Rick Hanson | Talks at Google

Rick Hanson | Talks at Google

[Chinese accent] Hello. Good afternoon, my friends. My name
is Ming. I’m the jolly good fellow who at Google. And I’m jolly today because our honored
guest, Rich Hanson, brought this book, right? This book is about happiness, love and wisdom
and it’s about a new science of happiness, love and wisdom and is called Buddha’s Brain.
It’s like, it’s all my favorite topics in one convenient value sized packet. And so what-what’s there not to like about
this book, right? That’s why I’m happy today. Dr. Rick Hanson, he’s a neuropsychologist,
author and teacher at the intersection of psychology, neurology and contemplative practice.
He co-founded the Wellspring Institute for Neuroscience and Contemplative Wisdom and
he’s the author of the book called Mother Nurture, which is one of very few books that
I-I am aware of, maybe the only book, that is about taking care of, about taking care
of mothers. And he’s also an-an authority on how the arrival of children affect moms,
fathers and marriages. And Rick enjoys rock climbing, good conversations
and good books and in his free time he tries to save the world. [laughter] So with that let’s welcome my friend, Dr.
Rich Hanson.>>Rick Hanson:
Okay. [applause]>>Rick Hanson:
Thank you, Ming, thank you. Well, with Ming here, I’m in good company. Can you hear me okay? How’s this sound? It’s okay, alright, great. And if it gets
bad, please let me know. I wanted to say first of all that I’ve never
been to Google before. I use your products many times a day of course, but one of the
great things about being able to be here is that gives me a little thing I can use to
impress my kids. And that’s very important when you’re a parent. As you probably know or will discover, they
are 22 and 19 and so this is one of the very few things that actually made them pay attention
to anything I had to say. So, my intent here is to go through a number
of topics, four in particular and to do it fairly quickly. So, my son to put be me at ease said, “Don’t
worry Dad, you’re gonna be talking to some of the smartest people on the planet.” [laughter] And thanks Forrest. I’ll, but in a way that’s
kind good because I do tend to zip along at a fairly breakneck pace. And so my plan is
to go through these topics kinda in four sections, pause for breath at the end of each one, do
some few questions or comments, and then keep going, alright? I’m gonna be working a lot within one of these
three circles: Buddhism or really contemplative practice generally, the one I’m trained the
most in is Buddhism. I’m not here to push Buddhism or any ism,
but it’s a source of great insight into actually how the mind works, as well as psychology
and neurology. That said, I think it’s humbling and appropriate
to appreciate the fact that there’s really, literally, so little we actually know about
the mind and the brain these days. It’s a nice quote here from Ani Tenzin Palmo here.
Now, no one really still knows yet what a thought actually is even though we’re goin’
to be talking about them a fair amount. Okay, so prelims out of the way, let’s get
into your amazing brain. First, some basic specs. It’s kind of mind
boggling for me endlessly to appreciate really how complicated the brain is. [laughter] In particular, I wanna focus as an overarching
theme on the fundamental idea of using the mind to change the brain for the better, so
that it benefits the mind and in widening ripples, all beings. So, to do that we wanna get, I wanna get first
at some basic information about the brain and about what I call self-directed neuroplasticity.
The fundamental idea that mental activity sculpts neural structure, which gives us opportunities
increasingly to intervene actually inside the black box of the brain. That’s important because there’s a fundamental
problem in that the brain through biological evolution is highly inclined toward noting
and responding to negative experiences, and in particular has a kind of deeply engrained
threat reactivity that’s then increased by personal history as well cultural and political
factors that leads to what I call “Paper Tiger Paranoia.” And so then last I’m gonna talk about what
to do about that, with self-directed neuroplasticity in terms of coming back to the natural state
of the brain which is really the optimal brain. So I thought, “This is my opportunity at Google,
I’m gonna take a big swing and hopefully hit the ball.” So, let’s dive in. And one way to think about this is purely
abstractly, fine. But a more powerful way to think about it is that what we’re talking
about is happening right here, right now, right between your ears. Okay. So here we go. Back to where we were, the technical specs
of the brain. Kinda remarkable to realize that in roughly
three pounds, about five cups worth of tissue, are about one point one trillion cells, 100
billion neurons, a trillion support cells. They’re connected with each other in a variety
of ways. A typical neuron connects with about 5,000 other neurons making about 500 trillion
synapses. Lots of information moves through the brain
and the nervous system. The brain moves information around like a heart moves blood around in
effect. A fair amount of, of the interaction between
neurons is just noise. Noisy networks as you all probably know are very, are the, are optimized
for signal transmission, but that said, out of all the noise there are so many signals
going on in the brain that in the time it takes roughly to take a single breath, roughly
a quadrillion messages moved around inside your head. The brain is literally the most complex object
yet known to science; more complex than an exploding star; more complex even than the
American economy. [laughter] So, here’s a schematic neuron. You can see
the receiving end at the le-at the left as you face the screen. The output end is at
the right hand s-side. It is like a little on-off switch. Neurons are continually firing.
A neuron that’s not firing is a dead neuron. And basically the summation moment to moment
of roughly 5,000 inputs every few milliseconds determines whether the neuron will fire. [pause] Okay? Great. [pause] So, I wanna talk now about two critical words
that are really easy t-to lose. This is probably the most intellectually danced slide I’ve
got. I wanna talk about the mind and the brain. I define the mind as the flows of information
through the nervous system. The nervous system has its headquarters in the brain. Information
is represented by the nervous system much like a computer hard drive represents information,
or sound waves right now are representing information; radio waves represent information.
It’s the classic and familiar distinction between hardware and software. In essence, therefore, apart from hypothetical
transcendental factors, the mind is what the brain does. No brain, no mind. Now, I say the brain is the necessary condition
for the mind; it’s also a proximally sufficient condition. It’s only proximally sufficient
because the brain is embedded in our nervous system, embedded in a body, embedded, whoops,
and embedded in culture and both here and now and across time. So, to talk about the brain as the, the brain
as the local, the locally, it’s the necessary condition and it’s the locally sufficient
condition for the mind. And as we’ll see, the brain also depends on the mind. Now the way to understand the brain is really
in a context of biological evolution. The nervous system is about 600 million years
old. As you know life came on the planet about three and half billion years ago. Multi-celled
creatures arose around 650 million years ago and they were complicated enough to need some
method of communication between their sensing organs and their motor systems around 600
million years ago, thus the beginning of the brain. In terms of vertebrates it essentially evolved
more or less in the way you see. This is kind of a schematic picture. The inner reptile
brain and there’s the squirrel monkey brain and there’s the early stone tool making hominid
brain, the cave man brain and the modern brain. The modern brain is essentially identical
with the cave man brain. How many of you by the way have blue eyes
or green eyes? Okay. You are mutants. In other words, until about 5,000 years ago nobody
