The Neuroscience of Action, Apathy and Meditation for Climate Change

By CCC19 co-organiser, Vandana Debets writing from Ananda Village, which is celebrating 50 years of living yoga in spiritual community.

Over half of Americans are not concerned about climate change. The other half are very concerned. This makes sense, given what modern neuroscience has discovered about how our brains work.

The levels of apathy and action are also likely to change, as the frightening consequences of a heating planet–flooding, fires, sea level rise–become immediate and personal.

As the predictions come true, we may be facing widespread panic. Scientists strongly agree that within 12 years, humanity will experience cataclysmic natural disasters, according to the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), and the US Fourth National Climate Assessment US report (NCA2018), if actions are not taken to slow the planetary temperature rise.

What does neuroscience tell us about how we can prepare for climate change?

Action and Apathy Both Flow from Counter-Factual Thinking

Action and apathy are flowing from the same brain process. When you face a situation that your brain wants to understand, four aspects of that situation will lead you into action or apathy. One is a clearly negative outcome. Two, something out of the ordinary occurred. Three, you can see that you, yourself, played a central role in what happened. Four, you can draw a direct connection between what someone did or did not do and the negative outcome.

When these four aspects are present, people go into action, but if not all four are not present, then apathy takes over. These four aspects occur to us in mental simulations called “counter-factual” thinking. You think about how things went, and then you think about what you could have done differently to avoid that outcome.

To demonstrate how the brain works in counter-factual thinking, the Hidden Brain podcast from January 28, 2019 “Rewinding & Rewriting,” tells two stories. One is a personal tragedy in which a woman loses her husband in an avalanche. Her counter-factual thinking leads her to ruminate on how she could have prevented his death by acting more decisively in response to his intuitive “bad feeling about today.” The second story interviews a man about climate change. His counter-factual thinking leads him to apathy about the Mendenhall Glacier melting in Alaska, but yet into action to restore habitat for the black abalone, native to his home region.  

In order for people to act, cause and effect must be close together. The human brain’s counter-factual thinking requires that people must feel that the situation will have an impact on them personally, and that if they don’t do something about the situation, the outcome will be negative for them personally. The brain also needs something specific to do that is likely to avert the negative outcome.

12 Years to a Personal Emergency

To activate for climate change, we need to see both the negative impact as a personal emergency, and our ability to take an action to change that impact. It has to be close in time…not years in the future. Is 12 years close enough?

Over the last two years, California experienced the first, second and third most costly wildfires, and the Camp Fire was the United States most deadly wildfire in over a century. The wildfire charred 153,336 acres, destroyed 13,000 homes, and killed at least 85 people (3 people are still unaccounted for). People fleeing the town of Paradise were incinerated in their cars.

Now, there are 74 cities and 65 counties under water in Nebraska and declaring a state of emergency.

That is objectively scary, the stuff of disaster films.

Don’t Panic!? Meditate

When 54% of the American public’s counter-factual thinking switches from “that fire won’t touch me” to “OMG”, what will they do? The first rule of an emergency is “Don’t Panic.” How can you prepare your brain not to panic when the firestorm is front of you?

Neuroscience points to one action that everyone can do right now that will help you prepare to survive and thrive:  meditate. Start your practice now.

Brain studies show how meditation affects chemical reactions in our brains to mitigate stress reactions, help us focus, assess a situation, and be empathetic with different people. Calmness and collaboration in adversity and with diversity will be two ways that help us be resilient in a climate changing world.

If you’re feeling skeptical that meditation could help with climate change, let’s get into how the brain works.

Neuroscience:  How Your Brain Works

We have had the idea that our brains are hard-wired, especially reactions like the fight-or-flight response. But modern neuroscience teaches us how change-able our brains really are.

Neuroplasticity:  your brain can and does create new neural connections throughout your life. Science is proving precisely how ancient meditation techniques are tools to shape your brain.

Dr. Van Houten, medical director of the Sierra Family Medical Clinic in California, asks his patients: “Who do you want to be in 6 months? The truth is you will be a slightly different version of yourself. Do you want to guide that process so that you’re working toward someone you would like to be?”

