Integrating Elements of Neuroscience and Intuitional Science
By Richard Maxwell, Ph.D.
Adapted from a presentation given at Prama Institute, Marshall, North Carolina, USA for the Ananda Marga Gurukula 25th Anniversary Conference on 7/14/2015
The field of neuroscience and the realm of intuitional science often have relatively little overlap and in many circumstances significant antipathy. Neuroscientists typically dismiss concepts of spiritual philosophy as “religious” and lacking any foundation in “fact.” Reciprocally, practitioners of intuitional science are apt to dismiss the perspectives of neuroscience as grounded in a materialistic philosophy that fails to recognize subtler aspects of the nature of the human mind. A “romance” between these two perspectives has the potential for tragic consequences due to the clash of these dramatically contrasting worldviews. Despite that, degrees of relative truth must be assumed to exist within each of these perspectives. We lack a set of concepts which are able to integrate these two realms. It is important not only to have such a bridge, but also to have a deep caring, consider it a “romance,” for the relative importance of each of these two realms and the harmony between them as they are analyzed.
The goal of this analysis is to establish meaningful links between aspects of science (neuroscience and endocrinology) and elements of spiritual philosophy present in Ananda Marga intuitional science. It is considered fair to assume that most individuals reading this have an investment in spiritual practices and may have concern about potential negative influences from reductionistic intellectual analysis, considering neuroscience to have little relevance to their interest in spiritual practices. However, Shrii P.R. Sarkar notes1 that the mind requires a brain in order to act within the world. He further states2 that for meditation to be successful, not only the location of glands and sub-glands should be known, but also the location of all the cells in the brain and the respective systems of secretion of the various glands and sub-glands. Given this injunction, it is clearly important that students of meditation also engage in the study of neuroscience and endocrinology.
Many of you may have heard of the popular technique which is the current “rage” in brain research. Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) provides a measurement of brain activity during specific mental tasks that can identify brain areas important to those types of functions. That measurement typically is based upon a comparison of two different tasks. However, in some situations brain activity from a particular mental task has been compared with an inactive resting state. Over time, it was realized that the supposedly “inactive” resting state was not, in fact, inactive. As this dilemma was explored further, it was discovered that there is actually a coordinated system, since called the “default mode network (DMN),” which becomes active whenever the mind is not engaged in a specific directed activity. The diverse brain regions involved in this network are associated with self-referential and reflective processing of past experiences and planning for and anticipating future experiences. Any meditator will quickly recognize the significance of the DMN and its potential to intrude in the process of meditation.
A study by Brewer et al.3 on the DMN and meditation is worth discussion. It examined the effect of three different types of Buddhist meditation on activity within the DMN. Experienced Buddhist meditators had decreased DMN activity with all three forms of meditation compared to control subjects (with no prior meditation experience) who demonstrated increases of DMN activity following the same meditation instructions. For experienced meditators, an “open awareness” style of meditation demonstrated only about half the decrease of the two other forms of meditation which had more focused awareness (focus on feelings of loving kindness, and concentration on the breath). This suggests that forms of meditation that involve a focused activity are more effective at subduing the activity of the DMN. Beyond the meditation practices of Ananda Marga, it is worth noting the special characteristics of kiirtan (devotional chanting and dancing) that would influence the DMN. Kiirtan engages many systems on both physical and mental levels. The vocal cords, hands and feet are all active and movements typically have synchrony with other participants. The same mantra is repeatedly chanted. While this has the potential to create a high level of focus, the mind is skilled at making any repeated activity automatic. Once an activity becomes automatic, the mind becomes free to activate the DMN. How often when doing kiirtan, do we all find our minds wandering into personal musings? It requires persistent effort to sustain a focus. As well, it is of central importance to stay engaged with the ideation associated with the mantra, rather than just the enjoyment of the singing. As a part of personal and collective spiritual practices, we are attempting to re-program the DMN so that spiritual ideation becomes our default mode, making our spiritual experience more powerful.
