Articles and Interviews
Science and Mind
It is morning. The orb of the sun shines like it has been for millennia. Countless human eyes have been gazing at a new day from the time when our brains acquired the ability to reflect upon things, wondering at how the sun disappears and appears again. They perhaps worshipped this awesome object in the sky and along with that awe was also another incredible human motivator - curiosity. A why, a what. And on its heels almost tripping over that first thought – why am I, what am I?
Yoga is an ancient codified system of disciplining the body and mind to make it fit for enquiry into the nature of self. At its core is the realization that the mind and the body are intimately connected, that in reality the one influences the other. It is a profound insight for its time, by no means intuitive, at a time when knowledge of human physiology was limited. How did the idea take shape that focusing and controlling the way one breathes, disciplining the body and the senses can lead to profound alternations in the state of ones mind? Such understanding must have been based on careful observation that the body can influence the mind and vise versa. In contrast to knowledge about the workings of the corporeal body, the mind has remained directly inaccessible for a long time. Therefore knowledge about the workings of the mind and the various mental states would have been gained from personal experience that was then taught and transmitted. And as it was transmitted from teacher to student it was probably refined and validated by the experience of others. Today we classify this method of acquiring information as subjective knowledge. In contrast, observations that were made on the corporeal body and the effects of various influences on the body could be directly observed and validated by others, out there, external to us. This knowledge therefore came to be perceived as more objective.
Neuroscience is the scientific discipline that seeks to understand the brain and its functioning in all its aspects. From questions about how the brain is put together to how the brain processes information about the outside world to our most central aspect - our emotional life. Fundamental to neuroscience is the belief that the mind and the brain are one and the same. There is no duality. This is based on the tenet that all changes in the state of the mind are reflected in brain state changes.
The brain is the physical substrate; the mind is what results, the phenomenon. Perhaps the meaning of the brain is the mind. In the same sense that a bunch of alphabets strung together is the substrate but the meaning is the reason for that arrangement. The meaning is as real as the letters, though you cannot see it or touch it as you can the letters themselves. In that sense the mind is just as real as the brain. We can see the brain, its constituents, of how it works; we can even hear it, the little electrical discharges by which the brain communicates within itself and with the rest of the body. How do we see the mind? And if the self is the mind then can I see the self? Does that even make sense or have I gotten myself into some philosophical mess?
A reasonable hypothesis based on studies in neuroscience informs us that the mental world, the mind, arises from the interaction between different physical modules that are present in the brain. If we accept this hypothesis as a starting point then it follows that the way these modules are put together, trained, and accessed will determine the mental state. How can this be done? As an example, at one level the practice of yoga involves an awareness of the body and of making it strong and fit since this is thought to be essential for the cultivation of a healthy attitude of the mind. Over the last decade research in neuroscience has shown that forms of physical exercise increases the birth of new neurons in the brain and perhaps the integration of these neurons into new functional circuits. In addition these scientific studies have shown that these processes may be crucial to the reduction of stress levels and the feelings of depression, which are mental states.
But one may argue that any form of physical exercise that keeps the body fit would have this effect. So why yoga? The answer to that may lie in the fact that one aspect of the practice of yoga is mindfulness, which differentiates it from other forms of physical exercise.
What is mindfulness? Perhaps it is a mental state that results from a bringing together of different modules in precisely such a way as to bring about a particular state which we may call awareness or attention. Attention itself is a complex process that involves several brain regions and is central to the decision of what kind of information we process and how we process that information. It is possible that the practice of yoga in some way brings about a holistic engagement of several modules or networks within the brain, which then becomes a mind state that is entirely different from say how other forms of physical exercise may influence these brain networks.
Studies on Buddhist mediators have shown that the very nature of brain circuits and the way the brain processes information may change with the practice of meditation.
People in general tend to talk about the positive mental state change as a benefit of yoga. But is yoga really different than say achieving a positive mental state change through drugs? And in fact there is so much that is being discovered on the chemical nature and the neuronal circuits that are involved in emotional states that a recent study showed that a person’s feeling of desire for another person could be manipulated by simply exposing that person to a puff of a chemical. What this and other studies are increasingly pointing to is the fact that the notion of free will may be just an illusion.
So is there anything about the practice of yoga that cannot be substituted by either physical exercise or the taking of substances that alter the state of the mind? Might it be that the way the brain circuits are tweaked and activated is unique to the practice of yoga that is hard to mimic by any other means? Intriguingly, can the practice of yoga allow us to widen the limit of free will allowing our choices and actions to become less predictable?
Today technology and neuroscience is increasingly allowing us to visualize these various brain modules and networks and their activity, allowing us to see the mind if you will. The experiential knowledge that has been gathered by astute observers and practitioners of yoga over time can now perhaps be observed. Just as a physician went by the symptoms described by the patient to deduce the nature of the disease and subjective descriptions can be correlated by an objective MRI scans, scientists can ask a person who talks about the experiential changes after doing yoga for many years about how the way the brain processes information and the activation of various brain areas have changed.
The internal - external divide can be explored by looking at brain modules when the mind state is -
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude;
then my heart with pleasure fills,
As compared to -
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden daffodils;
the lake, beneath the trees,
Finally, why would one want to engage various brain modules in a way that yoga might be doing? From a utilitarian point of view, to what purpose? Might it be that the mind state of the Buddhist notion of objectless compassion that stems from an appreciation that somehow in someway we are all linked can be cultivated through the practice of yoga? Might it be that cultivation of this state would lead to less global misery? Is it possible that yoga offers a tried and tested way of achieving this uniquely today?
I would like to end with the following poem written after my visit to Gujarat after the pogrom in 2002.
Evil is finite.
In limited ways
cut an arm
rip a stomach
plunge a sword
shoot a heart.
will be conquered
with love that is infinite.
In limitless ways will
in every child
I will defeat you by the
sheer number of my
inventive limitless ways.
(The lines of poetry in italics are taken from "Daffodils" by William Wordsworth. I gratefully acknowledge the lively discussions that I have had with Dr. Aditya Murthy over such and other issues)
About the Author: Shyamala Mani, Ph.D. is Assistant Professor, Molecular and Cellular Neuroscience, at the National Brain Research Centre, Manesar, Haryana.