The Neuroscience Of Enlightenment

[Excerpted from the new book Power Up Your Brain: The Neuroscience of Enlightenment by David Perlmutter,
M.D., F.A.C.N. and Alberto Villoldo, Ph.D., courtesy of the authors and their publisher, Hay House.]

Can neuroscience deliver on the promises presented by religion: freedom from suffering, violence, scarcity, and disease? Can neuroscience deliver us into a life where health, peace, and abundance reign?

The pledges of the world’s religions are so universal that it’s likely the longing for joy, inner peace, and well-being are hardwired into the human brain and have become a social instinct as powerful as the drive to procreate. The Bible, the Koran, and Buddhist and Hindu scriptures all teach that we can be delivered into a paradisiacal state, whether after death, at the end of time, following many reincarnations, or as a result of personal effort and merit. This state of liberation is called grace or Heaven by Christian religions, Paradise by Muslims, while Eastern traditions refer to it as awakening or enlightenment, using various terms such as samadhi, mukti, bodhi, satori, and nirvana.

But what if grace, samadhi, and enlightenment are really based in biological science? What if they are states of higher order and complexity created by programmable circuits in the brain? What if these circuits could make it possible to attain lifelong joy, inner peace, health, and well-being now, in this physical world, and not in some distant future or afterlife?

The Brain and Enlightenment

So with all this expanded brain power, what are we striving for? In the East, enlightenment has traditionally been associated with qualities such as generosity, compassion, peaceful acceptance, and an experience of oneness with all creation. In the fiercely individualistic West, our rather vague notion of enlightenment suggests an acceptance of the world as it is, or of discovering how we can change it for the better. Enlightenment for us also implies the common longing for novelty, exploration, and creativity, as personified by the explorers who venture into space.

If we take the Eastern qualities of enlightenment out of their religious context and place them in the realm of biological science, we find that they are attributes associated with the activation of the prefrontal cortex—the newest part of the human brain. On functional MRI scans, people who meditate regularly are shown to have developed brains that are wired differently than the brains of people who don’t meditate. They are better able to remain calm and stress-free, live in peace, and practice compassion. Curiously, their prefrontal cortex is the most active region in their brain during the states they describe as samadhi, or enlightenment. His Holiness the Dalai Lama describes enlightenment as “a state of freedom not only from the counterproductive emotions that drive the process of cyclic existence, but also from the predispositions established in the mind by those afflictive emotions.” The Dalai Lama is suggesting that enlightenment is a state of freedom from destructive emotions and from the limiting beliefs and repetitive behaviors created by these emotions.

Generosity and compassion arise only when the prefrontal cortex is able to throttle back the more prehistoric regions of the brain. Yet, for the prefrontal cortex to create functional pathways for joy and peace, the entire body and brain need to be healthy, fed with the proper nutrients, and trained with an inner discipline. We must heal our bodies and minds to empower the prefrontal cortex—the new brain, which is biologically programmable for bliss, extraordinary longevity, peace, and regeneration. For too long, this brain region has been kept offline, silenced by the same forces—scarcity, violence, and trauma—from which it promises to deliver us.

Once this new region in the brain is brought online, brain synergy is possible. Synergy means that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Engineers are familiar with how synergy operates. The tensile strength of stainless steel, for example, is nearly ten times greater than the tensile strength of iron, even though stainless steel is basically iron with a minute amount of carbon added to it. Both carbon and iron, by themselves, are brittle and flake easily. Yet, when combined, they make an extraordinarily strong material.

Brain synergy signifies a neurocomputer whose circuits are all turned on, tuned in, and operating collaboratively, each region attending to its functions—much as the heart attends to circulating blood while the lungs attend to respiration—creating a system that cannot be defined or even described by its component parts.

Reinforcing Toxic Neural Pathways and Subconscious Beliefs

Neural networks are a plastic, dynamic architecture, a constellation of neurons that light up momentarily to perform a specific task. This is why, as you mull over a particular thought (good or bad) or practice a particular activity (beneficial or detrimental), you reinforce the neural networks that correlate with those thoughts and skills. Each time a situation reminds you of an actual fearful or dangerous experience from your past and instinctual emotions are brought up, that specific neural network is reinforced. We strengthen the toxic emotions and neural networks in our limbic brain and begin to create subconscious beliefs about life. These beliefs drive our actions and reactions in all experiences.