You’ve heard of the amygdala. It’s most accurately called the “Threat Detection Center,” as Dr. Joseph LeDoux, Ph.D. explains in Psychology Today. Your amygdala detects and responds to sensations—could be an event, an idea, a comment—and triggers the secretion of chemicals throughout your brain and body to say that something important is happening.

What you do with that sensation is a separate step, one that we could call a feeling, like pain, fear, pleasure, or nothing at all. The point is you have a choice.

The amygdala works with the insula, the part of the brain that monitors bodily sensations to figure out how strongly you are going to respond to a sensation. The insula gives you “gut feelings”. It is also helps you feel empathy, and achieve harmony with people.

Often called the “Assessment” or “Executive” Center of your brain, the prefrontal cortex is the part of your brain that helps you assess situations and information in a more logical, rational, balanced way.

So your amygdala is going to say “I smell fire.” Your insula is going to say “That could be an emergency.” Your Prefrontal cortex, if it has a chance, will gather more information and assess whether this is a “firestorm” coming your way, and determine what actions to take to save yourself and people you love, potentially broadening to your neighbors, community, world.  

The lateral prefrontal cortex modulates your emotional responses from threat detection. This dampening effect can diminish your automatic reactions—self-talk, long-held beliefs and habits. It can give your Executive Center time and emotional space to assess the situation.

Another part of the prefrontal cortex— the medial prefrontal cortex—could be distracting emotionally, making you ruminate on yourself, or it can enhance your empathy and cooperation that can be essential for survival in emergencies. Commonly called the “Me Center”, the medial prefrontal cortex compares everything to you, your perspective and experiences.

The Me Center itself has two sections. One part of your Me Center (the ventromedial prefrontal cortex) tends to cause rigid mental attitudes, rumination and worry that can exacerbate anxiety or depressive thoughts and feelings. The other part of your Me Center (the dorsomedial prefrontal cortex) helps you feel empathy, especially for people whom you perceive as different; it helps you build and maintain social connections.

How Does Meditation Help Us Act, but Not Panic?

When scientists look at the brains of people who do not meditate, they typically see strong neural connections within the Me Center, and between the Me Center and the Threat Detection center. When the Me Center dominates processing of sensations from the Threat Center, you tend to feel more threats, react to them without thinking, and get stuck in mental loops.

The Me Center can dominate your mind when your Executive Center’s connections are relatively weak. When the Executive Center works at a higher capacity, it modulates overreacting, overthinking, ruminating, taking things personally and projecting.

When you meditate on a regular basis, you can short-circuit the unhelpful activity of the Me Center and boost power to your Executive Center. Meditation weakens the connections between your Threat Center and your Me Center, so that your executive functions can be in control, stay calm and assess the situation.

Dr. John W. Denniger at the Harvard-Massachusetts General Hospital explains how all forms of meditation work essentially:  “Meditation trains the brain to achieve sustained focus, and to return to that focus when negative thinking, emotions, and physical sensations intrude—which happens a lot when you feel stressed and anxious.”

Meditation is a Brain Fertilizer

Researchers at the Institute of Neuroscience at Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland proved for the first time that ancient yoga and meditative breathing techniques directly affect the levels of a natural chemical messenger in the brain called noradrenaline.

“Noradrenaline is an all-purpose action system in the brain. When we are stressed, we produce too much noradrenaline and we can’t focus,” explains Michael Melnychuk, PhD candidate at the Trinity College. “When we feel sluggish, we produce too little and again, we can’t focus. There is a sweet spot of noradrenaline in which our emotions, thinking and memory are much clearer.”

When produced at the right levels, noradrenaline helps the brain grow new connections, “like a brain fertilizer.” How you breathe, in other words, directly affects the chemistry of your brain, enhancing your attention and improving your brain health.

Published in Psychophysiology, their research also compared the two traditional types of breath-focused meditation—mindfulness techniques and pranayama techniques—and found that both practices are effective “to [effect] changes in arousal, attention, and emotional control.”

“You must stand unshaken amidst the crash of breaking worlds,” said Paramhansa Yogananda, the leading yoga master who brought meditation and yoga to America, and wrote the classic best-seller, Autobiography of a Yogi. “Practice [meditation] deeply until your breath becomes mind.”