had blue eyes. I mean biological evolution is continuing. The first blue eyed person
was identified probably about 5,000 years ago; probably around Denmark and then blue
eyes have proliferated around the world for various reasons. But evolution is continuing. So, in terms of that evolution the brain developed
three fundamental goal-directed systems. You could say they’re motivational systems; this
why we do stuff. The first system was the avoid system: withdraw
from threats; freeze; back up; get away. On top of that then with roughly invertebrates,
crustaceans, lizards and so forth, and fish in the sea, a more sophisticated approaching
system developed to pursue opportunities. And then with birds and mammals and then primates
and particularly humans, the attach system developed. That’s the social system in the
brain that forms connections and bonds with us and seeks proximity, closeness, intimacy,
love, and belonging. Although the vagus nerve as it evolved loosely
matched to these three systems, they’re anatomically blurred in their distinctions in the brain
and they intertwine with each other and any single system can use two others for its ends. This typology by the way: approach, avoid,
attach or avoid, approach, attach is one we’ll be returning to again and again. And it’s
a really useful way to think about how people are motivated and also think about how suffering
and dysfunction and harm arise in terms of each one of those three systems. And also, on the other hand, how happiness,
benevolence, and helpfulness arise in a different mode of action in each one of those three
systems. So, love and the brain. It’s interesting to
realize and this is what’s called the social brain theory, that probably the primary driver
of evolution of the brain in the last hundred million years has been social capabilities
or love broadly defined. For example, reptiles and fish approach and
avoid, they don’t attach, right? They have their babies, they swim away, if the babies
are still there a few hours later they’ll eat them, mos, in most species. Whereas birds
and mammals do raise their young and often form para-bonds at least temporarily. It’s interesting that the brain developed
in three major stages driven really by the reproductive advantages, which is the engine
of biological evolution of social skills, if you will. The first stage was with birds and mammals.
They’ve got bigger brains per body weight than reptiles and fish do because the quote
unquote “computational requirements” of raising young and picking a partner require a bigger
brain. Similarly, at the next stage of development,
there is a correlation between the size and complexity of the social group of a primate
species and the size of the cerebral cortex in proportion to body weight. In other words, the grooming, the hierarchies,
who’s up, who’s down, who’s alpha, who’s beta, how can I still get some if I’m beta, the
coalitions and all the rest of that. Right? You’ve gotta have a pretty big brain. And then last, since the first hominids began
making stone tools around two and a half million years ago, the brain has tripled in size. They were smart enough to make stone tools.
How many here can make a stone tool? I can’t make a stone tool. I don’t know, but they
could do. Ah, you maybe could? That’s good. Most people don’t raise their hand when I
ask them that question. That’s a good one. Yet the build out of the brain has been primarily
devoted to social capacities: language, cooperative planning, empa-empathy, the presentation of
self, both authentically and with artful deception and all the rest of that has been much of
what the volume of the brain, that’s as I said tripled, the other two-thirds is devoted
to. Interestingly, for babies or humans to have
a bigger brain there’s a kinda physical limit on how big the brain can be in a newborn and
still enable its mother to walk upright. And so you start hitting a limit there. Most species, primate species, there’s basically
a two-to-one ratio between the volume of the brain at birth and how big it eventually gets.
The human brain it’s probably about a four-fold maybe even a five-fold increase; to do that
we needed a longer childhood. To have a longer childhood with a very vulnerable
infant you needed to develop bonds between mothers and infants and also bring fathers
into the mix. And also the band itself because it quote unquote “takes a village to raise
a child.” And those requirements helped drive the evolution
of the social capabilities and inclinations that would enable that to occur, which then
enabled bigger brains. And the advantages of those bigger brains drove them increasing
social capacities and here we are today. So, three facts about the brain in terms of
self-directed neuroplasticity. So, first fact about the brain: as the brain
changes, the mind changes; in good ways and bad. The left is a good slide hopefully, caffeine,
sugar, pleasure; right slide, a concussion. The second fact about the brain is that as
the mind changes, the brain changes. This is a critically important fact. In other words,
immaterial mental activity, the movement of information through this hardware substrate
maps to material neural activity that produces temporary changes as well as lasting ones. Temporary changes include alterations in brain
waves, increased consumption of supplies like oxygen and glucose, ebbs and flows of neurochemicals
like serotonin, dopamine, other neurotransmitters and so forth. And I’m gonna show you some slides of temporary,
fleeting changes in the structures of the brain or brain activity that mapped to mental
activity. This is a slide of someone who’s head’s been
kinda cut this way and that’s the caudate nucleus lit up because it’s consuming more
oxygen. It’s a part of the brain that’s involved in the rewards center and it activates in
this particular study when college sophomores who are absolutely in love are shown a picture
of their sweetheart. Male and female they both get a major light up in the caudate nucleus. I’m gonna go through by the way a number of
examples here. It’s fascinating to get into some of the detail, but I’m gonna keep us
moving along. Here’s another slide that looks at envy and
schadenfreude. This is a study done in Japan with college students who were told about
someone very much like them who was spectacularly more successful. And in the scanner what arose inside them
were activations in the physical pain network, in other words, emotional pain much as evolution.
Evolution’s a big pludge, essentially. It just uses lower systems and adapts them to
higher purposes. So, social pain uses physical pain as a fundamental basis. Similarly, social
pleasure uses physical pleasure systems. So, in phase one, they told these students
that there is this spectacularly wonderful person who made them really look horrible;
envy, physical pain. And then in phase two of the study they were
told that this person encountered a humiliating downfall, schadenfreude, pleasure at the suffering
of others and the pleasure network was activated. As you can see an example in this study. Here we go. Here’s another one. This is self in the brain. We were talking about this at lunch. These,
in this study basically it’s kinda hard to see maybe, but maybe not. The squares, the-the
diamonds, and the crosses have to do with different activations of self-related activity
in the brain. For example, recognizing yourself in a photograph
distinct from others or naming a personal memory like what I did last summer, or making
a difficult choice. What’s interesting – [pause] [coughing] in this picture is to see how widely distributed
self-related activations are throughout the brain. There’s no part of the brain that’s
special for I, for me, for ego, for mine. It’s widely distributive which has some pretty
profound implications. How ’bout consciousness? The big magilla,
right? Well again, when a person is conscious or is entering different kinds of consciousness,
different parts of the brain are activated. And if you mess with those parts of the brain
like intersect at the linkages between the thalamus which is the central relay station
in the brain and the cerebral cortex, you anesthetize somebody. On the other hand, as consciousness changes