PTSD, Emotional Stress, and Suffering

When we are exposed to severe trauma, we can develop a condition known as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Studies show that most people are likely to experience at least one life-threatening or violent event in their lifetime. The studies indicate that even if a person recovers from PTSD, he or she may continue to show mild symptoms. With PTSD many of life’s typical events are inappropriately routed through the limbic brain, where we relive, at least from an emotional perspective, the heart-wrenching trauma of events that may have occurred decades ago. PTSD is compounded because the limbic brain, primal as it is, can’t tell time and therefore can’t distinguish the difference between a painful event that occurred 20 years ago and the memory of that event triggered by a similar situation today. As an example, it was common for soldiers who returned from the Gulf War and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to become anxious or distressed when they heard fireworks or other sudden loud noises because their limbic brain did not understand it was no longer in the theater of war. Similarly, couples who go through a bitter divorce may recoil in shock when they hear each other’s voice many years after the marriage has ended.

But you do not have to be diagnosed with PTSD to have even seemingly benign events trigger intense emotional reactions.

This reinforcement can be done without our knowledge or when we are milking an emotional trauma for sympathy, whether from others or from ourselves. We might say, for example, “I don’t have to act maturely; after all, I had a terrible childhood.” By creating and repeating such a statement, we reinforce neural networks and emotional habits that are as distinct as the postural habits from an old whiplash injury that has affected the vertebra and muscles of the spine. These networks give rise to emotions, then beliefs that keep us favoring past pain, as well as behaviors that continually reinforce the trauma as well as the pity we have learned to so successfully milk.

While such a repetitive, circular pattern once served to ensure our survival, it has become toxic and has given rise to erroneous beliefs about the world and acquaintances, friends, and even family. Because beliefs can be unconscious, they may present themselves in ways that surprise us. We may start an intimate relationship that falls apart when we discover the person is not really who we thought he or she was, but the situation might actually be the product of our own unconscious belief that we will never find a partner. Likewise, we may have a terrific career opportunity that collapses because deep down we believe that we are not worthy.

Oddly enough, you can actually reinforce the toxic networks established by traumas by reacting with fear to a perceived threat. Unfortunately, whenever a situation is even faintly similar to some painful event from your past, a red flag goes up in your mammalian brain and you perceive it as a possible threat. This is because trauma is not what actually happened but how you stored it as a story in your mind. That is to say, you are impacted by what you believe occurred. And this story is kept alive below the threshold of consciousness, without your thinking or being aware.

[Footnotes omitted.] From Power Up Your Brain: The Neuroscience of Enlightenment

David Perlmutter, M.D., F.A.C.N., A.B.I.H.M., is a Board-certified neurologist and Fellow of the American College of Nutrition who received his medical degree from the University of Miami School of Medicine where he was awarded the Leonard G. Rowntree Research Award. After completing his residency training in neurology, also at the University of Miami, Dr. Perlmutter entered private practice in Naples, Florida.

Dr. Perlmutter is a frequent lecturer at symposia sponsored by such medical institutions as Columbia University, the University of Arizona, Scripps Institute, and Harvard University. He has contributed extensively to the world medical literature with publications appearing in The Journal of Neurosurgery, The Southern Medical Journal, Journal of Applied Nutrition, and Archives of Neurology. He is the author of The Better Brain Book and Raise a Smarter Child by Kindergarten, and is recognized internationally as a leader in the field of nutritional influences in neurological disorders. Dr. Perlmutter has been interviewed on many nationally syndicated radio and television programs including 20/20, Larry King Live, CNN, Fox News, Fox and Friends, the Today show, The Oprah Winfrey Show, Dr. Oz, Montel Across America, and The CBS Early Show.

In 2002 Dr. Perlmutter was the recipient of the Linus Pauling Award for his innovative approaches to neurological disorders, and in addition, was awarded the Denham Harmon Award for his pioneering work in the application of free radical science to clinical medicine. He is the recipient of the 2006 National Nutritional Foods Association Clinician of the Year Award and was awarded the 2010 Humanitarian of the Year award from the American College of Nutrition in October, 2010. Website: www.DrPerlmutter.com


Alberto Villoldo, Ph.D., the author of numerous best-selling books, is a psychologist and medical anthropologist who has studied the spiritual practices of the Amazon and the Andes for more than 25 years. While at San Francisco State University, he founded the Biological Self-Regulation Laboratory to study how the mind creates psychosomatic health and disease. Dr. Villoldo directs The Four Winds Society, where he instructs individuals throughout the world in the practice of energy medicine and soul retrieval. He has training centers in New England; California; the U.K.; the Netherlands; and Park City, Utah. An avid skier, hiker, and mountaineer, he leads annual expeditions to the Amazon and the Andes to work with the wisdom teachers of the Americas. Website: www.thefourwinds.com

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  • Anonymous

    Do doctors think the brain is the same thing as the mind? Perhaps he should consult a little deeper than surface observations. The perverbial “let’s poke and prod it with a stick” method doesn’t scratch the surface of the multi-dimensial aspects of being.
    The body and brain are like a car and its on-board computer. It’s a wonderful machine but it can’t do anything without the person (mind) that controls it. Its only a machine. It is not conscious. The brain serves as a control, calculation and storage device to serve the body and mind. It is not the mind itself. It is a tool of the mind/self.
    It is not the self.
    If the doctor had ever spoken in depth with any shamans worth their salt he would know that compared to WILL -the brain is slaved hardware.

