In an era when public health commissioners are intent on establishing the evidence base of psychological interventions, and often, as a result, concentrate on one particular approach, it was refreshing to recently discover the book The Mind and the Brain by Jeffrey Schwartz, a psychiatrist and meditator and a proponent of mind/body dualism. The book investigates neuroplasticity and maintains that meditative practice can not only bring about spiritual well being but can also help the physical brain to change for the better.
Schwartz is known to some as the one who coached Leonardo DiCaprio for his role as the OCD-afflicted billionaire Howard Hughes in the film The Aviator. The book explains the four step therapy for OCD patients using directed neuroplasticity. Schwartz’s four step process for breaking the chain of obsessive habits involves relabelling, reattributing, refocusing and revaluing.
Schwartz provides an interesting narrative on the history of psychological treatment including Behaviourism, Exposure and Response Therapy (ERP), CBT, Humanism and mindfulness. The book also addresses the question of whether we have free will or not. Through advances in functional neuroanatomy and specifically PET scans and fMRI scanning, Schwartz has claimed that it is possible to show the ability of the brain to create new neurons to forge new connections which can blaze new paths through the cortex, even to assume new roles (what is termed neuroplasticity). Schwartz draws on the work of Henry Sapp, who claimed that the mind and matter can interact, the neurogenesis work of Fred Gage, the bare attention meditation of Nyanapanika, the ideas of William James who is often seen as the father of psychology, Kant and his need for moral choice, the man within from Adam Smith and, of course, Quantum Mechanics.
What particularly attracted me to the book was the claim that force of ‘will’ (or volition) can, through brain chemistry, help with compulsive and obsessive habitual behaviour. In Schwartz’s words, the casual efficacy of ‘will’ is the most critical issue that any mature science of human beings must confront. This, of course, inevitably involves addressing the whole notion of free will, dualism and our capacity to be the owners of our ‘will’ and for the results of our actions.
The Buddhist view is that you alone are responsible for the motives that you chose to act on. The essence of ‘mental force’ is to first stop the grinding machine-like automaticity of the urge to act. Only then can the wisdom of the pre-frontal cortex be actively engaged. Therefore, there is great therapeutic benefit in bringing awareness to the moment of restraint so that the restraint to act takes hold and deepens. This is consistent with the Existentialists who often refer to better choices in life as a result of addressing the givens in life.
It is also consistent with the transpersonal perspective, when directed wilful effort brings clarity of an external witness through active imagination, meditation and the development of qualities. The ability to sustain bare attention over time is at the heart of any spiritual meditative practice so that neural processes, including thoughts and feelings, can potentially be witnessed as mental data, not necessarily reality in that moment. This is when one can respond better to life situations and not to react so much to external stimuli. So, perhaps the secret of avoiding fear and worry is not to get personally involved in your own life. That is to say that when you can actively engage with a safe place within yourself through mindfulness and creative imagination, you can escape the fearful loop that blocks your wisdom. Imagery, the coding language of imagination, is a way of developing qualities to help you carry through with intention.