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Neurology and Psychology 101

“Studying neurobiology to understand humans is like studying ink to understand literature.” ~ Nassim Taleb

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“When I meditate, I literally can feel the neuropathways in my mind opening up.” ~ Katy Perry, Elle. 

“One sees that science also rests on a faith.” ~ Nietzsche 

“That whereof we cannot speak, thereof we must remain silent.” ~ Wittgenstein

Over the past 30 years of seeking, I have heard meditation teachers, yoga teachers, self-help gurus and life coaches utter factoids in their classes such as… 

“I’m expanding my corpus callosum right now!”

“Epigenetics proves that your thoughts can change your genes!”

“That’s neuroplasticity, dummy!”

“We can rewire our brains with each thought!”

“You can strengthen neural pathways by thinking about hugs, rainbows and unicorns!”

If your meditation teacher starts prattling on about his corpus callosum, prefrontal cortex, epigenetics, and/or neuroplasticity, you should run out of the room screaming. This person is either a liar, a charlatan, or an ignoramus. Anyone who has not spent 10–20 years in a laboratory analyzing human brains and conducting scientific research should not casually pepper lectures with factoids gleaned from the Internet or the copy of “Psychology Today” magazine sitting in his or her therapist’s waiting room. 

In the summer of 1994 Peter Guber invited Deepak Chopra to speak at Sony Pictures and I was in the audience. If I remember correctly, Doctor Chopra said something such as, “Human beings have 50,000–70,000 thoughts every day and most of them are redundant and negative.” In case you don’t already know, Deepak Chopra is a medical doctor who taught at Tufts and Boston University School of Medicine and was Chief of Staff at the New England Memorial Hospital in Stoneham, Massachusetts. For many years, when I was teaching at Esalen or Kripalu I would quote Doctor Deep to impress my students with this supposedly “scientific” ditty. 

That is, until late 2016 when I sent the final draft of “ How To Survive Your Childhood Now That You’re An Adult ” to my editor at New World Library. She kindly asked me to send her the scientific studies demonstrating that human beings have 50,000–70,000 thoughts every day and that most of them are redundant and negative.

Please take 30 seconds now to Google “number of thoughts per day scientific study.”

What did you find?

I’ll tell you what you found. You found unscientific (unreplicatible), tautological, self-serving psychobabble. That’s what you found. Nonetheless, I have been a student in over one hundred classes where teachers nonchalantly claim that every human being has 50,000–70,000 thoughts every day and most of those thoughts are redundant and negative. 

Just think about it: how would a neurologist even measure one thought? How could a scientist even define what constitutes a thought? And how would a scientist be able to discern if that thought was positive or negative? What were the criteria? Would “A bear is chasing you. Run!” be considered a positive or negative thought? Is “The sky is blue” a positive or negative thought? What if you are a farmer whose crops need rain or they will not grow and you will lose your farm? Is “sky is blue” universally positive? 

OK, so if your meditation or yoga teacher mentions numbers of thoughts per day please ask him or her to cite the research studies — I couldn’t find any. 

Because it’s a complete fiction, an urban legend. 

Similarly, in my book ” How To Survive Your Childhood Now That You’re An Adult ,” I write, “Human beings do not have direct introspection into brain states. At no time in your lifetime will you hear someone say, ‘Synapses 85,932 and 700,774 just fired. I need to take an aspirin.’” So when Katy Perry states, “When I meditate, I literally can feel the neuropathways in my mind opening up” she is obviously delusional. Literally delusional (although I am uncertain to what literature she is referring). 1. There are no neural pathways in her mind for her to feel (the mind is non-local), and 2. not even His Holiness the Dalai Lama can feel inside his own brain — not even with the perfect dose of LSD or ayahuasca. 

To be clear, fMRI machines measure magnetic waves in the brain; EEG machines measure electricity. Then expert physicians and neurologists can witness patterns and discern abnormalities. But does a neuron firing an electrical stimulus correlate with a thought? Does a wave correspond with a thought? 

Nobody knows. Not yet, at least.

So why is it that armchair neurologists (who have never seen a human brain except in a horror film) write or say things such as…

Studies show that gratitude ACTIVATES the hypothalamus

The hypothalamus regulates all bodily mechanisms, one of which is sleep

Thus, gratitude improves sleep quality 

What???

This is what I call a false syllogism. A plus B does not equal C. Can you discern the missing, direct causal link here? A scientific study would have to establish direct CAUSALITY between people expressing gratitude and the “quality” (quality? REM cycles — how is sleep quality determined? Duration? Subjective retrospective recounting?) while eliminating or holding constant all other variables that could influence “quality of sleep” such as food, exercise, light, caffeine, relationships, alcohol, nicotine, previous amounts and types of sleep, levels of anxiety, brain chemistry, medications, talking, meditating etc.

I find it fascinating that so many hucksters can blatantly and egregiously misinterpret the pittance that neurologists know about the brain — namely, “studies show that gratitude activates the hypothalamus” — to arrive at grandiose conclusions such as, “Gratitude improves sleep quality!”

Speaking of which, this is another way to discern if your teacher is an ignoramus or not: neurologists say and write things such as, “Studies SUGGEST SUGGEST SUGGEST…” while meditation teachers, yoga teachers, self-help gurus, and life coaches often say things such as, “Studies PROVE…” “Research DEMONSTRATES…” “Studies SHOW…” or “They have proven…” with this “They” being some mysterious yet authoritative, omniscient and definitive cabal of fellow human beings in lab coats with dubious facial hair arrangements hovering over Petri dishes in a windowless basement in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

For example, I have heard non-neurologists say, “Epigenetics proves that thoughts change genes!” which is patently false. Epigenetics studies the changes of gene expression — the genes do not change, only their expressions change. Do you understand the difference and thus the myriad false claims (lies) hawkers make through ever-so slightly altering their diction from “suggest” to “show,” “prove” or “demonstrate”?

Similarly, in scientific research journals neurologists employ conditional terms such as “may” — as in “may or may not.” For example, “Practicing yoga MAY MAY MAY make people happier.” But by the time this information reaches our ears while we hold Warrior II pose until our arms and legs go numb, our local yoga teacher is shouting, “They proved it! Yoga makes people happy!” 

Really…?

After class you can ask who “they” are and what causality they unequivocally established between yoga and happiness. That’s not to say that I haven’t practiced yoga for 26 years and I wouldn’t swear that it makes me happier within one or two standard deviations, notwithstanding the extremely limited statistical population and random variables such as what I ate for breakfast that morning. Trying to prove scientifically that yoga causes everyone to be happier would be analogous to trying to measure milk with a ruler. 

It is obvious that many self-help gurus, meditation teachers, and life coaches consistently mistake research for conclusions, c.f. Amy Cuddy. What type of malarkey must one peddle to the masses to be asked to leave a tenure-track position at Harvard? Ask former Professor Cuddy.

So unless you have the spent the past 10-20 years like Jill Bolte Taylor in a laboratory with human brains sloshing around your gloved hands and the occupation box on the first page of your tax return reads “Scientist,” “Neurologist,” or “Neuro-biologist,” you may just want to take Ludwig Wittgenstein’s prescient advice to heart and refrain from speaking about about neuroplasticity, epigenetics, your corpus callosum, or rewiring your mind.

For thereof non-neurologists must remain silent. As Nassim Taleb so eloquently states, “Studying neurobiology to understand humans is like studying ink to understand literature.”

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