Shambhala Sun – This is Your Brain on Mindfulness (July 2011)

This is Your Brain on Mindfulness

Meditators say their practice fundamentally changes the way they experience life. MICHAEL BAIME reports on how modern neuroscience is explaining this in biological terms.


Note the balanced brain on the right

One of the most interesting areas of research on the effects of contemplative practices has explored the possibility that the actual structure of the brain is changed by meditation practice. Several neuroscientists have shown that some of the brain regions activated during meditation are actually different in people who meditate regularly, and the most recent evidence suggests that the changes can occur in as little as eight weeks. This finding is at odds with what we think we know about brain structure in adults. We used to believe that sometime shortly after twenty-five or thirty years of age the brain was finished with growth and development. From then on, the brain became progressively impaired by age and injury, and it was all downhill from there. But recent meditation research suggests that this glum outcome may not be inevitable. Meditation practice is associated with changes of specific brain areas that are essential for attention, learning, and the regulation of emotion.

via Shambhala Sun – This is Your Brain on Mindfulness (July 2011).

What Is Metabolic Snapback and What Has It Got to Do with the Bigger Picture?

Ever since I discovered Tom Campbell a couple of weeks ago, I’ve been contemplating his big TOE, but haven’t had the opportunity to listen to more. That’s okay: I like to see where the germinating seeds of a new way of looking at things take me before I go back and follow the source’s train of thought. This seems to give my imagination scope for exploration before the other side of my brain gets bogged down in details. The concept of a digital universe was more than enough to let my imagination run riot and I’ve been applying it to everything I’ve run across this week.

The first thing that came up was a comment from my friend James Walker ( I met James in Sydney when I attended a series of workshops he was giving on an extraordinary energetic healing technique. James is a student (if that’s the right word) of A Course in Miracles, which is a book that takes non-dualism to new levels, if that’s possible. It’s completely uncompromising in its approach, relentlessly reminding the student that all phenomena is illusory.

Because Thomas Campbell is a physicist and an astral explorer, at first glance it seems as if he is caught up in quite a few illusory universes. However, I think his ultimate point is that consciousness itself is the only reality. He does, however, acknowledge the relative reality of evolution as a means by which consciousness experiences itself. This is not unlike the Hindu concept of “lila” – a kind of cosmic game.

Campbell talks about entropy being the dissipation of energy and the reduction of entropy as being the goal of evolution. The greater the reduction of entropy, he says, the closer we get towards the Truth. What is the Truth? He seems to agree with my favourite sage, Walt Whitman, who says, “A kelson of creation is love.” On the way to this all embracing, all inclusive cosmic consciousness, though, we fight our way upstream against a current of duality. In Campbell’s view, this is represented by positive and negative currents of energy. The obvious parallel with this is the Taoist concept of Yin and Yang.

The basic idea of Yin and Yang is not to favour one or the other, but to achieve balance. Harmony, peace of mind and health are all achieved through balancing the natural forces or energies of nature. And this, at last, brings me to the subject of this post.

Neil Slade wrote an amusing newsletter this week about how, after being on a high after his brain radar netted him an immaculate $1200 mountain bike for $50, his voice recorder was stolen from his car. He talked about how after 40 years of “clicking forward” into the blissful and highly intuitive realms of the higher brain, he still found himself clicking backwards and how he has learned to accept this as part of the deal.  For some reason, the words “metabolic snapback” kept coming into my mind as I read his post. I knew I had read those words before, but wasn’t sure where, so I googled them.

The two top search results were from a site I visited about ten years ago. A guy named Todd Murphy was selling a “Shakti helmet” that basically used weak electromagnetic currents to stimulate little used parts of the brain. As flakey as it sounds,  if you spend a little time on the site, you’ll discover, as I did, that it is based on sound research. The helmet was way too expensive for me, though: hence the 10 year absence. There are now improved versions of the device, but they are also too expensive for me, so it looks like I’ll miss out on enlightenment this time around – at least electromagnetically induced enlightenment.

The author of the Shakti helmet site has some special pages for users telling them what to expect when they use it regularly. One of these things is a phenomenon he calls metabolic snapback. They should expect to experience very pleasant sensations, sometimes followed by unpleasant or neutral sensations. These are caused, in his opinion, by the activities of the amygdala and the hippocampus, both of which have  positive and negative functions.

Like TDA Lingo, Neil Slade and an increasing number of neuroscientists, Murphy recognises the dualistic nature of the amygdala, which earlier generations of researchers firmly believed was entirely negative, having only to do with the fight or flight mechanism. In an interesting twist, Murphy says that it is the left amygdala that is associated with feelings of euphoria or rapture, while the right is associated with negative emotions. As those of you who are familiar with TDA Lingo or Neil Slade know, they talk about both amygdala (amygdalae?) working in conjunction with one another, clicking forward into “frontal lobes bliss” or backwards into “reptilian fear and anger.”

Personally, I don’t care which theory is correct. The important thing is that we are not slaves to our instincts and the triune brain and split brain models both work well as tools for brain self control. However, they do have their limitations: namely, they are physical models of reality. Mercifully, Thomas Campbell gives us another way to look at the brain – as a digital processor. He also emphasises that the point is not to favour one side of the brain over another, but to use the whole brain. When the whole brain is activated, we have access to the Bigger Picture.

Metabolic snapback seems to me to be the brain’s attempt to normalise things. This is fine up to a point, but since we are habitually locked up in the smaller world of our limited perceptions, we need to keep tweaking the system. This, I believe, can only be done by continually questioning our belief systems, whatever they may be. Ramana Maharishi recommended asking yourself, “Who Am I?” Some say the literal translation should be, “What am I?” but that’s a detail. The point is to question our perception of “reality.” What the ultimate answer is, I can’t say with authority, but I can say that this questioning opens up worlds of possibility while at the same time removing annoyingly limiting beliefs.

This continual short-circuiting of our habitual mode of thinking will have its ups and downs, perhaps due to metabolic snapback, but ironically, instead of leading to greater entropy, leads to a reduction of entropy. Why? All you have to do is observe your thought processes and it becomes obvious that an unfocused mind is dissipating energy like mad. Meditation, self enquiry, prayer and other forms of mental discipline focus and quiet the mind. Speaking of which, I’ll close now and let my mind settle down.

Thanks to those who have offered comments. It’s nice to know I’m not blogging to myself.