Sunday, December 29, 2013

Grounded Cognition

Neuroscientists use the term grounded cognition for a process that broadly includes mind-body-environment interaction. Narrowing down the playing field, one area begs further examination.

Sophisticated scans enlighten us as to the mysterious ways of the brain: the mere remembrance of an activity or experience stimulates neuronal activity in the brain, causing those little balls of energy to fire away as if recalled events were occurring in "real" time.

Thus, it is only logical that one-pointed concentration on a particular event in the memory bank will reactivate it; a nasty breakup makes your stomach churn anew; the delightful memory of a lover's kiss has you staring reverently into space in the middle of a busy office; the smell of lilacs places a childhood hiding place front and center in your inner vision.

Thanks to neuroplasticity, our gray matter develops more of itself in the most frequently activated parts - not unlike a body builder whose pectoral muscles expand with exercises designed to enlarge that area. 

So what part of our brain/psyche do we want to enlarge? The primitive reptilian bit, or the logic bit, or the compassion bit, or the nicotine sensitive area, as well as thousands of other places enfolded in those convoluted coils that function as command central in our complex lives?

Tibetan Buddhist philosophy has been hip to this brain-building process for centuries. In a practice called deity yoga, one pictures a Buddha or Bodhisattva that embodies qualities such as compassion, wisdom, purification, joy, equanimity, etc. These energies can be contemplated via specific visualization techniques given by a qualified lama to the student. The end game: to embody that quality represented in the externally perceived entity such as a Buddha of Compassion; insight then arises as to the non-dual nature of "other" and "self" as the flow of compassion becomes one river.

Outside observers mistaken deity yoga as akin to pantheistic traditions with a plethora of gods and goddesses, but this is not what's going on. The purpose of deity yoga actually echoes grounded cognition. When one perceives a Buddha of Compassion as a visualization beaming his love at you, the brain actually starts registering this phenomenon as real. And voila! One not only feels compassion but the compassion center of the brain actually grows. With enough time logged sitting on one's ass in meditation, the compassion center not only asserts itself as bigger and badder than other parts but it stays with the meditator in his or her "off the cushion" moments. No fake smiles and guilt-ridden acts of charity; compassion in action becomes an effortless, spontaneous event.

While not everyone wants to practice deity yoga Tibetan Buddhist style, it would be wise to understand the impact of thoughts and memories. What one reads, sees at the movies, speaks to others, speaks to oneself, imagines, or projects - the stories we tell ourselves about how things are - all have significant impact on how our brains develop.

We are literally growing ourselves with every thought. So buyers beware. You are what you remember.

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