Brain Research validates concepts propounded by Patanjali in Yoga Sutras

Brain Research validates concepts propounded by Patanjali in Yoga Sutras.

Posted on  by nsraghavan

Scientists have been preoccupied for centuries trying to understand consciousness. Even today, it remains one of the most important unanswered questions of modern neuroscience. Nevertheless, there are several insights on this subject that have been well researched and accepted by scientific community.

Science, for instance, has established that our subconscious is the storehouse of all our learnings. Once we learn something and that gets validated or repeated, then, it gets stored away in our subconscious memory as beliefs. We now know that reality exists independent of human minds, but our understanding of that reality depends on the beliefs that we hold at any given time. Michael Shermer calls this process as ‘Belief-Dependent Realism’.

Cognitive scientists Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber further stress in their book “The Enigma of Reason” that all of us invariably use our reasoning skills to justify our own beliefs and try our best to convince others about these beliefs.

Elizabeth Svoboda author of “What makes a hero? The surprising Science of Selflessness” goes on to confirm this tendency. She says that psychological research suggests that once our minds are made up on important matters, changing them can be as difficult as stopping a train hurtling at full speed, even when we sense the danger straight ahead.

“Whatever we plant in our subconscious mind and nourish everyday with repetition and emotion will one day become our reality”
 Earl Nightingale

It is interesting that these scientific concepts are validated by Patanjali in his Yoga Sutras.
The equivalent of embedded beliefs is samskaras and vasanas. Repeated thoughts manifest as habits and repeated habits influence our thoughts and become samskaras. Thus samskaras are habits that get entrenched deeply in our mind and they shape our inner world and mould our personality. We all have large number of samskaras and some of these are strong while others are relatively weak. These defining attributes of our personality affect our judgment and more importantly, shape our concepts on what we consider as right or good and what we consider as wrong or bad. The term for the most powerfulsamskaras is vasana, a potent subtle impression that colours our mind. We, therefore, see reality through the lens of our vasanas. This lens, unfortunately, distorts our perception of others as well as our own selves. Thus, in a sense, our vision is limited by what our vasanas allow us to see.

Patanjali goes on to describe the components of our mind. Chitta roughly translates to mind but actually it is more like the source of consciousness of a person. Chitta has three distinct faculties:

It is interesting that neuroscience does cover extensively all these three faculties but does not classify them in this way.

  1. Buddhi: the essence of intelligence, which is our discriminative faculty which classifies our impressions and reacts to them.
  2. Ahamkara: the faculty of ego-sense which claims these impressions as our own and stores them away as our knowledge base.
  3. Manas: the recording faculty which receives impressions gathered by the senses from the outside world.

Patanjali also gives more expansive view of how we view things or how our perceptions get created. He calls this Vritti which is the feeling of knowing that is experienced by us both in wakeful state and even in dream state. According to his Yoga Sutras there are five kinds of vrittis.

  1. Pramana is the right perception. This could be based on direct experience, pratyaksha, using the five senses. It could be based on inference, anumana, using logic. It could also be by comparison, upamana, with other known facts. It could be based on verbal testimony, sabda, provided by someone. It could even be simply a non-apprehension, anupalbdhi.
    This translates to one of the definitions of consciousness in modern science which is that consciousness is the sensory awareness of the body, the self, and the world.
  2. Viparyaya is misconception. This happens when the perception is created due to mistakes by our five senses. Thus, sometimes, our acquired knowledge can be misconceived. This, according to neuroscience, is the subconscious part of our brain misinterpreting the reality based on past experiences that are stored away in our memories.

Interestingly, the Sanskrit word for the world prapancha literally translates into ‘perception through five senses’. The idea behind this is that everything we taste, see, touch, sound, and smell (five senses) in the world is just what we perceive through our five senses.

Again, we can clearly see that neuroscience and Patanjali Yoga Sutras look at mind, perception and consciousness in somewhat similar ways but use their own terminology.

  1. Vikalpa is our imagination which is a thought pattern of past, future or non-existent daydreaming or fantasizing. We need to realize that we do not have the need of our senses for imagination. Dreaming according to some scientists is a mental state, an altered state of consciousness, which occurs during sleep. Dreams usually involve fictive events that are organised in a story-like manner, characterised by a range of internally generated sensory, perceptual, and emotional experiences. 
  2. Nidra is sleep when we lose control over deliberate processing of our thoughts.
    Modern research shows that deep sleep is a state when conscious part of our brains is not functioning. We know that consciousness can be transiently abolished by pharmacological agents or more permanently, by brain injury. Let us also not forget that consciousness is seemingly lost and recovered every day, from the moment we fall asleep until we wake up while the subconscious is feverishly at work.
    It is interesting, that in order to explain the concept of ‘self’ more easily, the Hindu Vedic scholars describe deep sleep as a state when our ‘being’ can be looked at as standing apart from us more like an observer. At that stage, we are completely and absolutely unconscious even when our body is still functioning, run by our unconscious processes.
  3. Smriti is memory which is the storehouse of our past conscious and unconscious experiences and impressions. This is our well researched extensive memory system distributed across various parts of our brains.

