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The Neuroscience of Buhhdism

The Neuroscience of Buhhdism

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Lisa Batten, PhD

Psychology, Nootropics Specialist

Table of contents

The Neuroscience of Buhhdism

Table of contents

Have you ever begun a journey toward a goal and found yourself frustrated and derailed?

It’s something we all go through and more often than not the very thing to blame is our own limiting beliefs. Our limiting beliefs are the ideas and definitions we have about ourselves and the world, the “truths” we accept without question, the voice that tells us to quit, run, or not even bother trying. These ideas lay deeply seeded in the recesses of our minds and control a lot of our thoughts and decisions without us even noticing.

But how does one begin to recognize and change these unhelpful beliefs that so stubbornly guide us astray? As it turns out, Buddhism might have some of the answers we are seeking.


Buddhism and Science

Buddhism is unique compared to other religions in that it has a close relationship with science. Unlike other religions, it doesn’t require belief in God, it encourages people to take nothing on faith alone, and it has a detailed model of the mind that corresponds well with psychology and neurology.

Neuroscientists in particular have taken interest in how the quest towards mastery of the mind in Buddhist practice changes the circuitry of the brain.


Deep Dive Into the Brain

Before we look into how Buddhism can benefit your mind, let’s talk a bit about your brain. Your brain is the control centre for your body. Weighing only 2% of your body weight it consumes 20-25% of your body’s oxygen and glucose [1]. It never shuts off and it has quadrillions of signals firing every few seconds. Each signal in your brain carries information, most of it outside of our conscious awareness. As you engage in mental activity connections strengthen between neurons which builds circuits, the more you engage in that activity- the stronger these circuits become. These circuits are basically the routes your brain takes and dictates how you experience your world. Many circuits are built in childhood, before you even have a chance to assess what’s “true”. Your temperament along with interactions with your world form these pathways that influence your current ideas and belief systems. Unfortunately, not all of the pathways are positive, but just like a road or pathway in real life, they can be changed with some work.

Studies on the brains of Buddhist practitioners have shown us that not all pathways are permanent and we can absolutely build strong circuits to help us overcome our limiting beliefs.

Man in the mountains

Balancing the Seesaw

For centuries, people known as contemplatives have investigated how to quiet the mind in order to get a grasp on unhealthy thinking and to cultivate inner peace, happiness, clarity, and strength. Given what we know about how active the brain is, this is no easy task. Research examining buddhist practitioners have shown significant differences in their brains compared to the normal population [2]. They demonstrate increased activity in areas of attention, learning, memory, and consciousness [3]. They also show an ability to activate the intrinsic and extrinsic networks of the brain simultaneously [4]. This is significant since these networks normally work like a seesaw. The intrinsic network is your default network that focuses on emotions and self, the extrinsic portion of the brain is activated when you are focused on a task in normal day to day life, like cutting up an apple. When one is active the other dips down. This ability of Buddhist monks to elevate both brain networks may be responsible for their feeling of oneness and unity and also helps to explain how they are able to overcome their emotional brain and focus on greater causes, leaving those limiting beliefs in the dust.

Spending time reflecting on the infrastructure of your own mind and learning ways to positively rewire your thinking can actually change how your brain responds to your world.


Overcoming Limiting Beliefs

Overcoming the negatively skewed sections of our brains isn’t easy. We each carry the shadows of our ancestors. That is to say, our wiring is such that we are always scanning for danger and our brains are especially keen to learn from negative experiences. This attribute of our brain was once key to survival but now it mostly just contributes to the saliency of negative experiences and limiting beliefs that form in our minds [5]. Such beliefs can put a negative spin on any experience and cause us to make decisions or avoid trying new things based on negative emotions. Buddhist practice teaches that such negative thinking undermines bhavana, or your personal cultivation or development.In other words, your negative wiring is holding you back from reaching your true potential. Tuning into your own brain might be uncomfortable at first but, research clearly shows that there are great rewards to be found once we learn how to work with our own minds and cultivate the circuitry in more positive ways. In addition to meditation, here are some practices you can engage in to help rewire your brain and begin to conquer limiting beliefs:

  1. Be Mindful- Pay attention to your thoughts, body, and feelings. Tune into your own sense of being as you interact with the world and get better at picking up on how you react to things as they happen and how you feel afterwards. Observing your own self in your world is one of the most important steps toward being able to identify your patterns and implement positive change.
  2. Challenge Negative Thoughts and Beliefs- We are often quick to act on our negative thoughts or believe the first thing that our brain throws at us. Use logic and wisdom to challenge your thinking. When you encounter difficult situations as an adult your brain may be applying expectations it developed from your childhood. Ask yourself whether this response is even applicable to your adult life. Unlike in childhood, you now have choices, power, and resources to deal with your challenges. If you are having a thought that’s holding you back, challenge it! Attending to your own negative thinking can change the landscape of your mind dramatically- repave those roads.
  3. Build Positive Experiences- Be mindful and pay attention to positive experiences and events in your world. Create good feelings by doing nice things, smile at strangers, give to someone in need, or do a friend a favor. Feeling good about your own actions is rewarding. This will help build circuitry and roadmaps in your mind that are positive in nature. Purposefully focus on the positive sensations of good experiences so that you can solidify them in your emotional memory.
  4. Pay Attention- Deliberately focus your attention on positive experiences. Soak in the feelings and sensations that accompany positive events and allow yourself to fully explore those feelings. Notice when someone smiles at you or hugs you, absorb compliments, notice the beautiful sunset, and pay attention to good interactions and deeds. This will not only be rewarding but will help you battle the innate negative thinking that we all face.

While very few of us will reach the ranks of buddhist monks, we can all learn from the positive benefits that Buddhist practice can have on the infrastructure of our brains. Implementing practices to help recognize and conquer limiting beliefs and activate the positive thinking areas of your brain can lead you to overcome your fears, experience your life in a more positive way, and better reach your goals.


  1. Lammert, Eckhard. (2008). Developmental biology. Brain Wnts for blood vessels. Science (New York, N.Y.). 322. 1195-6.
  2. Barinaga, Marcia. (2003). Buddhism and neuroscience. Studying the well-trained mind. Science (New York, N.Y.) 302, 44-6.
  3. O’Connor, Lynn & Rangan, Rk & Berry, Jack & Stiver, David & Hanson, Rick & Ark, Win & Li, Toni. (2015). Empathy, Compassionate Altruism and Psychological Well-Being in Contemplative Practitioners across Five Traditions, Psychology. 6, 989-1000.
  4. Josipovic, Zoran. (2013). Neural correlates of nondual awareness in meditation. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences,1307.
  5. Hanson, Rick & Mendius, Richard. (2011). The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love and Wisdom. Annals Of Neurosciences, 18.
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