Meditation Reshapes Your Brain to Better Handle Stress

In their new book, Altered Traits:  Science Reveals How Meditation Changes Your Mind, Brain and Body, Daniel Goleman and Richard J. Davidson explored the sixty thousand studies conducted over the last few decades to understand how the ancient Yogi practices of meditation work in your brain.

A psychologist and a neuroscientist, Goleman and Davidson did the first brains scans of Buddhist monks. They gave us “emotional intelligence” and brought “affective neuroscience” into the mainstream.

With Altered Traits, they went on a hunt for scientific evidence that meditation can create a lasting change in human behavior. They debunk most studies on meditation as inconclusive, and pull out those that are well designed and clearly prove a change.

The findings on the Olympic meditators—those who have practiced for more than 62,000 hours –and their relationship with pain is one of the most compelling. It demonstrates the diminished impact of the Threat Center on the Me Center, and the strength of the prefrontal cortex in exerting executive control over how information and sensations are interpreted.

In the laboratory, the meditating monks were touched with a hot test tube while monitored for physiological and emotional responses. When they heard about the hot test tube, they had no emotional response. Most of us would immediately start feeling pain before it begins, like hearing the sound of a dentist drill.

When the monks actually felt the hot test tube, the physiological response registered, but the monks registered no emotional reaction.

These Olympic meditators demonstrate that you can utilize the natural neuroplasticity of your brain to overcome a common stress reaction to an outside stimulus.

This level of control over your emotional reactions would give your Executive Center lots of room to handle an emergency. Meditation also strengthens your empathy. It makes you better able to understand where another person is coming from, especially those you perceive as different from you. Emergency preparation and response requires effective coordination and collaboration with others.

Even if you cannot see yourself meditating for 62,000 hours within the next 12 years (and you have a hunch you’ll still order Novocain for a root canal), you can see how having a healthier connection between your Threat Center, your Executive Center, your Me Center could reduce your panic reaction in the face of a natural disaster.

Less Than 20 Minutes of Meditation Makes a Difference

“You can do this with less than 20 minutes a day,” says Dr. Shanti Rubenstone, M.D. who graduated from and taught at Stanford University Medical Center, has specialized in treating chemical dependency, and now practices “transformational medicine” in Mountain View, CA.  

Dr. Van Houten agreed, when they spoke in the Science Behind Meditation Symposium (you can watch his video free). “The cumulative positive effects begin to show up at :12-:15 minutes of meditation per day.”

There are many ways to learn meditation today. Online with Ananda offers a free introduction to meditation, and a community of support for continuing your practice, no matter where you live.

Climate Change and Consciousness

“Without a global revolution in the sphere of human consciousness, the catastrophe toward which the world is headed will be unavoidable,” said Vaclav Havel, past President of the Czech Republic, addressing the US Congress.

“Meditation raises our consciousness to receive creative solutions,” says Nayaswami Jyotish Novak, author of best-selling book How to Meditate:  A Step-by-Step Guide to the Art and Science of Meditation.

Using meditation, yoga, arts, somatic exercises and good-old fashioned relationship-building and resource sharing, Ananda is collaborating with Findhorn—both cooperative communities that have thrived for over 50 years—to put on the international conference, Climate Change and Consciousness:  Our Legacy for the Earth (CCC19).

Conference convener and visionary, Stephanie Mines, PhD asks “Is there nothing left to do but grieve the loss of species and fight for hope against the growing onslaught of scientific data that predicts erasure of humanity? Youth and elders at CCC19…will link our experiences and research, our common faith in human potential to counter the odds.”

Over 400 global leaders—the likes of Charles Eisenstein, Angaangaq Angakkorsuaq, Polly Higgins, Xiuhtezcatl Martinez, Vandana Shiva—will meet in Scotland in April to raise consciousness for planetary transformation. The conference is sold-out for onsite attendance, but formation of livestreaming hubs is encouraged.

Scientific evidence is amassing that climate change is a firestorm on its way. It will affect people everywhere, personally and tragically, sooner than later. Science also shows that our brains can re-shape to be more resilient, creative and collaborative in the face of serious threats, through regular meditation practice.

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