In Hardwiring Happiness, Rick Hanson, the neuroscientist, meditation teacher and author of Buddha’s Brain, provides a fascinating neurological explanation of how a regular practice of “taking in the good” results in enduring changes in the neural architecture of our brains. Hanson has a gift for simplifying cognitive neuroscience for the lay reader. He explains how we are wired to scan for and remember negative experiences much more than positive ones, calling these experiences “Velcro” for our mind. On the other hand we are wired to pass over positive experiences without remembering them, so they are “Teflon.”
The result of this “negativity bias” is that we tend to become habitually anxious and stressed, focusing on what is going wrong and skimming over what is positive. We get stuck in reactive modes of behavior that increase our stress and weaken our immune systems, and as we do, we lose touch with the responsive openness that Hanson sees as the basic nature of our minds. As a corrective to this bias, Hanson suggests a host of simple practices that will help us to notice, stay with, enhance and absorb the myriad small, positive experiences we encounter throughout our day. By doing this, gradually, over time, “positive mental states can become enduring neural traits.”
Hanson does a brilliant job of providing a scientific framework for understanding a central insight of the Buddha—that what we attend to, we become. For readers who are familiar with Buddhist meditation, it will be clear that the practices Hanson suggests are not new, but draw upon the logic of centuries-old Buddhist mind training. The author presents this ancient wisdom in a fresh and accessible way that might reach readers who would never dream of meditating. It is wonderful to have such a committed and agile mind as Hanson’s integrating the power of contemplative practice with that of emerging mind science.
Paul Bialek is core faculty and program lead for Naropa University’s Master’s in Contemplative Psychotherapy Program, and is a psychotherapist in private practice. He began his meditation practice in 1978 and is currently a student of Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche in the lineage of Shambhala Buddhism.
From the Spring 2014 issue of Inquiring Mind (Vol. 30, No. 2)
© 2014 Paul Bialek