Tuesday 22 March 2011

Neuroscience vs Buddhism

Following yesterday's post I came across this opinion article on the connection between neuroscience and Buddhism. Clearly there is a lot out there about these connections. To quote a particularly juicy paragraph:
Western thought is hardly monolithic or simple, but monotheistic religions made a simple misstep when they didn’t apply naturalism to themselves and their notions of their souls. Time and again, their prominent scholars and philosophers rendered the human soul exceptional and otherworldly, falsely elevating our species above and beyond nature. We see the effects today. When Judeo-Christian belief conflicts with science, it nearly always concerns science removing humans from a putative pedestal, a central place in creation. Yet science has shown us that we reside on the fringes of our galaxy, which itself doesn’t seem to hold a particularly precious location in the universe. Our species came from common ape-like ancestors, many of which in all likelihood possessed brains capable of experiencing and manifesting some of our most precious “human” sentiments and traits. Our own brains produce the thing we call a mind, which is not a soul. Human exceptionalism increasingly seems a vain fantasy. In its modest rejection of that vanity, Buddhism exhibits less error and less original sin, this one of pride.
The author follows that up by making an interesting point. Buddhists are clearly happy to bask in the reinforcement of their beliefs by science, but will they be equally happy to accept that there is currently no scientific evidence for reincarnation?

Monday 21 March 2011

Science vs Buddhism

An interesting, well produced video that highlights the strong parallels between the way both science and buddhism describe the world. [Original Source]:

Although the video is slightly laboured, I do find these parallels extremely thought provoking. Buddhism after all stands alone amongst world relgions due to its lack of a supreme deity (Buddha is NOT a God in case you were unaware!) and focuses on truely trying to understand reality. For further reading along similar lines I would recommend both these two books:

The Tao of Physics: An Exploration of the Parallels between Modern Physics and Eastern MysticismThe Tao of Physics: An Exploration of the Parallels between Modern Physics and Eastern Mysticism

Einstein and Buddha: The Parallel SayingsEinstein and Buddha: The Parallel Sayings

Tuesday 15 March 2011

Common sense research

This is exactly the type of tai chi research that I dis-like. Although it’s all jolly good, positive stuff, my bug bear is highlighted below:
"Researchers at Tufts Medical Center in Boston performed a systematic review and meta-analysis of the effects of tai chi on psychological well-being. They reviewed the effects of tai chi on stress, anxiety, depression, mood disturbance and self-esteem. Forty studies with involving 3817 subjects met the researcher’s inclusion criteria.
The meta-analysis found significant reductions in stress, anxiety and depression and enhanced mood. Several studies also showed positive effects on self-esteem, but there was insufficient data to perform a meta-analysis for that outcome. The average age of subjects ranged from 11 to 85 years of age and included both healthy individuals and individuals with chronic conditions. The studies involved a wide range designs and the frequency and duration of tai chi practice varied widely.
The results of this analysis support the long held belief that tai chi is a beneficial mind/body practice, which relives stress and improves well-being, The research is also consistent with other recent research which shows positive psychological effects of exercise. More research will be required to show whether the benefits of tai chi on psychological well-being are equal to or greater than other exercises."
Essentially therefore, what we have is a statement of common-sense: "Exercise makes you feel better". Surprise. The key point (that I've highlighted) is the comparison to other exercise. Is Tai chi better for you psychologically than an equivalent amount of time spend in the gym or playing football or whatever? I suspect it is, but I'm not convinced. Until we know the answer to that, I'm afraid the above research can only be classed as tai chi propaganda. Truth yes, but not the whole truth.

