The neuroscience of now

Some esoteric or spiritual authors say that in order to be more enlightened and awakened you need to be more present, and you to release yourself from the desires of the ego – an essentially Buddhist point of view – so that you are able to see things as they really are.

From a neuroscience point of view there is some merit in this, and let me explain how. First of all we segment the brain to a number of functional areas. The first split would be the planning and executive function part of the brain (the frontal and pre-frontal lobe), next would be the processing areas (the parietal, temporal and occipital lobes), then attentional part of the brain (the brain stem and reticular activating system) and then the emotional part of the brain (primarily the limbic system).

The emotional centre is the first part of the brain to receive information and react to it, and it has strong links to memory,. One very important part of the limbic system (and one most often talked about in popular neurosciece books) is the amygdala. The amygdala, as Rita Carter describes, tastes all incoming stimuli and decides whether or not the stimuli is a threat or not. If we talk about threats, we can have real threats (the treat of being attacked by a vicious dog), or psychological threats (the threat of being fired, losing a loved one). The brain does not distinguish between real and psychological threats; it treats them equally and reacts accordingly. The thing is, real threats are very much in the present, whereas psychological threats tend to be future oriented.

When the brain determines that something is a threat it tags it for memory (stored in the temporal lobes that surround the limbic system). In a sense, who we are is a function of how we process information, what we have stored in memory and how we have tagged that information (either as good or bad). We’re often in a state of thinking about the past or thinking about the future. Very rarely are we in the present. We’re always thinking about what we have done, or planning what we are going to do next. Now thinking about past behaviour, or planning ahead are not not a bad things to do, but when we’re constantly recriminating about the past (what did they think of me) or worried about future (what will they think of me) that we’re activating emotions that cause anxiety (Tolle would say that his anxiety is the result of ego attachment – we are fearful because we desire things to be this way or that). When you’re constantly thinking about the past or the future, you are rarely in the present, and you are often missing what is currently right in front of you. This is where the reticular activating system (RAS) comes into play.

The RAS scans all incoming stimuli and filters what we do and don’t want to attend to, what we think is important and what is not. The RAS acts as as an advance scout looking to see “what do I need to pay attention to”. The scout is informed by our memory banks, and the emotional salience we’ve given to certain things; pay attention to that because it could be good (or bad), ignore that because it does not apply to me.

Think about what happens when you are totally present or focused, or “in the zone” as some sports psychologists say. When we’re in the moment we’re not creating psychological threats or opportunities, and we’re also not filtering out certain things that could be opportunities because they don’t fit with the way we think things should be, because they don’t fit with the way we think about ourselves.

There is some neurlogical basis for being “in the zone”. In some early scanning using fMRI brain scanning of Buddhist monks meditating, scientists noticed that the emotional region was less active than usual, but the part that makes us essentially human, the part that allows us to think about our thinking (the pre-frontal region) was unusually heightened. This suggests that these monks were not (a) were not drawing on memories (emotionally charged) or (b) creating new emotional charged memories.

When we thinking about this in terms of the neuroscience of now; when you are totally present and have no “ego attachment” to things then you dampen the emotional reaction to what you experience. There are two main outcomes of this:

Firstly, dampening the emotional reaction to things  results in reduced anxiety, stress and so on. So instead of reacting to an angry person with emotion, you might react more calmly. Imagine two people; one person is always reacting to life experiences based on “ego attachment” and in doing so builds up a background state of tension, the second person also reacts to experiences life based  on “ego attachment” but periodically practices meditation. Meditation has the effect of reducing overall stress,  so that when the second person reacts to a stressful situation , their reaction is less “emotionally charged” that the first, because they do not react from the springboard of emotionally background tension.

Secondly, because you are do not attach any emotion to what you see, or filter what you see based on previous tagging, then you may see things more clearly; you are then more likely to see both threats and opportunities that you would not have seen before. Our own prejudices are often responsible for assigning the tag “foe” to people who are not really a threat, and for assigning the tag “friend” to people who are are really threatening. Our beliefs about how things are (or should be), and about who we are (or should be), often cause us ignore those opportunities that are presented to us… and this leads me to the topic of goal setting which I shall deal with in another post.