Mindfulness and the human brain

Photo: book cover art of Brain Rules
Brain Rules by John Medina

I have finished reading Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School (Pear Press, 2009), which I first commented on in July. I actually finished several weeks ago, but have not had a chance to sit down and write down some thoughts because I had not misplaced the book.

What comes through the book clearly is that most of our assumptions about how the brain functions are completely off the mark. We tend  to equate our senses with modern-day devices: eyesight = television or movies; hearing = telephone; memory = computer hard disk. Actually, our brain really masks highly complex functions that have evolved and adapted over thousands of years.  And each individual brain is itself a unique jumble of learned circuits and neurons created over a life time.  Using a quirky simile, the human brain is like a World War II fighter that has been adapted for intergalactic missions: an ingenious, but still primitive contraption that has been transformed and utilized as a vehicle that had never been imaged when it was first created. The great discoveries of neuroscience over the past 20 years are showing that we are just beginning to understand how the mind works.

If there is one point that seekers should take away from the book, it is that mindfulness has a real role as a quality control on the human brain. The brain takes so many shortcuts to make sense of both the external and internal world and our place in them that it can easily jump to the wrong conclusion. To cite a single example: the human eye has a blind spot in the middle of the cornea and the brain fills in that blank space based on a series of logarithms, assumptions about how the real world exists. That’s one of the reasons for “looking straight at something and not seeing it.” By being fully present in the moment and exercising non-judgmental awareness, we have a chance to pause,  see more truly and not fall into those snap judgments that can lead us astray.

In this book Medina has extracted some of these traits of the human brain and shown that they have a real impact on our lives and that we need to re-examine many of our base assumptions as applied to our productive lives.