Now let us now look at the various approaches that the western scientific research and Yoga Sutras offer in understanding our own thinking processes, perceptions and behaviours and using this knowledge to improve our overall wellbeing.

Master of mindfulness, Jon Kabat-Zinn of University of Massachusetts Medical School
pioneered meditative approaches that are used all over the world to treat pain and depression. It is proven that long term practitioners of deep mindfulness develop a sense of equanimity without getting absorbed into their own mental processes. They become fully aware that the mental phenomena like thoughts, emotions and feeling are distinct and in reality are outside of the mind that is actually observing them.

Tasha Eurich is an organizational psychologist and New York Times best-selling author and her latest book ‘Insight’is well received. She claims that a hugely significant 95% of people think that they are self-aware, but the reality bears a stark contrast as only 10% to 15% of people know who they really are. She cites three reasons for this disconnect. First, we naturally have blind spots which results in wrong assumptions being made. Then we are all wired to operate on autopilot driven by our subconscious and are unaware of our behaviour patterns. Lastly, we are happier when we see ourselves in a more positive light which she calls as the “cult of self”. This results in over-estimation of our traits and capabilities.

The benefits that are associated with self-introspection and self-insight, include questioning and amending our thoughts, emotions, and behaviours that happen to be dysfunctional. This, in fact, is the foundation upon which psychological interventions, such as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) have been developed.

Jennifer Porter in her 2017 HBR article talks about self-reflection. The most useful reflection, according to her, involves the conscious consideration and analysis of beliefs and actions for the purpose of learning. Reflection gives the brain an opportunity to pause amidst the chaos, untangle and sort through observations and experiences, consider multiple possible interpretations, and create meaning. This meaning becomes learning, which then influences our future mindsets and actions.

In tandem with these developments, a new scientific field has emerged, focusing on technology that facilitates collection and use of personally relevant information called Personal Informatics (PI). The field of PI effectively uses technologies that allow users to collect and review personally relevant information. The purpose commonly envisioned for these systems is that they provide users with actionable, data-driven self-insight to help them change their behavioural patterns for the better.

The considered opinion by psychologists, however, is that changing deeply entrenched habits invariably requires help, information, and real support from others as claimed by the five authors of the book ‘Change Anything: The New Science of Personal Success’.

Let us now turn our attention to what sageVeda Vyasa says in Yoga-Bhasya or “Commentary on the Yoga Sutras“. He claims that chitta has to go through the five stages of mental processes to reach the state of samadhi or complete peace of mind. The five stages are the state of restlessness (ksipta), the state of lethargy or sluggishness (mudha), the state of distractedness or lack of concentration (viksipta), the state of focused attention (ekagra), and finally the state of restricting all perceptions (niruddha).

Yoga, however, deals with only the last two stages and provides guidance for reaching eternal peace of mind. It requires deep understanding and practice of Yoga to get to the blissful state of the mind, which is outside the scope of this blog. I will however touch on some modern research work that validates the beneficial effects of breathing control, mindfulness and meditation.

How breathing affects the brain regions responsible for memory and emotional processing was the subject of research by scientists at North-Western University. They show that even the simple act of breathing through our nose can control our brain signals and lead to improved emotional and memory processing. As regards the breath itself, slow, steady breathing activates the calming part of our nervous system which, apart from slowing our heart rate, reduces feelings of anxiety and stress. Mindful breathing emphasizes not only the breathing component, but also the mental component of paying attention and becoming aware of mind, body and breath together. By observing in a non-judgemental manner, we are able to watch our minds and feel our bodies more clearly. Our breath is powerful enough to regulate emotions and help us gain clarity, and to fully do so we must also make the effort to centre our minds to the here and now.

Patanjali advocates practice of Yoga which will provide nirodha parinama or the mental ‘transformation of dissolution’. This is the state of clarity that arises when we are fully aware of the eternal present moment after dissolving the limiting effects of our samskaras. Using western science phraseology, the deep processes embedded in Yoga similar to self-introspection, self-insight and mindfulness will help us become aware of our thoughts as they arise. Regular practise of Yoga will then help us to stop/dissolve (Nirodha) such thoughts enabling us to be clearly present in the current moment.

Yoga Chitta Vritti Nirodha” is one of the beginning sutras from Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra.
It tells us that effective practice of yoga will ultimately result in living in the present moment by stopping the unsolicited thoughts arising from the subconscious.

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