One of the problems with the fMRI research is that it is inherently biased toward emphasizing cortical and cognitive functioning. Subcortical nuclei tend to have smaller volume than cortical processors which makes them harder to distinguish. As well, cortical cells typically fire at rates on the order of 10 times faster than subcortical cells. fMRI scans measure metabolic activity which higher firing rates would accentuate. Therefore, emotional experience will not be represented as prominently as cortical cognitive activity in studies using fMRI techniques because it is primarily processed subcortically. While cognitive changes arise from Ananda Marga meditation, greater significance is associated with the influence of emotional propensities that impede progress. In the realm of bio-psychology, centers processing emotional experience are of great importance.
While Shrii P.R. Sarkar did not create the concept, he strongly emphasizes the role of 50 vrttis associated with the first six cakras.4 Vrttis are considered to represent particular mental propensities and they are symbolized by the petals shown on images of cakras. Each vrtti is a product of the secretion of a specific gland or sub-gland which can strongly shift emotional experience. While cakras are nonphysical, secretions from glands are physical phenomena which interact with other physiological systems. In order to move our “romance” forward, it is important to create a vision for how these glandular secretions might be related to scientific analysis of emotions, particularly how they influence brain centers involved in processing emotional experience. It is actually a revolutionary concept that brain function might be extensively influenced, and even controlled, by peripheral phenomena. The predominant current scientific perspective is that extensive interactions take place, but the brain is the locus of control.
A classic scientific framework for conceptualizing human emotions was proposed by Paul Ekman, Ph.D.5 His system distinguished six types of basic emotions present in facial expressions across all cultures beginning at an early age. These include anger, sadness, fear, joy, disgust, and surprise. Subsequent research6 has demonstrated that only four basic emotions are present from birth. Surprise evolves out of fear, and disgust evolves out of anger. Complementary to Ekman’s work with people, Jaak Panksepp, Ph.D.7 , has done extensive research on basic emotional processing in animal models. He considers all mammalian emotions to have developed using the same basic neurophysiological systems. Through his research, he has distinguished seven core emotional systems that are primarily represented in brainstem nuclei. In his perspective, higher level integration of emotional information occurs in the limbic system and provides more complex emotional experience. Even higher integration occurs in cortical processing which allows for cognitive representation of emotional experience.
Of Panksepp’s seven primary emotional systems, the SEEKING system provides the fundamental drive or impetus for the other six systems. In other researcher’s writing, this system is often called the “pleasure center” or the “positive reinforcement system.” It provides a level of motivation that is then directed toward different purposes. The similarity of this system with the vrttis of the Muladhara (first) cakra is striking. The four vrttis of the Muladhara all involve aspects of longing, which may be seen as a fundamental element of all of the higher vrttis.
Other of Panksepp’s six systems include anger and hostility (RAGE), fearfulness (FEAR), and sadness (PANIC). The latter system is considered related to emotions that arise in an infant animal when the nurturing parent is absent. That initially includes feelings analogous to panic, but progress into more profound sadness and despair if the absence of the parent is prolonged. Three additional systems include aspects of pro-social emotional functioning, including nurturing and loving emotions (CARE), sexual drives that are also important in social bonding (LUST), and joyful social interactions that facilitate friendships and family relationships through play (PLAY).
Ekman’s four most basic emotions resemble four of Panksepp’s emotional systems, if one considers “joy” to be analogous to the pleasures arising from the “seeking” of happiness. With the addition of a broader “pro-social” category, we have a five category framework that is useful in reorganizing the way vrttis are conceptualized. Typically, vrttis are discussed in relation to the cakras with which they are associated. However, when you look at the definitions that Shrii P.R. Sarkar gave for each of the vrttis, categories of seeking/self-interest, sadness/despair, anger, fear, and pro-social emotions can be clearly distinguished. Not all vrttis can be readily assigned to just one of these categories. Some may be associated with more than one category, but such distinctions are minor arguments in comparison to the value of the larger framework. The larger framework provides correspondence with the physiological emotional systems identified by Panksepp and a means to envision a broader unified system.
Our “romance” is based on mutual respect which means that information from both scientific research and intuitional “research” must be appropriately incorporated in any comprehensive framework. It is proposed that the glandular secretions associated with vrttis interact with emotional systems in the brain to bias their sensitivity and establish a propensity to respond in particular ways that promote specific patterns of mental/emotional functioning. Two additional factors are important to demonstrate in order to have confidence that this unified system has potential functional relevance.
