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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