    Come on, the man is wearing a business suit as he stands in front of a scene of natural beauty to sell another
    dubious self help book. What a shill….

  • GoodDoktorBad

    Do doctors think the brain is the same thing as the mind? Perhaps he should consult a little deeper than surface observations. The perverbial “let’s poke and prod it with a stick” method doesn’t scratch the surface of the multi-dimensial aspects of being.
    The body and brain are like a car and its on-board computer. It’s a wonderful machine but it can’t do anything without the person (mind) that controls it. Its only a machine. It is not conscious. The brain serves as a control, calculation and storage device to serve the body and mind. It is not the mind itself. It is a tool of the mind/self.
    It is not the self.
    If the doctor had ever spoken in depth with any shamans worth their salt he would know that compared to WILL -the brain is slaved hardware.

    Come on, the man is wearing a business suit as he stands in front of a scene of natural beauty to sell another
    dubious self help book. What a shill….

  • Youdontneed
  • dcm

    In the Universe of Us all as One, all things, that is, ALL things, have reality and thus validity. The particular perspective shapes the perception, but all sight lines are equal. That said, we want to honor and respect each point of view as being appropriate within one’s position in the spectrum of consciousness frequencies, octaves, and bandwidths … densities and dimensions … domains and realms. And we could render compassion from the Heart, so as to transcend our own pride and arrogance within the universal, ongoing Egoic principle.

    In a well-tailored suit and tie, his look is crisp and elegant, rather than the often frumpy, dumpy look that soft-constructed, non-tailored clothes create on camera. This wardrobe choice is simply more ‘photogenic,’ if you will.
    The outer packaging is meant to be bypassed, on the way toward the inner content — which revelas lucid, aware, spiritual sensitivity.

    His description of the physiological biomechanics of the spiritually developed consciousness is very edifying as a much-needed, rational clarification of the what/why/how of metaphysical unfolding within the individual psyche. His explanation serves our Western dynamic well, especially so because it is tempered with a mature spiritual consciousness.

    I wish you humility and insight in your inner travels, sweetness of temperament and generosity of spirit. And thank you for expressing your astute though perhaps acrid observations, too. As we experience our own difference between our spiritual ego and our spiritual heart, we become actually ‘spiritualized.’ How about that!!

    Anyways, all paths lead home . . . . … ..
    Good energy!

  • dcm

    In the Universe of Us all as One, all things, that is, ALL things, have reality and thus validity. The particular perspective shapes the perception, but all sight lines are equal. That said, we want to honor and respect each point of view as being appropriate within one’s position in the spectrum of consciousness frequencies, octaves, and bandwidths … densities and dimensions … domains and realms. And we could render compassion from the Heart, so as to transcend our own pride and arrogance within the universal, ongoing Egoic principle.

    In a well-tailored suit and tie, his look is crisp and elegant, rather than the often frumpy, dumpy look that soft-constructed, non-tailored clothes create on camera. This wardrobe choice is simply more ‘photogenic,’ if you will.
    The outer packaging is meant to be bypassed, on the way toward the inner content — which revelas lucid, aware, spiritual sensitivity.

    His description of the physiological biomechanics of the spiritually developed consciousness is very edifying as a much-needed, rational clarification of the what/why/how of metaphysical unfolding within the individual psyche. His explanation serves our Western dynamic well, especially so because it is tempered with a mature spiritual consciousness.

    I wish you humility and insight in your inner travels, sweetness of temperament and generosity of spirit. And thank you for expressing your astute though perhaps acrid observations, too. As we experience our own difference between our spiritual ego and our spiritual heart, we become actually ‘spiritualized.’ How about that!!

    Anyways, all paths lead home . . . . … ..
    Good energy!

    • Threedinium

      Never heard the phrase ‘If you see the Buddha on your path, kill him’ I suppose.

  • Quidtum

    Buddhists and Hindus posit rebirth in accordance with one’s actions (thought, word & deed). They do not posit afterlife in heaven.

  • Quidtum

    Buddhists and Hindus posit rebirth in accordance with one’s actions (thought, word & deed). They do not posit afterlife in heaven.

  • David

    Dianetics is about mechanisms of traumatic experiences and how to clear these experiences.
    (altough I consider myself Buddhist)

  • David

    Dianetics is about mechanisms of traumatic experiences and how to clear these experiences.
    (altough I consider myself Buddhist)

  • Threedinium

    Never heard the phrase ‘If you see the Buddha on your path, kill him’ I suppose.

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