“The amygdala pervades the organisation of thought and behaviour at all levels.”
Ralph Adolphs, expert on emotion, memory and social cognition, California Institute of Technology
“By attuning the brain to all manner of threats and pleasures.. the amygdala helps to confer emotional significance on a wide range of experiences. The amygdala helps to give life meaning.”
(David Dobbs, Scientific American)
While trekking in Nepal in the 1970’s, Colorado businessman Adam Engle was so impressed by the warmth and compassion of the Buddhist lamas that, with the late Franciso J Varela, a neuroscientist and Buddhist practitioner, he later co-founded the Mind & Life Institute in Colorado, “to see if we can bridge the gap” between science and spirituality. (Scientific American Mind, Feb/Mar 2006, p40)
They have a blog with some very interesting posts, including this one about an 8 week meditation program which shows measurable changes in brain regions associated with memory, sense of self, empathy and stress.
In a study that will appear in the January 30 issue of Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging, a team led by Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) researchers report the results of the first study to document meditation-produced changes over time in the brain’s grey matter.
An expert in facial expressions and emotion, Paul Ekman, found that Buddhist lamas were able to correctly interpret facial expressions “much faster and more accurately” than thousands of other people he tested over the years, including lawyers, policemen and judges. It thus became apparent that meditation strengthened the parts of the brain dealing with the recognition of emotion, and this has a huge implication for the fabric of our society.
How important is the innate ability to discern truth? Last week a woman who had been a suspect in the murder of her six year old son has been cleared by new evidence – after twenty five years. On closer inspection we see the evidence was there all along, but was completely ignored by the legal experts:
Nicholas Loris, 6, was found strangled to death 150 yards from his Davidson County, N.C., home on Feb. 21, 1987.
The Forsyth County Sheriff’s Department credited new technology with helping them to clear Elizabeth Watkins’ name and determine that her son’s cause of death was a dog attack.
“Not only has she been exonerated but the weight from the last 25 years has been lifted from her shoulders,” Watkins’ attorney, David Freedman, told ABCNews.com. “It means everything to her.”
Spending the past 25 years as a suspect cost Watkins a relationship with her older son, who went to live with his father after she became a suspect, as well as the burden of search warrants, DNA tests and always wondering what really happened to Nicholas.
In partnership with the FBI, investigators were able to use new technology to blow up photographs and determine that the claw and scratch marks on the boy’s body came from a number of medium-sized dogs. Nicholas died from strangulation after the dogs pulled his clothing tightly around his neck.
“Once investigators were able to see the wounds up close, they were able to see they were consistent with a dog attack,” Freedman said.
Bill Schatzman, Forsyth County Sheriff, announced at a press conference Thursday that Watkins had been exonerated and the case was officially closed. (ABC World news)
It’s a shame these emotional cripples were unable to recognise a bereaved mother’s emotions. I can barely imagine the trauma of a mother losing the son she gave birth to, then being accused of his death, and as a result abandoned by her only other son, and then having to live under this shadow of grief and blame for a quarter of a century. Leaving aside the imbeciles who failed to spot signs of what must have been a ferocious dog attack on a young boy, I cannot accept that any judge should be incapable of distinguishing grief from guilt.
There are so many cases to choose to show how little interest the legal system has in its clients that it’s hard to know where to start. The problem seems to be a preconceived notion which infleucnes all subsequent interpretations, no matter the evidence which may refute the original, prejudiced conclusion.
Studies have shown that meditation has both short-term and long-term effects on various perceptual faculties: consider the Poggendorff illusion, in which the black line broken by the vertical shape seems to be continued by the blue line. The error is caused by the brain translating the shift from left to right without taking into account the amount of vertical movement:
In 2000, Tloczynski et al. studied the perception of visual illusions by zen masters, novice meditators, and non-meditators. There were statistically significant effects found for the Poggendorff illusion (above). The zen masters experienced a statistically significant reduction in initial illusion (measured as error in millimeters) and a lower decrement in illusion for subsequent trials.
“A person who meditates consequently perceives objects more as directly experienced stimuli and less as concepts… With the removal or minimization of cognitive stimuli and generally increasing awareness, meditation can therefore influence both the quality (accuracy) and quantity (detection) of perception.”
In other words, the amygdala, properly trained in meditation, tends to recognise truth rather than reacting along preconceived lines even in emotionally neutral optical illusions, where sheer mechanical judgement is required. So the skill has nothing to do with enhanced trust or naiivete. It even increases one’s mechanical accuracy. Nowhere is perception of truth more in demand than in law enforcement and the judiciary.
It has long been known that the large number of coloured people convicted of crimes in America, especially in the South, is largely because of racial prejudice amongst those in the court system. But even so, it is hard to believe the sheer neglect of duty and disinterest than in the case of Ryan Matthews:
Ryan’s trial lawyers had only met Ryan twice during their preparation. They never discussed the facts of his case with him, what he knew about the shooting, or asked him what he was doing that night. They didn’t know that he had a half-brother in a wheelchair who had been shot in the back.
They had never been to the scene of the crime or spoken to the eyewitnesses who couldn’t identify anyone at the time of the shooting but managed to identify Ryan years later, never stressed to the jury the significance of the fact that the DNA in the ski mask worn by the killer was not Ryan’s, never talked to the guy who’d been boasting in prison about killing a white guy in his store, never found out that the boastful guy was in prison for manslaughter, never found out that his DNA matched that inside the ski mask.
In short, they never believed they were representing an innocent boy, though his innocence would later be proven.
