By Jacqueline Debets
Over half of Americans are not concerned about climate change. The other half are very concerned. Modern neuroscience explains how our brains produce these two different reactions, and what we can do to re-shape our brains to be resilient as the consequences of climate change become immediate and personal.
Action and Apathy Both Flow from Counter-Factual Thinking
Action and apathy are flowing from the same mental simulation, called “counter-factual” thinking. In a situation your brain wants to understand, there are four considerations for action. One is a clearly negative outcome. Two, something unusual occurred. Three, you can see that you played a central role in what happened. Four, you can see a direction 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. The Hidden Brain podcast from January 28, 2019 “Rewinding & Rewriting,” demonstrates counter-factual thinking in two personal stories, and concludes: In order for people to act, cause and effect must be close together.
That’s the problem. “We really don’t know what kind of a role each and every one of us plays in all of that,” comments Kathleen Vohs, a psychologist at the University of Minnesota says regarding people’s relationship to climate change events. “[It’s] psychologically remote.”
12 Years to a Personal Emergency
Is 12 years close enough? 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).
The 2018 Camp Fire in Northern California was the United States most deadly wildfire in over a century. It 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.
That is the stuff of disaster films. A scene that makes people panic.
Don’t Panic!? Meditate
When 54% of the American public’s counter-factual thinking switches from “not me” to “OMG”, how will not panic?
We tend to think that reactions like the fight-or-flight response are hard-wired. But modern neuroscience shows that your brain can and does create new neural connections throughout your life. Ancient meditation techniques are the tool for reshaping your brain, making neuroplasticity to your best friend.
Meditation affects chemical reactions in your brain to mitigate stress reactions, help us focus, assess a situation, and be empathetic with different people.
You’ve heard of the amygdala. It’s the Threat Detection Center of your brain. Your amygdala detects and responds to sensations, and triggers the secretion of chemicals to say that something important is happening.
What you do with that sensation is a separate step. You have a choice, about how you react, IF another part of your brain, the prefrontal cortex, or Executive Center, has a chance to step in, and help you assess the situation in a more logical, rational and balanced way.
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 between the Threat Detection Center and the Me Centers—the part of the brain that focuses on yourself and leads to overreacting, overthinking, taking things personally, etc.
When you meditate on a regular basis, you strengthen the connections between your Threat Center and your Executive Center, which modulates your Me Center’s potential panic reaction, 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 how Olympic meditators—those who have practiced for more than 62,000 hours–can 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, they 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 you more empathetic, 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.
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, and now practices “transformational medicine” in Mountain View, CA. Dr. Van Houten agreed, when they spoke in the Science Behind Meditation Symposium (free video).
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
“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.
This April in Findorn, Scotland for the conference Climate Change and Consciousness: Our Legacy for the Earth (CCC19) over 400 global leaders—the likes of Charles Eisenstein, Angaangaq Angakkorsuaq, Polly Higgins, Xiuhtezcatl Martinez, Vandana Shiva—will use meditation, yoga, arts, somatic exercises and good-ole fashioned relationship-building and resource-sharing to raise consciousness for planetary transformation. The conference is sold-out for onsite attendance, but formation of livestreaming hubs is encouraged. Join the CCC19 Conference Livestream, April 20 – 26.
Scientific evidence is amassing that climate change is a firestorm on its way. It will affect people personally and tragically, sooner than later. Science also shows we can do something about it: regular meditation practice will make you more resilient, creative and collaborative in the face of serious threats.