or activates it uses different parts of the brain. Something as ineffable as awareness
alters or engages neural activity. Now, let’s talk about meditation. This is
a slide, this is this, in this shot the head is cut this way, if you will. Of a Buddhist
mediator doing compassion meditation, and the part of the brain that is activated there
is called the anterior which means frontal cingulate cortex which is a part of the brain
that’s involved in the executive control of attention; staying concentrated and attentive.
It also is an area where the thinking and feeling are brought together as well. So, it’s interesting to realize that when
this person is in the scanner doing a kind of spacious, infinite, boundless compassion
meditation, that this part of the brain is activated. Interestingly, this is a slide of Christian
nuns in prayer who are doing a very different kind of spiritual activity which activates
some of the same region, ACC in the upper left hand slide, left ACC, anterior cingulate
cortex. It lights up ’cause they’re focusing their
attention, but also interestingly they got activation in the insula, which is a part
of the brain that tracks the interior sensations of the body, which suggests that for these
nuns who are women, of course, doing that particular practice it had a very embodied
quality, which kinda makes sense intuitively. And also they got an activation in the caudate
nucleus. Again, it was very emotionally rewarding to bring to mind their most profound spiritual
experience. [pause] Okay. In essence, now I wanna talk about lasting
changes in the brain ’cause those were all temporary, fleeting changes, mostly having
to do with which part of the brain uses metabolic supplies. [pause] Mental activity shapes neural structure. It
leaves lasting residues behind. This is the essence of what’s called neuroplasticity.
It does it in a variety of ways, I lis-I listed some of the mechanisms of action. Busy regions
get more blood flow over time. Existing synapses get strengthened. You also get interestingly
altered gene expression. That’s epigenetics. In other words, ineffable mental activity
can alter the expression of strips of atoms inside this long chain of DNA. Right, for
example people who routinely activate relaxation training get improved gene expression of the
portions of DNA that down regulate the stress response. Isn’t that kind of amazing? To think that
doing this long, deep breathing or going to one of Ming’s classes is actually gonna alter
the expression of this strip of atoms inside some molecules somewhere. That just is pretty
far out. Classically there a line from the Canadian
psychologist, Donald Hebb, “Neurons that fire together, wire together.” In other words when
neural circuits or even individual neurons start associating with each other the connections
between them are strengthened. Okay, great. So, this has a number of implications and
I wanna show you a slide here of some of the effects of this. This was a study that was done on Buddhists
meditators taking a look at people in terms of years of practice and looking at changes
in neural structure. In this particular study they found that people
who had significant long term practice, which has probably amounted to 20 to 40 minutes
most days, in the real world of-of Western practitioners, they actually had thicker cortical
tissues in two key regions. One is the insula, that’s number one, where
they’re tuning into their body and their deep emotions and self awareness in general. And also area number two is the executive
portions of the prefrontal cortex that have to do with controlling attention. The third region is the sensory motor strip
where they were tracking their body sensations. The interesting other finding is in, is seen
in the lower right hand graph where the blue circles were compared to the red squares.
Red squares are the control group. They experienced what’s called cortical thinning with aging,
normal cortical thinning. People lose probably by the time they’re 80
about three to five percent of cortical mass. But the people who routinely used those regions,
those are the blue circles, did not lose cortical tissue in those regions as a function of using
it and not losing it. There are other examples. Some of them are
quite down to earth. I don’t know if you’ve ever been to London. It’s a spaghetti snarl
of streets. Taxi cab drivers who have to memorize the streets of London have a thicker hippocampus
at the end of their training than they did at the beginning. The hippocampus is a part
of the brain that’s involved in visual, spatial memory. Pianists who work routinely with certain kinds
of movements have thicker, mo-motor cortices in the parts that control fine motor regions. In one study I read it’s very interesting.
They took two groups of skilled pianists and they had them practice a certain kind of song
or piece that involved certain specific motor movements. And then they divided the group
and they had one group do it like 10 minutes every day and the other group just imagine
doing it 10 minutes every day. And each group had roughly equivalent build out of neural
structure. Wow. Okay. So, some perspectives here. Marvin Minski, one of my favorites, probably
well know here, probably of godfather of cognitive science, Society of Mind, a great book. Anyway
you can see here he’s saying a principal activities of brains are making changes in themselves. I wanna offer a bit of perspective on this
which is that neuroplasticity is not breaking news. It gets talked about a lot as if it’s
some new finding. No, it’s been understood for a hundred years or more that obviously
mental activity had to change brain structure. What else is learning? The news is in the
details. Most neuroplasticity is not dramatic; it’s
very, very incremental. Like do, can you remember what you had for breakfast or didn’t have
for breakfast this morning? That’s neuroplasticity. Now what’s the capital of Nebraska? Right?
That’s neuroplasticity. It’s pretty hum-drum. It’s interesting though that even though neurons
that fire together are wired together throughout the nervous system; the ones that really wire
together do so in the field of awareness. That means that residues of conscious experience
are continually sifting into neural structure. Implicit memory is mainly where they do this.
This is not memory for specific events, that’s explicit memory for recollections. This is
the internal felt sense of what it feels like to be me, action, dispositions, biases, emotional
residues, and all the rest. The point of all this really the take away,
for me there are half a dozen key take aways and this is one of them, is to really be a
lot more thoughtful about what I experience moment to moment. Because whatever those neurons
are doing, for better or worse, they’re wiring together. Dwell in one’s experience on themes of stress
or tension or frustration or imminent failure or self doubt and all the rest of that, guess
what, we’re building neural structures of pessimism, depression, anxiety, lack of confidence,
insecurity, and inadequacy, self-criticism, etc. On the other hand, rest experience and cultivate
experiences that have a certain ease to them, a certain relaxation; never be more than 100
feet away from food, things like that. That’s gonna cultivate neural structures that promote
optimism, resilience, a positive mood, confidence, a willingness to reach high and take big risks. Our experience really, really matters. Much
of it is in the back [inaudible]. People don’t really know what they’re experiencing. That’s
why mindful, self-awareness is so critical or as Ming says, “Searching inside yourself.” I’m really happy I was able to get that line
in here. Alright. So, that’s right. [laughter] As I was saying earlier, most people are not
very good a mindful attention. Attention is the preeminent way to build neural structure.
It’s like a combination spotlight and vacuum cleaner. It illuminates what it rests upon
and then shloop sucks it into the brain. But for most people that spot light and vacuum
cleaner is very skittery. They can’t rest it and keep it at some place where they wanna
keep it or they can’t move it very readily if they’re getting sucked into obsessive ruminating,
right? Just kinda goin’ over and over and over again about some technical problem or
