Gray Matters: Brain Science in the 21st Century

Fascinating and enlightening panel discussion on the human brain. All nice and clean, though, in my mind, where it gets tricky (and for that matter, sticky)  is when some of the honorable scientists start to flirt with various forms of spirituality –  transcendental meditation, Zen, mindfulness training or even the old-fashioned Catholic prayer being the paramount examples. (See the segment from min 47. to approx. 50) Meditation and other so-called spiritual exercises are not a Wunderwaffe.  In fact, they are terribly overrated. In terms of the “beneficial effects on the brain”, I believe there are no substantial difference between meditating on a Zen koan, watching a horror movie or reading Plato’s dialogues. In all of these cases, one’s attention is being directed to a particular image, thought or activity. Thus the universal aspect, which they all share is – enter the magic word –  attention. Now, we have a choice to make here, either you read a book and actually learn something new or watch a stupid movie and have a good laugh or sit silently for 20 minutes focusing on the inhalation of air in your bodily system. Now, why would you want to meditate? You may say: “But I want to find my inner bliss, I long for happiness, –  (or to put it more pompously) – I seek enlightenment. And to attain these lofty goals of mine, every now and then, I meditate for 20 plus minutes.” You could argue even further and state what the brain-scientists have discovered over the past decades, which would presumably give the scientific validity card in your hand to play.

I  am sorry for stepping on your feelings, but meditation and all the other “newly-discovered” trendy esoteric psycho-babble  just won’t cut it for me. As a matter of fact, scientists are not in agreement on the overall benefits of meditation (I may add the references later). In fact, the over-insistence on the favorable effects of cross-legged sitting session, counting of in-breaths and out-breaths, or a repetitive chanting of an unfathomable mantra may be another red herring to distract the masses from doing something useful with their lives. Meditation is a placebo, at best. At worst, it is a barbarian form of brainwashing. And if you diligently practice it, you might produce wonders – indeed – you might become another man. You might not even recognize yourself and others anymore (fascinating, is it not?). In short, meditation may have just as many serious undesirable side-effects as the supposed positive ones. People who meditate (or practice some other form of spiritual gymnastics) regularly may appear calm and relaxed, even charming and charismatic to an extent and possess an aura of saintliness. No doubt, these are wonderful characteristics to have and many of us are desperately aspiring to attain, cultivate or fake them. Yet, this is only one side of the medal, there is another – much darker and gloomier. Haven’t you noticed how serious meditators along with the legion of good ones have developed a certain trance-like (zombie-ish) behavioral qualities and have become increasingly insensitive towards other people (and the surrounding environment)? Well, I have. Meditation closes and clouds your mind. If you want to change your life, do not fall for the trap of spiritual exercises. Believe me, I have tried it. They are a waste of time. The only thing you should do, is to read more. Reading is meditation on steroids.

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October 11, 2012 · 12:42 pm

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