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Ancient Teachings and Modern Science Agree: It's All in Your Head

Sidhartha Gautama - the Buddha - in meditation.
Wikimedia Commons

The Buddha, Sidhartha Gautama, is famously quoted as saying:
   "The mind is everything.
    All that we are is the result of what we have thought.
    What we think we become."

Fast forward two and a half millenia, and neuroscientist Dr. André Fenton will tell you the same thing.

From optical illusions, to placebo effect and the power of meditation, modern neuroscience is affirming the ability – the amazing ability - of our brains to shape our reality. We know that each of us perceives the world differently, remembers different things, and that what we remember then influences what we see and remember in the future. Figuring out how the brain does what it does, though, that is one of the great mysteries of our age.

The brain is arguably the most complex organ in our bodies. Fenton, a professor at the Center for Neural Science at New York University and founder of Bio-Signal Group Corp., says it may be the most complex system in the universe. The human brain contains some 80 billion neurons, each of which is connected to perhaps 10,000 others.

Over time, scientists have studied the brain at finer and finer scales, as technology has allowed. Two hundred years ago, the size and shape of the brain was the focus of attention. Now, scientists have the ability to track individual molecules inside single cells. Information about the function of specific molecules can lead to the development of drugs for the treatment of mental illnesses and neurodegenerative diseases.

It's increasingly understood, though, that the network of connections between neurons, and the interaction of our brains with the outside world are also critically important. Lack of understanding about the broader context in which natural brain chemicals and pharmaceuticals are acting can lead to unwanted side effects. On the other hand, cognitive therapy - utilizing the brain's ability to modify itself in response to experiences, even if we don't completely understand how it does it - can be a powerful treatment tool.

Fenton argues we need to study the brain on all levels - from single molecules to global social networks, ideally, simultaneously - to truly understand what is going on and how. He concedes that is not necessarily realistic. In the meantime, Fenton fantasizes about a mode of treatment for mental illness that uses pharmaceutical interventions to put the brain into its most receptive state, then uses cognitive therapy to alter how the brain reacts to the outside world.

For himself and others without diagnosed mental illnesses or brain diseases, Fenton prescribes a regimen of mindfulness. It's a recommendation long issued by Buddhist gurus and meditation experts. Fenton admits he might not have heeded those recommendations alone, but they are now solidly backed by neuroscience.

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