Tuesday, February 15, 2011

A Little Bit of Compassion 13

The Mammalian Brain or The Limbic System

I mention this here as Professor Paul Gilbert describes it in outline without inundating the reader in technical or biological terms.  The term "limbic" comes from the Latin limbus, for "border" or "edge".  Today some scientists have suggested that the concept of the limbic system should be abandoned as obsolete and outdated, because it is grounded more in tradition than in facts.  Be that as it may, the term is quite widely used by psychologists.  Dr C. George Boeree gives the following helpful diagrammatic representation of this brain system: (See C.G.Boeree )

This limbic system is a set of evolutionarily primitive brain structures located on top of the brain stem and buried under the cortex. Limbic system structures are involved in many of our emotions and motivations, particularly those that are related to survival. Such emotions include fear, anger, and emotions related to sexual behavior. The limbic system is also involved in feelings of pleasure that are related to our survival, such as those experienced from eating and sex.

Certain structures of the limbic system are involved in memory as well. Two large limbic system structures, the amygdala and hippocampus play important roles in memory. The amygdala is responsible for determining what memories are stored and where the memories are stored in the brain. It is thought that this determination is based on how huge an emotional response an event invokes. The hippocampus sends memories out to the appropriate part of the cerebral hemisphere for long-term storage and retrieves them when necessary. Damage to this area of the brain may result in an inability to form new memories.

Part of the fore brain known as the diencephalon is also included in the limbic system. The diencephalon is located beneath the cerebral hemispheres and contains the thalamus and hypothalamus. The thalamus is involved in sensory perception and regulation of motor functions (i.e., movement). It connects areas of the cerebral cortex that are involved in sensory perception and movement with other parts of the brain and spinal cord that also have a role in sensation and movement. The hypothalamus is a very small but important component of the diencephalon. It plays a major role in regulating hormones, the pituitary gland, body temperature, the adrenal glands, and many other vital activities.

There is enough information above for what we want here.  This so-called limbic system or mammalian brain is concerned with our emotions and feelings like anger, fear and sexual arousal, as well as all feelings of pleasure.  Hence, it is important for developing a sense of compassion according to Professor Paul Gilbert

The Power of Imagery:

The new Dublin Convention Centre - the Power of an Image
I have long been convinced of the power of imagery when used in meditation or visualization exercises to allow the user/meditator/visualizer to experience in a powerful way what is being imagined, almost as if the real thing being imagined were before one in actuality.  In other words the imagination when used in this way can create almost a virtual world in our minds.  Therefore, psychologists, surgeons and psychiatrists have long been aware of the potential and indeed potency of guided meditation and visualizations in the healing process.  The oncologist and cancer surgeon Dr. Bernie Siegel has used meditative practices with great success in cancer recovery groups. 
Gilbert underlines the power of imagination, or in other more concrete terms, of visualized images by instancing the power of sexual images to excite us physically.  He then follows this up by mentioning that bringing images of food to one's mind can also get the gastric juices flowing.  In short all images can stimulate one or another feeling.  Now, obviously we can bring negative images to our minds also, maybe like that of a bully or something he or she did - a powerful and depressing image is conjured up in our minds.  Immediately after the image the negative feelings of anger, fear and depression are provoked or evoked.  At this point, it seems to this reader at least that Professor Gilbert is indeed stating the obvious and that he has spent many pages of intricate argumentation to get at some simple truths as in the following:

So in exactly the same way that imagining a meal  can stimulate sensations and feelings in our body linked to eating, our own thoughts and images might be able to stimulate our inner caring mentalities and brain systems that lead to soothing.  If we can learn to be kind and relate to ourselves with a caring mentality - to send ourselves helpful messages when things are hard for us we're more likely to stimulate those parts of our brain that respond to kindness.  This will help us to cope with stress and setbacks.

I will finish this post with a few quotations, this time from another great Buddhist writer whom I admire, namely Thich Nhat Hahn:

  • The essence of love and compassion is understanding, the ability to recognize the physical, material, and psychological suffering of others, to put ourselves "inside the skin" of the other. We "go inside" their body, feelings, and mental formations, and witness for ourselves their suffering. Shallow observation as an outsider is not enough to see their suffering. We must become one with the subject of our observation. When we are in contact with another's suffering, a feeling of compassion is born in us. Compassion means, literally, "to suffer with."

  • Love is the capacity to take care, to protect, to nourish. If you are not capable of generating that kind of energy toward yourself- if you are not capable of taking care of yourself, of nourishing yourself, of protecting yourself- it is very difficult to take care of another person. In the Buddhist teaching, it's clear that to love oneself is the foundation of the love of other people. Love is a practice. Love is truly a practice. [Shambhala Sun March 2006 ]
Taking the contents of the last post where I quoted from the Dalai Lama in tandem with the above words of Thich Nhat Hahn, it would seem that they express in a far more wholesome way what Paul Gilbert is at labours to explain.  However, having voiced that criticism, I am thankful for this author's attention to scientific detail and for his ability to marry science with compassion.

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