of thing. You know, and I can’t help –
I’ve been watching the news, actually, and I think we all have been
watching the news recently, and it’s really hard not to think about the people that have been celebrating
Osama bin Laden’s death. You know, and when I first saw it
on The New York Times – I watched one of those
like little web videos – I thought, “Wow, we’re practicing hatred, and I’m not sure that we
really want to be practicing that.” I mean, I really don’t think
that the people who are practicing that, and we are, we don’t really want to be doing that. It’s yet another habit that we’re just sort of unintentionally
practicing and getting really good at. And as we know from neuroscience, when we practice these things,
they become automatic and effortless. Wow, automatic and effortless hatred. Like, mmm, that doesn’t sound
like a recipe for world peace. So what is it that we do want to practice? What are some qualities of mind
that we actually want? So here I’m going
to ask you again to play along. I want you to think
about someone that you admire. You know, maybe somebody
from your childhood that had a particularly positive
influence on your life, okay? And then think about, What is the exact quality
that that person has that you admire? So I’d like to hear some of the ones
that you came up with. (Audience) Humor. (Audience) Strength. What was that? (Audience) Caring. (Audience) Energetic. (Audience) Perseverance. (Audience) Patience. (Audience) Kindness. Okay. I think we got some ideas there. I didn’t hear any hatred, so maybe there’s just, you know, I’m just not seeing that
coming out of people. You know, when I first did that exercise, I chose my third-grade teacher,
who was Mrs. Barbado, and I also chose kindness and warmth
as being the quality, and I remember looking inside – Oh, the next thing I want you to do
is look inside yourself to see how much of that quality you have. And so when I looked inside myself
to look for kindness and warmth, I pretty much found nothing, and moral: I was just kind of a grumpy bitch. (Laughter) It happens, you know. (Laughter) So if you had that response
when you looked inside and thought, “Wow, I have
none of the qualities that I admire,” it can be kind of – you can kind of have
a sinking heart about that. But based on what we know
from contemplative neuroscience and what we know about neuroplasticity, we can actually start
to think of these things like kindness, energy,
compassion, generosity not as innate qualities
that you have or don’t have but as, actually, skills that you can cultivate
through practice and training. And we know from the neuroscience
and the studies now that these practices
actually do cultivate these qualities, and we have access
to a whole array of practices that can cultivate these qualities. And we also know that the neural networks
that subserve these qualities can be modified through training. So, if you slept through
the first part of my talk, here’s my recap. One, happiness is not about
getting what you want; it’s about the mental habits
that you practice from moment to moment. I hope you know what they are, and I hope that they’re going
in the direction that you want. And I think that this new
convergence of fields has a very hopeful message: that we can become
the people that we admire, and like Gandhi said, we can become the change
that we want to see in the world. (Applause) (Cheering)

Thank you Willoughby Britton for this example of successfully engaging a fairly young audience and getting across the value of studying contemplative practices!

Excellent! I liked your concise reduction of one of the most complex, interesting and important emerging fields of study on the planet. I also liked your Vimeo sessions with Dan Ingram. Keep up the fabulous work!

What she is saying is pretty much common sense bottom line. I think we've created all these "syndroms" via our hideously short attention spans!

I can tell how nervous she is. I'm glad the crowd was so good and she was prepared enough that this went so well. Great talk

brilliant – her dialogue pulls together all the information that we need to actually, and practically, do something about our destructive habits. so helpful, so inspiring, so real. awesome, thanks heaps xo

I know right!? This is absolutely awesome.

And if you like this, you should definitely check out Dr. Brewer's TEDxRockCreekPark talk "You're already awesome" on meditation/neuroscience/addiction.

And actually also the TEDxCollegeHill by Dr. Kerr (also at Brown Univ with Dr. Britton) called "Mindfulness starts with the body."

All three are amazing. This field is too cool, and growin fast!!

Happiness comes from within. from a bunch of activities such as meditation, gratitude, achieving professional/personal life goals you set yourself. and happiness comes from giving love and social connection. a burst of happiness comes from exercise (endorphins) but ultimately its how good you feel about yourself that really matters, not really from buying things or necessarily from money. Although money can be the conduit to happiness such as affording good nutrition a gym membership.

This is the basic message for every self help book for the last 30 + years with some new "terminology" not to mention thousands of years of scholars and so called mysticism.

Would be great content, except when mixing with politics. Selfishness, hatred… are deep rooted with humanity, and to cultivate good mental habit to overcome the problems has been our history. The world needs good role models not just fancy talks. OBL practices hatred in the first place, and peoples found a relief from his hatred when he was killed. They found sense of relief and not just hatred as mentioned. I am the starting point by practicing goodness instead of other elements…

KNOWING is the first necessary step; change can only come with PRACTICE.
I like this talk a lot, professor Britton; what I miss in it is: 'I HAVE practiced my mind (kindness, empathy etc.) a lot, and and I'm no longer that …person, you know, I used to be' 🙂

I am sorry, these types of talks drive me insane, happiness is linked to comparisons – how happy are we now vs how happy were we last year,how happy are we in comparison to our peers. We are a relatively new species, We are biologically programmed to survive and procreate NOT to pursue happiness, we are blessed in this country,We dwell to much on self because we have time,we need to stop thinking about ourselves and start looking beyond to ourselves to our fellow man,then we will find happiness.

yeah but people's baseline networks, or genetic without the epi, probably tend in one way or another, so yes plasticity means hope but you may have the "genetic" wind blowing in your face or at your back. So you may just have a baseline transcription/ translation for testosterone mores than another, leading to or from a more easily solidified neural network for aggression. sure you can work against it, but you may never through a lifetime reach your neighbors state of calm just because you are fighting against a hormonal baseline he doesn't have. I don't think all of these personality drivers are purely epigenetic with equal baselines, i mean that would seem as absurd as saying I expect everyone could look identical if they tried hard enough. Our genes are different, and no new neural growth takes place without some ease/difficulty of transcription of our pre-existing genes. Post-synaptic competition though can be vied for significantly, but how much choice do we have in the post-synaptic neurons doing the vying?

also, can anyone in the neurosciences tell me why neuroplasctiticy seems to be still somewhat new, yet it seems built entirely on Hebbian Principles, outlined in 1949?

Being able to quickly come up with something you don't like about yourself can show the level of introspection the person has done . Most people cannot come up with it because they haven't spent time with themselves. I disagreed how the conclusion was – oh that's self criticism. No, for people who meditate it can be self-awareness so that one can consciously improve instead of suppress.

She might not be a very good public speaker, but that talk was amazingly brilliant! It had pretty much everything in it that you could want from a talk about mindfulness and neuroplasticity.

If someone is fast in judging it was this woman. She presented a single task and three person's could not complete the task. She could have said that these people had no or low intrapersektive ability. or that they had wondering minds. And the group that could come up with what she asked, they are just good at judging/criticizing themselves and others? They could also be attentive, cooperative, fast thinkers, great at knowledge of themselves. For after this question she should also have asked, think of one strong personal trait or ability that you have. But in the way she focused on the negative she actually could have told us something about her thoughts about herself. Some people only know others thru themselves. Otherwise this was a very fruitful talk and I wish her good luck in coming presentations.

Emotions are short-lived. Happiness is just one of the many emotions we experience.

I think the world will eventually realize that it's not "happiness" but a feeling of calm and peace which lasts longer that comes after practicing meditation.🙏


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