some personally upsetting experience. That’s why as William James said, the father
really of American psychology, “The education of attention would be an education par excellence.” So now what are we gonna do with this mindful
self awareness, with the idea of self directed neuroplasticity? It’s the fundamental idea
that we can use the mind to change the brain to change the mind for the better. It was always understood that if people did
mental activity A they would get mental result C and then it was increasingly understood
during the last hundred years that somehow mental activity A produced mental result C
via the black box B of the brain. But nobody knew how the black box worked.
Increasingly though with these modern technologies that can peer inside the living, active brain
non-invasively we are now getting clearer and clearer about the circuitry, about the
levers, the dials, the buttons, the dynamics inside the black box so that it’s increasingly
possible to do reverse engineering. In other words, to identify what is the neural
substrate in the black box of optimal states of functioning, happiness, relationship, stress
res-relief, and all the rest of that and then use mental activity alone. Not medication,
not electroshock treatment, but mental activity alone to target those neural substrates and
build them out in increasingly skillful ways. That’s the opportunity. And by the way, it’s
a historically unprecedented one. The knowledge about the brain has essentially
doubled in the last 20 years. I mean, we live in an historically extraordinary time for
many reasons, this is certainly one of them. And it’s also historically unprecedented in
the coming together of those three circles that I talked about previously: psychology,
neurology, and contemplative practice; the contemplatives being the Olympic athletes
of mental training for millennia. And so I’m really excited about this. We’re
just at the beginning of it all. I think modern neuroscience is roughly where biology and
medicine was about 100 years after the invention of the tele, of the microscope, which is to
say about 1720. Where is it gonna be 300 years? Okay. So, let’s talk about some of the challenges
now. What are we gonna do with this self-directed neuroplasticity? We’ve gotta deal with the
negativity bias. This is a really, really, critically important
slide. In order words, in our evolutionary history we had to track carrots and sticks,
right? Approach carrots, avoid sticks. That’s really important. But for survival purposes
in very harsh frequently lethal environments, sticks are more salient than carrots. In other words, if you miss a carrot today
you’ll probably get a chance at one tomorrow. But if you fail to avoid a stick today — [claps hands together] whap. No more carrots forever. So, the brain responded because Mother Nature
is a harsh teacher. Whatever confers reproductive advantages, that’s what gets built out in
the brain. So there are number of ways this is done. I’ve listed just a few. For example, the amygdala which is the alarm
center of the brain is primed to flag negative events. Probably about two-thirds or more
of its cells are dedicated processors if you will for negative information or potentially
negative information. And the amygdala and hippocampus are very
close to each other. The hippocampus does visual spatial memory but more broadly it
does memory for context, rapidly flag anything that’s remotely negative, store it, and retrieve
it on a fast track. The bottom line is that the brain is like Velcro for negative experiences,
but Teflon for positive ones, unless it’s a million dollar moment. So, in effect all those three systems: avoid,
approach, attach; the avoid system is very fast in that reptilian brain if you will,
and it routinely hijacks the approach and attach systems and puts them to its bidding.
And therefore, as a result, in the title of a very famous paper, Bad Is Stronger Than
Good. By the way, I’m gonna post these slides on
my Website and you’ll be able to access them if want and at the end of them are a bunch
of excellent books as well as a number of papers and a ref-and the references for this
presentation. Okay. So, what are some examples of bad being stronger
than good? In relationships on the average it takes about five positive interactions
to even out a single negative one. Alright, what’s the history of the last three days
in your intimate relationships, with family members, lovers, or children? It-it’s quite
cautionary to think about that. Or ultimately people will do much more to
avoid losing a loss than getting an equivalent gain. In order words, people will work harder
or they’ll put up with more electrical shock to avoid losing a hundred bucks you gave ’em
in an experiment than they’ll work hard to get a hundred bucks you put on the table that
they gotta fight for. Or last, it’s really easy to make people feel
helpless. In dog studies, for example, who have a limbic system and emotional system
very much like our own, you can train a dog in helplessness in about five tries. Five
cycles where bad things happen that they have zero control over, roughly you can train ’em
in helplessness and then it takes dozens even a hundred or more trials to untrain them.
And the parallels for human beings are much the same. That’s why I think it’s really important to
pay a lot of attention to feeling helpless and a sense of futility and to work really
hard to not feel that way. And if nothing else redefine the game into one you can actually
win at, where you actually do have efficacy. Now on the, this next question naturally arises
here: yeah, but isn’t there some good with negative experiences? Well sure, okay. Remorse keeps us kinda on the path of virtue;
sorrow opens the heart; negative experiences can increase resilience and all the rest. But walk down downtown or walk around this
campus which is a pretty rarefied environment, look at faces, look at my face. You can see
the suffering in faces. Is there any shortage of negative experiences
in the world? Is anyone here; would you like more negative experiences? We could give you
some of ours. [laughter] Any volunteers? I’ve never had a volunteer
yet who’d like more negative experiences. So what are we gonna do about this? Now, negative experiences it’s important to
realize have significant mental and physical health consequences. I’ll just zip through this slide, I won’t
get into the detail of it, but chronic stress is one of the main results. Because when we’re
upset our stress response systems are activated. Getting angry, even just irritated, getting
nervous about something, feeling depressed, feeling ashamed or inadequate or alarmed in
any way, shape, or form triggers the fight/flight response systems through the sympathetic nervous
system and HPAA stands for hypothalamic pituitary adrenal axis; the endocrine system in other
words, because the nervous system and the endocrine system work together in terms of
stress response. It’s pernicious. Chronic stress is the enemy particularly for
people who are interested in living past 35. In order words, unlike our great, great grandparents
in the cave man days, most of us wanna live past 35. What kind of life are we gonna have the slowly
accumulating impacts of chronic stress were pretty irrelevant on the Serengeti, three,
five, one millions years ago, but they’re very relevant today in modern times. Okay. So, how would you like to do something experiential
for a minute or two, get out of this head stuff for a second? So, now that I gave you the bad news and I’m
gonna give you more bad news in a minute, I wanna talk about self-compassion for a moment. This is a hot area of research. A lot of the
benefits of self-esteem actually boil down to self-compassion. Arguably self-compassion’s
more powerful, partly ’cause it’s so emotional. Self-compassion is not self-pity, it’s not
wallowing, it’s taking a moment and it’s usually typically less than 10 seconds to just have
a sense of, “Ow, that hurts. This sucks. That doesn’t feel good. I wish it was better. Eh,
shoo, pause then suck it up and move on, right? But first do that self-compassion phase. And people just suck it up and move on without
having done self-compassion first they haven’t fueled themselves in a deep way. Now self-compassion’s actually quite hard