Friday 11 March 2011

It's all in the toes

In Tai chi we are often told to grip the ground with our toes. Well it turns out that toe strength helps determine how balanced you can be (surprise), as this computer simulation shows. To quote from the survey:
"Hemami and a colleague, Laura Humphrey, designed a computer model of a body and foot which assigned four different sections to represent different parts of the foot, while assigning the body one section. This allowed Hemami and Humphrey to focus primarily on the pressure of the feet and toes as they manipulated the forward motion.
The model that Hemami and Humphrey built allowed them to produce results that supported the findings of balance shown in real subjects. They conducted tests for three different cases: static balance in healthy subjects, static balance in subjects with diminished toe strength, and forward leaning in healthy subjects.
In order to have the model mimic a subject with diminished toe strength, Hemami and Humphrey weakened one of the sections in the computer-modeled foot, which represented a muscle located just above the big toe. This muscle helps control the foot's arch, which provides support to the body while standing.
Results indicated that in a healthy person, toes became increasingly important as the person leans forward. The maximum angle that a healthy computer-modeled body could lean forward from the waist without its heels lifting off the ground was nearly 12 degrees from vertical. The model with diminished toe strength could only lean forward nearly 10 degrees."

Monday 7 March 2011

Meditation research survey

A recent New Scientist article ("Everybody say om", 8th January 2011) published a survey article on the state-of-the-art research into meditation. It was all good news for meditators as the article identified many scientifically provable benefits of meditation, and did not report on any downsides (although to be totally unbiased, that's not to say there aren't any). Unfortunately the article is behind a pay wall, so you won't be able to read it unless you have a subscription, or buy a back issue. To give you a flavour I will therefore try to summarise it, and pick out some juicy points for you, beginning with this quote:
"A real scientific picture of meditation is now coming together. It suggests that meditation can indeed change aspects of your psychology, temperament and physical health in dramatic ways. The studies are even starting to throw light on how meditation works."
Improved attention: many studies have shown quantitatively that attentiveness can be improved by meditation. This includes decreased "attentional blink" which is the cognitive processing delay that causes people to miss a stimulus such as the number on the screen when it follows rapidly after another. The theory behind this is that meditation improves "working memory", which to use a computer analogy, it is akin to increasing your RAM. To quote again:
"(Emotion, vol 10, p 54). McLean points out that meditation is partly about observing how our sensory experiences change from moment to moment, which requires us to hold information about decaying sensory traces in working memory."
Emotional balance: fMRI studies have shown that the amygdala in the brain (which plays a crucial role in processing emotion and emotional memories) was far less active in experienced medittors than novices (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, vol 104, p 11483). Meditators were better at tasks that required resisting the urge to perform an action. The theory is therefore that meditators are better at withholding impulsive reactions to a lot of internal stimuli, some of which can be emotionally intense in nature. This kind of restraint seems to be a key feature of healthy emotional regulation, and rings true with the passive nature of experienced meditators.

Cumulative effect: many studies have shown that the benefits of meditation can be realised with only a small exposure. For example (Consciousness and Cognition, vol 19, p 597) reports that "It is possible to produce substantial changes in brain function through short-term practice of meditation.... Even small amounts [i.e a few minutes a day] of practice can make a discernible difference".

Thursday 3 March 2011

A form of symmetry

Balance is an important component of the internal arts and a natural extension of that (in a mathematical context) is symmetry. So how important is it to be symmetrical? I spent lots of time trying to "balance" my body, most obviously by recognising everyday tasks that I do that are asymmetrical. I am right-handed, and therefore there are a lot. I find it fascinating how amazingly difficult it is to use a knife and fork in the wrong hands for example. Try cleaning your teeth with your other hand, or putting your coat on with the other arm first - I think you'll find it surprisingly complex.

But how important is this really? Clearly on the outside humans look symmetrical, with a line of symmetry running down the centre line. So it is probably only natural to want my left arm just to be as strong as my right arm. Indeed there are strong indications that we subconsciously judge attractiveness by how symmetrical people, especially their faces, appear. But if we delve below the skin we find that all the internal organs are asymmetrical, the heart and liver being obvious examples that are only on one side of the body. The Chen form that I do it is asymmetrical as well, for example only punching with the right-hand, and one of the reasons for this dilberate choice is due to the underlying asymmetry of the internal organs.

But then again, I asked my teacher whether I should practice a mirror image of my form to balance my body, and he replied that I should. My feeling therefore is that symmetry is important, but it is a second-order concern. It is far better to get proficient on one side before trying to bring the other side up to scratch. So what that means is that as I'm pretty proficient at brushing my teeth in my right hand, it is time to start practising with my left, but I don't think I'm quite ready for a regular mirror form just yet...