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Brain scans: a distinct model of enlightenment?

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There has been much discussion and excitement recently, particularly in light of the studies being conducted at Yale, about what if anything brain scans of people with higher attainments might tell us about those people and/or about the nature of their attainments.

My question is not about those attainments per se, or even about what the scans do or don't reveal -- excellent questions being discussed at length elsewhere -- but about how this approach fits with the "Models of the Stages of Enlightenment" enumerated in MCTB. I am asking about classification, not content:

Does a difference in brain functioning, detectable through advanced technology such as fMRI (or EEG, etc.) constitute a distinct model of enlightenment? Or is this a modern variation on an ancient theme, the Physical Models?

RE: Brain scans: a distinct model of enlightenment?
Answer
1/30/12 2:24 PM as a reply to Tarver .
 Tarver :
There has been much discussion and excitement recently, particularly in light of the studies being conducted at Yale, about what if anything brain scans of people with higher attainments might tell us about those people and/or about the nature of their attainments.

My question is not about those attainments per se, or even about what the scans do or don't reveal -- excellent questions being discussed at length elsewhere -- but about how this approach fits with the "Models of the Stages of Enlightenment" enumerated in MCTB. I am asking about classification, not content:

Does a difference in brain functioning, detectable through advanced technology such as fMRI (or EEG, etc.) constitute a distinct model of enlightenment? Or is this a modern variation on an ancient theme, the Physical Models?


I dont have the answer but this link might provide some info:
http://happinessbeyondthought.blogspot.com/2011/12/why-isnt-there-brain-test-for-awakening.html

Gary participated in the Yale study and other science stuff.

Nick

RE: Brain scans: a distinct model of enlightenment?
Answer
1/30/12 4:16 PM as a reply to Nikolai ..
Nick, yes, thanks, your link does provide some info about the content, but not what I am getting at with respect to the classification, of "brain tests for awakening."

Let me try this again, and if you don't mind, I will use you as an example:

Suppose I were to say, "Nick, you are so enlightened, how could you misunderstand what I am asking?" I would be assessing your enlightenment status in terms of one of, say, #6, the Powers Model of enlightenment (you should be able to read my mind), or #8, the Specific Knowledge Model of enlightenment (you should know this information) from the numbered list of 21 models in the chapter of MCTB that deals with Models of the Stages of Enlightenment.

Now suppose I were to say, "Nick, you are so enlightened, and I can tell because your posterior cingulate cortex does (or does not) light up when you meditate." Would I be assessing your enlightenment status in terms of #12, the Physical Model, or would I be using a yet-unpublished, but nevertheless widely popular "Brain Scan Model", to be added as #22 in future editions of MCTB?

Please note that I am setting aside the doubtless fascinating question of whether or not brain scans can actually reveal anything significant or meaningful about awakening or enlightenment. My point is that lots of people think that they might. Indeed, Nick, you flew all the way around the world to participate in this sort of study. Surely you have an opinion on whether the motivation for going so far out of your way maps onto the any of the 21 enumerated models of enlightenment (particularly #12, the Physical Model); or is there is a 22nd Model at work here, a "Brain Scan Model", that is being explored through modern science and technology?

Katy just posted something in another thread about an article that I too read years ago in the Shambhala Sun about meditation training and startle responses, as measured by scientific instruments. People are talking about this stuff -- have been for years. Is this not a distinct model of enlightenment?

RE: Brain scans: a distinct model of enlightenment?
Answer
2/1/12 12:45 AM as a reply to Tarver .
It could be a fascinating way to learn more about enlightenment, but remember that neuroscience is only just now beginning to develop true explanatory power as a science. The next wave is probably the mapping of active functional networks like the default network and the task-positive network. Who knows what will come after that?

But the point is, only when we can map the flow of information from neuron cluster to neuron cluster and more tightly link the neuroscience to observable behavior and reportable subjective experiences will neuroscience really have much to contribute to the study of enlightenment. Until then, neuroscience will largely continue to be "Let's put a person inside a scanner, use any numerically interesting result to confirm our preconceived ideas, and confidently announce our findings with an impressive, convincing, full-color picture at the top." Sad but true -- this is how a protoscience works before it becomes a mature science -- biases run rampant through the data, converting it into BS. Think of alchemy before they had chemistry, or astrology before they had astronomy, or psychoanalysis before they had evidence-based treatment. Neuroscience has some more growing up to do before it's helpful to the study of enlightenment. (Which brings up another point -- there needs to be a science of enlightenment before neuroscience can be helpful to a science of enlightenment.)

So to answer your question more directly, saying that the posterior cingulate does(n't) light up in meditators is not really a model of enlightenment for now. A model explains and predicts things. Saying the PCC does (not) light up doesn't really confirm or deny any explanations because we don't understand the PCC in enough detail to say what that means when it "lights up." And while some models like the "limited emotional range model" predict useful/testable things (e.g. "this enlightened person will never have anger again"), a "brain scan model" could really only predict what future brain scans of meditators would look like. And maybe what sorts of brain injuries would be most harmful to meditators. Hardly useful to the Meditation by Design movement!

One final point: I bet if you check back in a half century, the answer will be totally different =)

RE: Brain scans: a distinct model of enlightenment?
Answer
2/1/12 8:10 AM as a reply to J Adam G.
Thank you for your carefully considered response. I agree with many of the points you have made, including that brain scanning is a young science, that it is fascinating, and that it shows great potential.

You argue that brain scans do not constitute a model of enlightenment because of the early development of the technology and because of problematic correlations between (technologically mediated) observations of neurological phenomena and their meaning in terms of the subjective experience of the meditator.