for many people. So, as a little example of this reverse engineering idea I talked about
earlier, I’ve thought through what are things that activate the neural substrates of compassion
so that people can do self-compassion who may find it difficult. And that’s in those
three bullets right there. So, I’ll do it right now. This is private.
You don’t have to do it. You can think about anything else. You could really even get involved
in self-criticism and self-loathing, but that’s really up to you. Okay, so first step bring to mind a sense
of being cared about by somebody. [pause] Could be a pet, a grandparent, someone in
your life today, a spirit entity, a group of people, just the felt sense. What’s it
feel like to feel cared about? [pause] Second and you can go at your own pace or
not do this at all. Bring to mind also someone that you naturally
feel compassion for. In order words you naturally wish that they not suffer. And you have an
attitude of tender concern. Maybe a child, a dear friend, relative, a group of people,
starving refugees somewhere, whatever. [pause] Third step, this is a mindfulness practice
now, sink into the experience of compassion in your body. What’s it feel like? [pause] Stay present with it. [pause] And then come from that embodied felt sense
of compassion to yourself. With the sense of the ways in which life is hard, it’s not
perfect, you might combine it with some verbal inner language like, “You know may I feel
better, may I feel better about this thing, may it go better for me with that man or woman
in my life, may I not suffer.” [pause] Okay, great. I guarantee you if you did it, you let out
neural circuits of self-compassion and every time you do this it doesn’t build much structure
but it builds a little bit of structure. And if you do it routinely over time those neurons
fire together, therefore they wire together and you’re building the neural substrates
of self-compassion. Alright. So, now let’s get into some more bad news. I wanna talk here about threat reactivity
and Paper Tiger Paranoia. If you think about it there’re two major mistakes
we can make in life. We, on the one hand we can think there is a tiger in the bushes when
there isn’t one. Okay? On the other hand, we can think there’s no
tiger in bushes and its all fine, but there really is one about to pounce. Now, we evolved to make the first mistake
a hundred times, ten thousand times to avoid making the second mistake even once ’cause
that’s how you stop having gene copies, alright? This evolutionary tendency which is deeply
ingrained in people to be threat reactive is then intensified by temperament; some people
are more anxious than others. Then life happens, personal history. Then you have culture and
then you have political manipulation. It’s a classic story obviously throughout
human history to build up a sense of external threat or even internal threat and on the
basis of that get more compliance from the populace. I mean that story’s been told a
thousand times or more in human history. This threat reactivity happens at the individual
level, happens inside me, happens inside you, it happens between people like in a relationship,
within a family; happens at the level of organizations. It’s interesting to think about how that may
or may not be happening at Google and how you’ve taken wise steps here to stop it from
happening. And it obviously happens at the national level
and the international level; the level between nations in the world all together. This has a lot of implications, really, if
you think about the current moment in world history. What are some of the results of this threat
reactivity, both at the individual, organizational, and national level? First, initial appraisals are mistaken. There’s
a tendency to overestimate threats, underestimate opportunities and underestimate resources
either for coping with threats or for capturing opportunities. We tend to update these appraisals with information
that selectively confirms them and we tend to through the mechanisms of what’s called
cognitive dissonance, we tend to ignore, devalue, or alter information that doesn’t fit these
pictures. Thus we end up with views of ourselves, other
people, and the world, and the future and the past that are ignorant, selective, and
distorted. Any comments or questions so far? [pause] That’s the bad news. Now, the good news. Actually there’s more bad news, I apologize. [laughter] I turned the page too quickly, my mistake.
I was eager to get on. So I thought to myself, “What’s a short list
in one slide of the major costs of threat reactivity.” You could probably add a few
items to this list with a little thought. For one, feeling threatened feels bad. As
soon as we feel threatened activates the stress response system. We start getting stress hormones.
We start focusing around the threat and with all the consequences I talked about before. Feeling over threatened makes people over
invest in threat protection and not invest in things like raising kids or schooling or
building infrastructure or taking long, making long term plans. Then you’ve got the story of the boy who cried
“Tiger.” In other words, if people feel flooded with threats that are actually not real or,
or are overstated or are easily managed by one thing or another, it’s easy to miss the
needle in the haystack of the actual threat. That’s really important to think about. I think that’s one of the things that’s happened
with things like global warming, people are so caught up in this endless list of murders
on the evening news and a sense of global threat all-all around us, and that they miss
long term things that are actually gonna very consequential. If we act when we’re threatened we tend to
overreact; that creates cycles in which other people feel threatened and confirm our worst
fears. The approach system gets inhibited when people feel threatened, when the avoid
system activates so we tend to not pursue opportunities or we play small, lose our nerve,
or give up too quickly. And then the approach system is, pardon me,
the attach system is put in the service of threats; people tend to really bond with us;
they increase their sense of fear and anger toward them; and they put up with more mistreatment
within us to “protect me, protect me.” Strong father figure if you will, from them out there
about to get me. [pause] Obviously threat reactivity, and you can think
of it on the global scale or even inside this country, red state, blue state, or even more
locally in terms of different groups of us’s and thems. Threat reactivity is a major source of prejudice,
oppression, and war. And if we wanna make this world a better place helping people see
through Paper Tiger Paranoia is a fundamentally profound and powerful way to do that. And my little hope is that Google will in
some ways help that happen. So, now let’s talk about the optimal brain.
Let’s talk about how to deal with this kind of Paper Tiger Paranoia. And these, by the
way, are practices and tools you can use in your own personal life and I’m gonna talk
about them. So, think about reverse engineering. What’s
the state of the brain in peak performance modes, peek productivity? Or in a state, of
let’s say self actualization? Or enlightenment or close to it? Clearly there’ve been many people throughout
human history that have been in these states. Many of us in this room, probably everybody
in this room has gotten into that zone at one time or another. What in the world could be happening in the
brain when a person is in that zone? Well the home base of the human brain which
alas we are so, so easily driven from is characterized by I call ’em the four C’s: calm, contented,
caring, and creative. And you can see how calm, contented, and caring
map to the three systems, right? Avoid, approach, and attach, and creative, generative. People
are generative. Obviously, it’s extraordinarily generative here. People are generative in particular when they
go into the zone of calm, contented, and caring. This is the brain in its natural; let’s call
it a responsive mode. It’s not offline; it’s not anesthetized; it’s engaged in the world,
it’s embodied and it’s enactive. It’s continually leaning forward into the future, but it does