(Shauneen Lamb, Guardian)
This shocking disability is bad enough in an ordinary person but inexcusable in brains responsible for discerning truth, yet the legal system seems to thoroughly perpetuate it. How many cases of innocence are revealed after decades, because of new forensic or DNA tests? Our professionals concern themselves with legal formalities and lose track of their own senses, just as it has been found that using SatNavs disable the brain’s own spatial mapping abilities. Could it be that using a crutch weakens one’s legs? Can such things be?
We have shrugged off the responsibility to discern truth for ourselves and fobbed the job off to experts, and they, in turn, to their machinery. It’s much easier to absolve ourselves of blame and point to a tedious legal precedent. Behind this freakish display of stupidity can only be an under-functioning brain, perhaps overloaded by bookish learning but also, damaged by attraction to the financial rewards of the legal system itself. It seems one can be seriously interested in truth, or in money, but not both.
What kind of mind gravitates to these positions of power to decide on the fate of mortal men? Cherie Blair is a case in point – an extremely wealthy professional who seems to have given up ethics for the sake of money – a process also known as prostitution:
“The press pounced on an embarrassing episode when she was fined for fare dodging after jumping on a train to Luton, where she was due to sit as a magistrate.” (BBC)
“Most people have difficulty seeing themselves as others see them, but there is something almost psychopathic about Cherie Blair in this respect: she has reached absolute zero when it comes to self-irony or self-knowledge. She tells us that she’s “a good Catholic girl” while detailing her premarital as well as postmarital sex life. She retails offensive tittle-tattle about the queen and other members of the royal family, calling Princess Margaret “a stuck-up old slapper.”
“She goes on at length about her deprived childhood in Liverpool while insisting, “I have no problem with saying I am a socialist.” She then whimpers about the terrible difficulty of repaying a $6 million mortgage on the London house they acquired when Blair was still prime minister—and on top of which they’ve just bought a beautiful country house, formerly Sir John Gielgud’s, for nearly $8 million. (Geoffrey Wheatcroft, Slate)
“Cherie Blair presented the cash-strapped Labour Party with a £7,700 bill for the services of her personal hair stylist during last year’s general election campaign. As Labour struggled with outgoings so large that it had to resort to secret loans from millionaires to stay afloat, Mrs Blair made the party pay £275 a day for a month to keep her hair in shape” (Times)
“On an official trip to Australia, she went shopping at a designer clothes showroom. In what might have been a scene from Supermarket Sweep, she left with 68 items worth £2,000 after being told to take “a few things” as gifts.” (Telegraph)
There is plenty of evidence that materialism damages mirror neurons, the basis of empathy, and it seems also to affect the performance of amygdala. In fact the whole sensitiv eorgan of the brain seems to come under attack from wealth and privilege, which is why all religions have emphasised an indifference to wealth, and to loss of wealth, focusing instead on the development of the personality, that is, the brain.
From Ekman’s professional evidence we see that meditation’s effect is to make the brain much more sensitive to truth. In the case of materialism, we can infer that the separation of the personality from the needs and emotions of others results in an inability to detect the truth, and even a complete disinterest in it. Therefore truth is inextricably linked to sensitivity, which is why sensitivity is so necessary among those who practice any kind of art, as the instrument they are sharpening and enhancing is their own brain. Fleeting impressions pass equally across all minds, but detecting their significance relies on the sensitivity of the brain. The qualities of meaning and of truth are not arbitrary as militant atheists would have us believe, and nor are they items of convenience for survival, but as absolute as light and dark are to the eye; the difference perhaps being that we can sharpen the brain to those contrasts, or dim it altogether.
Spiritual practices therefore are not an escape from the world, but a deeper investigation into its reality. A greater ability to synthesise an otherwise confusing mass of details to form conclusions shows the brain’s potential to be not a greater storage of facts, as commercial education would have us believe, but the greater detection of truth and meaning which those facts represent.
Last weekend my daughter and I went to a small exhibition in Cambridge in which I think the most beautiful painting was a Vermeer called the Lacemaker. It is known that Vermeer’s model in most of his pictures was his devoted wife Catherine (together they produced eleven children); their love seems as much a part of the portraits as the paint itself, judging by his sensitivity and the patience with which she modelled for him. Vermeer came from a protestant background, and Catherine from a Catholic one, which seems to have been overcome by the fondness for him of her mother, and perhaps even his conversion to Catholicism.
In contrast to the pretence and deception which people will go to any lengths to avoid, meaning, and its corollary, truth, is what they will go to any lengths to pay homage to – which explains the popular exhibition and the two hour lineup to get in. In this tiny portrait, Catherine is completely absorbed by her craft, and become one with it; the tiny threads, one vibrating slightly under tension could as well be nerves, so fine are they and so central to the whole activity. This extraordinarily sensitive picture could only have been rendered by an artist who understood this absorption only too well and with it, pay tribute both to their bond of affection, and to the creative act itself.
It is said that children bring to our mind the nature of their parents; the Vermeer’s children and their works may have long been lost to history but the colourful alchemy between mother and father has survived, carefully preserved for 350 years to pay tribute to the power of the sensitive brain.
The painting’s background is unusual for Vermeer, lacking finely-observed detail of walls, tiles and beaded glass windows. Instead, perhaps in a burst of inspiration, he abandons realism altogether to leave the weave of canvas practically bare, the fabric sustaining Vermeer’s art in the same way cloth and thread underlie the lacemaker’s.
There are other paintings of the Dutch period which excel Vermeer’s in realism and grandeur, but the many layers of subtle contexts in this tiny work seem to show that people are not attracted by realism and pomp as much as they are by meaning, reflected from a brain sympathetic to their own. What survives the centuries seems to be that which means most to the human heart: that which has meaning.