I would interpret this a different way: I would say that conscious experience -- quotidian or enlightened -- is not reducible to the neurological functioning which is its cause, regardless of the accuracy with which that functioning may be measured.

Therefore, I disagree that brain scans are not a model of enlightenment because they cannot as yet explain and predict sufficiently accurately. I am saying that they do constitute a model of enlightenment, and belong on the list of other models of enlightenment which also fail to adequately explain and predict, or which also do so in problematic, limited, incomplete, or otherwise criticizable ways.

My point for the purposes of this thread is not the adequacy or inadequacy of brain scans to characterize enlightenment, in other words the content of that approach to the question, but in its classification in terms of the list presented on p. 298 and following of the printed edition of MCTB. Are they a sub-set of item #12, the Physical Models, or should they be added to the list as their own separate entry?

There have been people, groups, and entire traditions whose identity, practices, and indeed religions have been based on each of the enumerated models of enlightenment listed in MCTB. The background of my question is the pervasive secular religion of science which informs the understanding of almost all educated people in the West today. A few of the most respected and highly accomplished members of this very community have participated in a procedure (having their brains scanned) which our ancestors would only have been able to understand in terms of a religious pilgrimage. I wish I were qualified to be singled out for such an honour! I am, however, deeply concerned about the limits of the deterministic reductionism which pervades our scientific understanding of the world. In spite of its spectacular success in certain very important areas, this reductionism (as I see it) screws up our individual and collective efforts to get enlightened and deal with suffering.

Whether or not it is reductionistic, whether it works or it doesn't, whether it is yet or will ever be "accurate enough" to tell us anything "meaningful," my main point here is simply that brain scanning belongs on the list of every other way that people have ever thought about or sought to understand enlightenment.

I won't be able to carry on this discussion for a little while because in an hour I am leaving for a 10-day retreat. What am I trying to accomplish?
(a) train my posterior cingulate to react (or not react) in certain atypical ways;
(b) ascend through 12 or more nanas of the Progress of Insight;
(c) see God;
(d) all of the above;
(e) none of the above.

RE: Brain scans: a distinct model of enlightenment?
Answer
2/2/12 6:25 PM as a reply to Tarver .
Thank you for clarifying Tarver, I think I understand what you're saying now.

If someone said "Enlightened people will have this pattern of activity in their brain that ordinary people don't," it would certainly be a flawed model of enlightenment together with many of the other flawed ones listed in MCTB. I personally wouldn't put it with the Physical Model, because it seems like the physical models Daniel describes are the sorts of magical thinking or halo-effect-based ideas that people who have perfected their insight knowledge will also have perfected other things, like their waistlines or arms.

The Brain Scan model does have some overlap with that Physical model, and also could be said to overlap the Psychological, Energetic, Action, and Emotional models, and perhaps some others I haven't thought of. But if someone were to revise the book, adding the Brain Scan model as its own section would probably be useful. It would contribute some information that wouldn't necessarily be inferred from the other debunked models.

But maybe the Brain Scan model could go in the category of "kinda useful, but definitely flawed" instead of "total BS." We're only so far away from diagnosing ADHD and Bipolar Disorder with brain scans. Just like enlightenment, those phenomena are currently only diagnosable via observation of behavior and elicitation of verbal self-reports.

(How close are we? Well, it can already be done with some accuracy by the best researchers. My stepmother got diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder in a research study on depression. She and all her doctors thought she had ordinary depression, but her depression looked different from everyone else's on the brain scans. Also, her mania showed up on the scanner even though she had the acting skills to look like a normal happy person to everyone around her, even doctors.)

Maybe the same thing can be done with enlightenment. Until then, we'll have to treat the Brain Scan model as another flawed one, together with all the other models of enlightenment that try to describe it via language or math.

RE: Brain scans: a distinct model of enlightenment?
Answer
2/18/12 10:54 AM as a reply to J Adam G.
J Adam G:
If someone said "Enlightened people will have this pattern of activity in their brain that ordinary people don't," it would certainly be a flawed model of enlightenment together with many of the other flawed ones listed in MCTB.


I am happy to have convinced you that brain scans belong on the list, and in a category distinct from the Physical Models, but I would like to distance myself from your reading of the list as an index of flawed models.

MCTB:
Here is a list of the basic categories of models that I use, though most traditions contain a mix of most or all of these. There are probably other aspects of the dreams of enlightenment that I have failed to address, but this list should cover most of the basic ones. I look at each of these as representing some axis of development, and basically all of them are good axes to work on regardless of what they have to do with enlightenment.


The key point that I like to keep in mind is that enlightenment (and, indeed, more generally human consciousness) is not reducible to any one factor.

You mentioned overlaps, and I realized that Brain Scans also overlap the Social Model: who gets invited to get scanned obviously has a social dimension. Historically, sociological factors have been unpopular among scientists, who bristle at being described as embedded within and/or devoted to the cult of objectivity, a central dogma of the "religion of science". The more I think about this, the more astounded I am that I missed it at first, seeing as I have a graduate degree in this field! D'oh...

And finally, more interesting work along these lines is emerging all the time. The latest Buddhist Geeks podcast (video here) describes observable differences in brain functioning after only 8 weeks of MBSR training, and clearly distinguishes how the experience of pain, for example, is processed very, very differently by beginners vs. experienced meditators. Most (but not all) people who get enlightened are, of course, experienced meditators; but this should be no more surprising than, say, the observation that most people who complete marathons are experienced runners in the context of a discussion of purely physical development.