so in a particular mode of operation. To look at it in a schematic you can see this
triangle here in which the three systems, and by the way, this graphic comes from a
little earlier form of this material in which I called the attach system “affiliation system.” It can see the way in which the brain operates;
your brain, my brain operates, our brains operate when we’re in this natural state. The problem though is that to survive we leave
home. In other words, on a hair trigger Mother Nature has given us the capability of activating
any one of these three systems or all three of them in concert in a different kind of
mode. Call it a reactive mode that then drives us from home. It’s a kind of inner homelessness. In other words, when people feel threatened
or harm they’re in the reactive mode. When they can’t attain important goals, they’re
frustrated or disappointed, reactive mode. When they feel isolated, abandoned, devalued,
they’re not getting the healthy normal narcissistic supplies they need, when they feel left out,
dissed, shunned, and so forth that also triggers this reactive mode. And it too has a number of consequences. So
here’s a little slide that summarizes that. So those are the choices really, reactive
mode which is the ordinary experience. Look at the front page, it’s all reactive mode.
Watch the evening news, mostly reactive mode. A lot of life. Think about dealing with some
issue with an intimate, a friend, a partner, a family member. As they say in the spiritual biz, “Think you’re
enlightened? Go visit your parents for the holidays.” What’s it like in the real world?
What’s it like in traffic when someone flips you off? What’s it like when you, the person
you like least as a political figure is yappin’ away on the evening news? What happens then?
We easily get triggered into this reactive mode. So now, what to do about it; how to come home.
How to recover the fundamental natural responsive mode of the brain right in the middle of the
trenches; not in a cave in Tibet; not in a monastery, but in daily life one step at a
time, one breath at a time. As the Tibetans say, “If you take care of
the minutes, the years will take care of themselves.” So how can each one of us take care of the
minutes in our own life or help others take care of the minutes in their lives so that
year, so that the years will get better and better for this planet? Well, first I wanna talk about three fundamental
pillars of practice that show up in contemplative traditions as well as in Western psychology:
mindfulness, virtue, and wisdom. And by different terms you see these again
and again and again and I think that’s because they map to three central functions arguably
the three central functions of the nervous system which is to say receiving and learning;
regulating and prioritizing which map very closely to mindfulness, virtue and wisdom.
And which also map to the three fundamental phases of any kind of personal growth or emotional
healing which is to say, “Open up to it. Experience it. Be with it. Be mindful of it.” Second phase at the just right moment, help
it move along, release that negative stuff. And then third phase when there’s a space
there replace it with something better. Or in six words, “Let be, let go, let in.” And the reason I think that these fundamental
pillars of practice are found again and again, including in traditions that were certainly
pre-technical, is because they map so closely to the universal human nervous system. As a take away point at the bottom, mindfulness
is viable but it’s not enough. Mindfulness needs to be matched with virtue, with values,
and with wisdom. Some fundamental understanding; somebody who wants to find wisdom always asks,
giving up a lesser pleasure for a greater one. I mean it’s that clarity about what is the
greater good here that I’m gonna sacrifice this lesser pleasure for. I mean that’s-that’s
wisdom. Additionally, I wanna talk, there’s some general
factors for the responsive mode that I just wanna call to your attention here. If you wanna drop your brain into its natural
state of calm, contented, caring, and creative, self-compassion, getting on your own side.
So many people are not on their own side. In other words they’re not for themselves. It’s so interesting to think about it. That’s
a critical mo-moment to actually say, “No. How it feels to be me matters. My brain matters
over time. I’m gonna be for myself. I’m gonna try to do little things everyday that will
build a better brain or other aspects of my life gradually over time.” Mindful self-awareness I’ve talked about. Seeing the world clearly. I think Google has
helped enormously here and it can continue to help in the future particularly by appreciating
the depth of threat reactivity; the depth of the paranoid trance and the insidiousness
of it. Taking life less personally; appreciating
increasingly that it’s not really about me and one particular practice which is the chapter
in my book, Buddhist Brain, and will probably be very central to the book I write after
the one I’m writing now, is taking in the good. And so if we could I’d like to do a little
practice here with you about taking in the good, ’cause if you think about it continually
the brain is taking in the bad, ‘member? It’s like Velcro for negative experiences; Teflon
for positive ones. It has dedicated — [snapping fingers]
snap, snap, snap systems that just suck any kind of negative
information into the brain. Think about a hundred things happen in the
course of the day, right? Seventy are pretty good, 28 are neutral, 2 are kinda sucky. What
are the ones you think about as you fall asleep? Usually it’s the stuff that was a drag, right?
And that’s the brain. It just wants to grab hold of that. That’s why using mindful awareness for about
20, 30 seconds in a row can actually build out neural structure in a much more positive
way. So if you like, let’s do it together. And
you don’t have to do it, but let’s give it a crack. So first off, first step, pick a positive
fact. It could be I-I particularly like picking a positive fact about a good quality inside
yourself. Where ever you go, there you are, right? Or you could think about a good condition
in the world or a good event recently; someone was nice to you, some good thing happened. And then let yourself really feel it. All
kinds of good facts occur, but we don’t register them. They don’t move the needle, but in this
case we’re helping ourselves ’cause we’re on our own side to let our self feel good.
It’s a private act; no one needs to know you’re doing it. There are lots of taboos about feeling good,
feeling happy, you can hide it behind your face, but let yourself feel good and then
in particular in the second step savor it for 15, 20, 30 seconds in a row. Stay with
feeling good for a quarter of a minute. [pause] And as you do it, sense and intend that this
good experience is gradually sifting down into you. It’s sinking in and even perhaps
filling a hole in your heart. Gradually soothing, even replacing perhaps old places of pain. [pause] Or at a minimum simply being a moment of good
experience. [pause] And that’s it. Now, any single time you do this won’t make
much difference, half a dozen times a day, continually looking for opportunities to take
in the good to make your brain like Velcro for positive experiences will make it like
Teflon for negative ones. And over time, everyone I’ve ever worked with
whose done this within a week or two people start feeling different, within a few weeks
and certainly a few months quite radically different. This is also a fantastic method for children,
particularly kids that either the spirited or anxious, rigid ends of the temperamental
spectrum. Jack rabbits and turtles, right? They’re all normal. There’s no disorder there
in jack rabbititis; it’s a normal temperamental variation, but it’s tough to be a jack rabbit
in a turtle culture in some ways, certainly in turtle schools. So, anyway taking in the good for a few moments
just before bed is a great way to fill the heart of kids. And I’ll use metaphors with
them like putting a jewel in their heart and so forth. It naturally comes up of course, why do this?
Which inter, is an interesting question, like what a taboo right there on feeling good. Benefits of positive emotions are kind of
