Brain, Schmain. Behavior is What Matters!

Brain, Schmain. Behavior is What Matters!
I admit it, I’m fascinated by neuroscience. I’m a little concerned, though, that the press is overemphasizing the brain science of mindfulness at the expense of what really matters, which is behavior. 

Unless you are prescribing medications or performing neurosurgery, you cannot directly apply brain science to mindfulness practice. All you can do is read something like Huffington Post’s recent article on neuroscience of mindfulness meditation and say, Oh, Cool!

If it’s in the brain, then it’s “real,” we think…

We think that if some brain activities can be demonstrated in scans, that makes a behavioral phenomenon more “real.” While there’s something to that, we tend grossly to overestimate the importance of the neuroscience and grossly to underestimate the importance of the behavioral science. Enormous effect sizes are demonstrated for behavioral interventions for common problems, and people broadly ignore it or shrug and say, “fine” but have no emotional reaction. Why? Because behavior is abstract, while neuroscience seems concrete.

In actuality, having been involved in some neuroscience research myself, I can tell you that there can be just as much B.S. in neuroscience as there is in behavior science, if not more. The reason is that the brain scans are meaningless until decoded by computer analyses, and these can easily be manipulated statistically. More important, even if the science is excellent, its application usually is not so obvious. Do YOU make your amygdala grow or change, intentionally when you practice mindfulness meditation? Or do you follow the breath, pay attention to sound, and so forth?

Behavior science is less sexy.

Behavioral research needs more attention and there’s limited bandwidth, limited attention available from readers of popular press. It is in some ways unfortunate that neuroscience has become so exciting and sexy to readership of popular sites such as Huffington Post, who are presumably, by and large, intelligent and curious readers. Again, I’m not denying that the brain science is cool, or that it has applications, but pointing out a massive discrepancy in the frequency of publications in the popular press that are about brain science, versus behavior science. Because our minds like the concrete and fear the abstract, we prefer to read about brain science. It’s comforting. Something “real” is happening, we are convinced, if we see brian scans with fancy colors showing Regions of Interest (ROI) “lighting up” during a behavioral process.

Matter is often not what matters.

Our minds tend toward materialism, loosely defined as a belief system that STUFF is what really matters. What things are made of, and whether you can see the things directly. As a therapist though, what matters to me is almost always process, not matter.  And as a meditator, what matters to me is what I do with my body and mind, how I deliberately modify processes that are occurring in my body and mind, just by observing them and accepting what I observe. YES, it’s cool that you can see that on an fMRI. But, on the other hand, who gives a sh*t really? How is that going to help my life, how is that going to help me live more authentically, more fully? It isn’t.

Behavior is where the action is.

If we want to live fully and more vibrantly, what we are longing for does not lie in fancy pictures of the brain or even highly sophisticated analyses of brain functions. It lies in practicing mindfulness meditation and practicing various processes that occur during mindfulness meditation — such as attention to the present moment, separation from thoughts, accepting uncomfortable as well as comfortable feelings, and so forth — the processes identified by Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) theory. Behavior theories may not be so flashy and sexy, but they have the advantage of informing what you can do to improve your life.

What do you think? What does neuroscience have to offer to meditators, if anything?

What’s your understanding of the behavior science of meditation? Have you seen press about it?

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Joseph Rhinewine, PhD. People collaborate with me to live life fully: with principle, passion and vigor. My expertise is providing and teaching Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), an evidence-based, experiential and relational behavior therapy. I also apply Acceptance and Commitment processes to coaching those who wish to take their lives to a new level.

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  • I disagree. I am a former health care professional and I have a terminal illness. I have been told repeatedly that there is nothing else that can be done, as my brain has “remapped” itself due to injury. When I see or hear of a treatment that may be helpful, I investigate it first. Mindfulness Therapy is great for me; but as someone who has been told that there is no hope I have to check things out first. I have neither the energy or the $ to spend on things that are not helpful. So for me, the neuroscience is critically important.

    • Thank you for posting Yvonne. Given your situation, I notice I feel some hesitance to respond fully, other than to wish you well. At the same time, I want to respect your post fully by addressing the point you make, so I’d like to clarify some things from my point of view, in response to your comments.

      It sounds like your situation is one in which neuroscience findings could be very important, if they yielded treatments that worked, such as medications or procedures based on those findings. And, at the same time, in healthcare, the bottom line is not the neuroscience, but the clinical trials. These are where the effect sizes are established, where efficacy is demonstrated, and they usually require no direct use of neuroscience whatever. Neuroscience is more useful in establishing mechanism(s) of action, thus providing basic science findings that can, in the future, yield more and more efficacious treatments.

      A major aspect of what I was trying to convey in my post, is that people routinely mistake brain imaging for evidence of efficacy (I probably didn’t make that particular point very clearly). There is something convincing about neuroscience findings, and that something is not entirely rational nor is it necessarily supported by scientific fact.

      There is no evidence of efficacy provided in most neuroscience studies, nor should there be. Efficacy in psychiatric and psychological interventions is almost always measured behaviorally, not neurologically. I know that in part because of my involvement in psychiatric research. It all rides on the outcome measures that are behavioral (e.g., measures of depression, schizophrenia symptoms, etc). At the same time, I want to make clear that I do believe continued neuroscience research is crucial to progress in psychiatry and neurology, as well as integrative approaches in psychology.

      I hope you are able to find ways to continue to make your life meaningful, and I send you my compassion, my good will, and my conviction in the importance of every life, throughout its entire duration. Thank you again for your post.

      • Thank you. I am sorry that my initial comment somehow made you uncomfortable…it was not my intention. At least 50% of what is done in medicine is done without clear evidence and I get it. And I do a lot of things that may not have much or any scientific validation if I find it helpful. My only point was that for some people, having the additional information can be helpful…especially when you are talking about asking someone who is dying to spend hundreds of dollars. I don’t mean you specifically; I can’t tell you how many people think they have “just the right thing” to cure me” if only I have a few hundred dollars to invest.

        • Yvonne – Thanks. I didn’t actually mean to imply I was uncomfortable per se, just wanting to be mindful of the intensity of your situation and of what might, and might not be helpful to state in my response. Also, I do not mind being uncomfortable, as that’s part of my job! 😉 Your point, as well as that of Ghassan, is well taken.

          I can only imagine what it might be like to face terminal illness and have dozens of medical or pseudo-medical approaches vying for your attention as “miracle cures.” Many a million has been made preying on the terminally ill.

          Mindfulness offers no cure for anything as far as I know, other than for the apparent problem of believing the illusion that we are separate from everything else in the universe. We will all live, together as a universe of living and dying beings, forever it would appear, even as we individuals die away, always.

          Peace and awakening to you.


  • Ghassan Ammar

    I think the validation of mindfulness practices by neuroscience is very important. There are many people out there who won’t try something unless it’s proven to work, and neuroscience offers that proof in a tangible way that goes beyond the anecdotal evidence often given as reasons to try out meditation. It brings more people into the fold of meditators, and that’s a great thing!

    Of course, if anyone gets attached to the changes that occur in the brain, mindfulness becomes less effective, and I think that needs to be presented at the outset. Whiles stress release, less anxiety, less depression, et cetera, are important motivators to start meditating, if those are held onto, one is going to have a more difficult time practicing. I think the “path is the goal” concept is the best way to go, but in the beginning whatever motivates one to start that path we should be grateful for!

    • Thanks Ghassan, good post. I do agree. Whatever motivates us is great! And, a lot of people ARE motivated by this neuro stuff. I sure wish people cared about behavioral research more. But maybe I’m just indulging a “should” thought! 🙂