First, it is important to verify that there are sufficient glandular secretions to act as the means of expression for the 50 vrttis. A quick check of Wikipedia indicates that there are approximately 100 known neuropeptides with receptors in the brain and many are also expressed peripherally. In addition, besides hormones, there are other signaling molecules called cytokines which function within the immune system and many of them have receptors within the brain. Thus, there are many more communicating molecules present than are necessary to cover the 50 vrttis.
Given that there are sufficient communicating molecules, it is next necessary to know how they would reach potential receptors in the brain. A fundamental problem exists because there is a special system called the blood brain barrier which excludes many compounds from entering the brain. Some communicating molecules are actively transported across this barrier, but most are not. A second mechanism is through the vagus nerve. The vagus nerve provides efferent and afferent connections between the brain and all of the internal organs and glands. Vagal receptors throughout the body could provide sensitivity to specific glandular secretions which would be conveyed back to the brain via the vagus nerve, modifying function through the activity of nuclei to which it connects. While this may be substantial, it is not clear that this would be sufficient to account for all the vrttis.
One additional mechanism provides the most interesting means for glandular secretions to influence processing within the brain. There is a system of circumventricular organs which are outside of the blood brain barrier, but are physically part of the brain. Six separate locations connected with the brain have these “organs.” The most noteworthy is the pineal gland, which Shrii P.R. Sarkar8 considers to provide a controlling influence over all of the other glandular secretions. Four additional areas close to the cerebral ventricles also provide means for particular secretions circulating in the blood to activate responses within the brain. The posterior pituitary, which produces oxytocin and vasopressin, is a sixth location outside the blood brain barrier, and is functionally connected to the hypothalamus. Therefore, a viable mechanism exists through which the influence ascribed to vrttis may actually be expressed. It falls to subsequent research to attempt to delineate greater details in this process. Shrii P.R. Sarkar9 expressed reticence to be highly specific with these mechanisms out of concern that human beings are not sufficiently developed to use such knowledge beneficently, rather than for harmful and self-serving purposes.
In conclusion, it is important to note that Shrii P.R. Sarkar10 warned against the negative consequences of focus on material science which, if lacking a spiritual foundation, would lead to degradation to the point that “it may be instrumental in causing a major calamity to befall the world at any time.” He also noted11 that human beings have two contradictory tendencies, one of “acquisition” and the other of “self-sacrifice.” He elaborated, “The more one advances along the path of evolution, the more the second tendency, the spirit of sacrifice, becomes prominent.” He considered it to be a “very interesting” aspect of human psychology, implying that it is that aspect that will facilitate beneficial change and the positive evolution of our species. That evolution is not accomplished by exclusion. It is inclusive, which is the central theme of the “romance” in this analysis.
1 Ananda Marga Elementary Philosophy, by Shrii Prabhat Ranjan Sarkar. 2 “The Mind Grows in Magnitude” in Yoga Psychology by Shrii Prabhat Ranjan Sarkar. 3 “Meditation experience is associated with differences in default mode activity and connectivity” by Judson A. Brewer et al. Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, 2011, vol. 108, no. 50, 20254-20259. 4 “Glands and Sub-Glands” in Yoga Psychology by Shrii Prabhat Ranjan Sarkar. 5 “Constants Across Cultures in the Face and Emotion” by Paul Ekman and Wallace V. Friesen in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 1971, vol. 7, no. 2, 124-129. 6 “Dynamic Facial Expressions of Emotion Transmit an Evolving Hierarchy of Signals over Time” by Raphael Jack, Oliver Garrod and Phillippe Schyns in Current Biology 2014, Vol. 24, 187-192. 7 The Archaeology of Mind: Neuroevolutionary Origins of Human Emotions, 2012, by Jaak Panksepp and Lucy Biven. 8 “Vraja Krśńa and Vishiśt́ádvaetaváda (Discourse 15)” in Namámi Krśńasundaram, by Shrii Prabhat Ranjan Sarkar. 9 “Bio-Psychology” in Yoga Psychology, by Shrii Prabhat Ranjan Sarkar. 10 “The Ascent of the Mind” in Ananda Marga Ideology and Way of Life in a Nutshell Part 9 [a compilation], by Shrii Prabhat Ranjan Sarkar. 11 “The Faculty of Knowledge-2” in Yoga Psychology, by Shrii Prabhat Ranjan Sarkar.