a proxy for the benefits of taking in the good. There’s a lot of research on positive
emotions. I’ll just leave that slide there for a moment. But positive emotions, wow,
have fantastic benefits. Happiness really is skillful means. If you take a look at my Website, wisebrain.org
you’ll see the slide sets for a number of talks and one of the nice things about positive
emotions is they steady the mind ’cause they do it in various ways having to do with dopamine
and working memory, but it’s a great way to support concentration and productivity to
encourage positive emotion. Also it comes up whether it’s selfish to feel
happy. And I think Bertrand Russell had a fantastic line here. He pointed out that as
he conceived of it right, “The good life is a happy one because happy people are good
people.” And there’s a lot of research that shows that,
with some significant exceptions, people who have basic well being, who already have a
sense of overflowingness inside themselves, are more inclined to offer benefit to other
people. So, from the standpoint obviously of productivity
and reducing turnover and anything like that, whether it’s at Google or any company in the
world, helping people feel happy at work is a great way to promote productivity and generosity
and teamwork and team building with other people. Moving to an end here and then hoping to have
a few more minutes for questions and discussion at the end. I also took a look at specific factors that
are, may not be so obvious for activating the responsive mode of the brain for each
one of these three fundamental systems. In the approach system for example, focusing
on gladness and gratitude; fantastic. People do things like the three blessings
exercise at the end of the day. They just list three things to be grateful for; take
half a minute to focus on them. That has had amazing results for such a simple intervention. And giving one’s self over to one’s best purposes
is another way to activate the approach system in a context of prior contentment and wisdom. The affiliating system, one I wanna call out
there is the last one the idea of acting with unilateral virtue. In other words, living
by your own code of integrity and good conduct regardless of what the other person does.
In other words, not getting involved in this kind of Mexican standoff. I do couples counseling as well as other things
where people basically say, “I’ll treat you well if you treat me well. You go first.”
And we know where that really gets us. On the other hand, if you act with unilateral
virtue, it makes you feel good right off the top; it also gives you a sense of initiative;
and it puts you on the high moral ground so that after a few days or weeks even you can
then say very rightfully to the other person, “I stopped being a jerk. I’m givin’ you what
you want. I’m lining off your reasonable complaints. Alright, how ’bout me?” Okay? And then last with regard to the avoid system,
calming the body in general. As soon as we get activated in the stress response system
we’re primed to go negative ’cause those systems are disposed and lean toward negative responsiveness. So, activating a calming, soothing response
whenever we feel stressed or upset is a good basic default. And then I would say last, tolerate risking
a dreaded experience. We live small. We live in a way to avoid experiences we dread, and
then that becomes the new normal and after awhile we start to forget about it. It’s a little bit like these tigers that are
in cages, speaking of tigers. They remove the cage because they’ve built a park around
them, but the tiger will not cross the line that’s written, that’s painted there on the
cement because they still live within that box. They still presume that limitation. The trick is to risk the dreaded experience
instead of avoiding it. In other words, put one’s neck out in a meeting; tell someone
you love them; open up to some feelings and see that it goes well which it usually does.
Okay? In effect, this is in the traditional phrase,
“taking a fruit as the path.” In other words, taking the end as the means. Taking the end
of calm, contentment, and caring are here in this, and I reordered it, gladness, love
and peace, taking that as the method as well as the destination. In, for example, literally I found myself
increasing; I just named these three words to myself. I did before I came down here to
give this talk which was making me nervous I said, “Rick, gladness, love, peace, okay,
good. In the zone. Okay. Good place.” Whatever works for you to get in your zone,
different things work for different people. All the great teachers have offered huge tool
boxes with a diversity of tools. Neurological diversity is the most critically important
and fundamental and substantive kind of diversity there really is. And so, that’s why I think is really important
to find one’s own way. That gives us a fundamental choice, right?
Reactive mode which is the ordinary lot, characterized tries by suffering, ignorance and harm. Or
the responsive mode; the natural state of the brain which can see through Paper Tiger
Paranoia and can be gradually cultivated with self-directed neuroplasticity. And that’s the opportunity for us all today.
It’s historically unprecedented; it’s grounded in science; papers are coming out everyday
basically with new opportunities to figure out how to reverse engineer the brain and
each one of us can do this in our own lives with benefits that ripple throughout the entire
planet. So, I thank you for your attention. It’s a
great privilege to be here. [applause] Thank you, very much. Question or comment for the last minute? One or, one? Yes, no?>>male in audience #1:
I have a question about I-I-I’ve heard that a number of traditions anyway say that if
you’re trying to make a change in your consciousness when a point comes, the point comes when you
can actually make a shift, there will be an opposite, there will be a-a resistance, there’ll
be like a, a pull from where you came from that will try to keep the status quo. How does that, is-is that know as an actual
something that happens in the brain that tries to keep us in our, in our previously more
contractive consciousness?>>Rick Hanson:
I think that’s true in two ways and wonderfully untrue in a third, alright? First, the brain is a giant association network.
Everything’s connected to everything else. So if we have a breakthrough over here we
still have that old learning over there. People say to me sometimes, “I feel guilty that I’m
still upset about my childhood.” Right? Well of course you are. The brain learned. It’s
designed to learn and that learning persists until it gradually is replaced or overcome,
first. Second, it’s very interesting how the brain
is organized. It’s very much basically yin and yang, in effect, on stop and go. Inhibitor
fire, that’s the way the brain are organized. And I think a lot of knowledge structures
in the brain are organized around figuring ground or something in its thesis antithesis
in effect. So, when you break through in one area or
you think about something very often the opposite comes up. For example, think about something that makes
you feel proud of yourself; pause. Very often something will come up that’s associated with
self-doubt. So-so what you’re saying I think is natural. That said, very often people will have a breakthrough
and they get a release, they’re done with it. They saw through it; they changed; they
got it. I love the line from practice, “Gradual cultivation,
sudden awakening, gradual cultivation, sudden awakening, gradual cultivation, sudden awakening.” So very often what we have, is we have awakenings;
we have insights; we realize something. Then we’ve got to cultivate around it; we’ve got
to back fill; we’ve gotta build an infrastructure which then enables the next awakening; the
next insight; the next breakthrough; the next release to be even deeper. But something I’ve really come to see, honestly,
I’ve been a therapist a long time; it’s made me more compassionate, but it’s made me tough
as nails in this sense that most people will not do the work. But if you do the work, the
sky’s the limit in the changes you can make in your mind, your brain, and your life, and
in this world. Okay, thank you. [applause] Thanks.


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    Spatzenzunge from Berlin

    let me google this for you… =) look up rickhanson [dot] net/media/slide-sets for the slides and wisebrain [dot] org for the techniques that he talked about at the end. cheers

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    Kenneth F. Thornton II

    Rick Hanson has taken the Buddhist teachings which are timeless and validated these teachings through science in a simplistic easily modern understanding

    looking forward to his next book
    thanks Rick

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    Angel Adams

    Rick is one of those people who walks the walk! Have so much respect for him! Have learned so much! I jut love it that we can self-direct neuroplasticity! no more paper tigers for me! lol

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    Michael Johnson

    This is amazing! Thank you for explaining the benefits of compassion from another angle. Dear tammyduke1, I am sorry for your loss.

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    Aleck Blanger

    so was responsive passive illiogical perpetual yet unpredictable inervation of opinion to the contrary and contrite… finitely coexistent to your species.

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    Aleck Blanger

    understanding begins with the one…from within and never from without yet conciously aware that interconnectivity with the matter and intangible matter and energies of the universe beyond the cope of your real of understanding… it does exist but the corporial form may never acquire this only the evolvement of the form.

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    @mrcouch1000 You are reinforcing the negative bias of your neurology. For an improved life experience, focus on one or more of the following: 1) there are subtitles in the video to help you understand the hard-to-understand Asian 2) the Asian goes away after a couple of minutes, and then a mother-tongue English speaker called Rick Hanson gives a very interesting talk on neuroplasticity 3) you can watch this and many other videos on a nice big website called YouTube 4) free.

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    Luke Stanley

    @HBWKnuckles It's part of the endocrine system which he mentioned. He has slides on his site too.

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    Really amazing and interesting speach, I think it's just great to know all those little bits of information amout your brain and then relate them to your mind…

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    Thank you! Dr. Hanson is a pioneer in neuroscience, along with significantly changing the shift in consciousness. You are appreciated.

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    Sophia Khuloud Hassen

    Help yourself, practice self-compassion. I am calm, contented and caring. Calm, contented and caring

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