An Interview with David Perlmutter, MD and Alberto Villoldo, PhD

Neuroscientist David Perlmutter and medical anthropologist and shaman Alberto Villoldo have come together to explore the technology of meditation and enlightenment in their new book, Power Up Your Brain: The Neuroscience of Enlightenment. Five years ago, they discovered they’d come to similar understandings of the power of meditation—yet from incredibly different paths. The authors draw from the most powerful tools in each of their disciplines to create the Power Up Your Brain program, that helps prime the brain for enlightenment. We had the opportunity to interview the authors—David, in his office in Florida and via cell phone to Alberto, high up in the Chilean Andes—to explore the exciting phenomena of neurogenesis, mitochondrial health and ancient shamanic and spiritual practices in relation to meditation.

Integral Yoga Magazine (IYM): How does meditation affect the brain?

David Perlmutter (DP): Meditation opens up channels in the brain—empathy, compassion, enlightenment. Neuroscience now understands that awareness and those achievements brought on by meditative practice, are a consequence of physical changes in the brain. Just as when a person has physical, structural and demonstrative changes occur when he or she learns piano, changes also occur when we contact the spirit that surrounds all of us. Neuroscientists have come a long way over the past 25 years. They have replaced the once-accepted paradigm of the brain as a hardwired, fixed and immutable organ with a belief in neuroplasticity, which celebrates the brain’s dynamic ability to learn, adapt and change. The brain is malleable and changes moment by moment, based on the experiences it endures. Neuroplasticity is the link between contemplative practices and enlightenment. You train your brain to open the portal to wisdom when you turn your attention away from the everyday world and gaze within. What’s powerful about that is that that is empowering to us. We can direct the physical structures of our brain by participating in activities that are good for us—a fundamental justification for meditation.

Alberto Villoldo (AV): I believe meditation helps awaken higher order circuitry in the brain so that we break free from our most primitive instinctual brain, which has four operating programs: fear, feeding, fighting and sex. This is the predatory brain. Once we break free of the grip of greed, we don’t live in scarcity but we live in abundance. If we can break free of the grip of fear, we live in peace no matter what is going on around us. If we can break free of lust, then we no longer are caught in predatory relationships. We have to break free of the grip of ancient brain, which still runs 99 percent of humanity that lives in violence, scarcity and has a need for enemies. If you look at the religions of the world, or look at just the Ten Commandments, six of the commandments—such as don’t steal, kill, covet another’s spouse—are designed to restrain the impulses of this primitive brain. The yamas and niyamas are designed to restrain this predatory brain. Meditation helps to awaken the neo-cortex , to awaken sat-chid-ananda. It awakens higher order circuitry in the brain—we become wired for joy and for peace. It understands oneness.

IYM: What are other factors that can prime the brain for enlightenment?
DP: There are biochemical and lifestyle factors that can make neuroplasticity more available. A hormone, brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), is a key player in enhancing the ability of brain cells to connect with each other and form new pathways. BDNF makes us much more effective in realizing the goals for which we meditate and pray. Thus, what may have taken years and years, can be accomplished in a shorter time. Meditation-induced production of BDNF should be looked upon as the fertile ground into which seeds of spirituality-induced enlightenment are planted and flourish. Fortunately, many of the factors that influence our DNA to produce BDNF factors are under our direct control. The gene that turns on BDNF is activated by a variety of factors including meditation, physical exercise, caloric restriction, curcumin (turmeric) and the omega-3 fat, DHA. Even in Alzheimer’s patients, the rate of disease progression is dramatically slowed in those who engage in spiritual practice, likely a consequence of increased BDNF. Just reducing caloric restriction by 25 percent has been shown to dramatically increase gene production of BDNF. Most Americans are consuming 20 percent to 25 percent more calories than they need.

AV: I see enlightenment as the result of a healed brain and luminous energy field cleared of the memories and imprints of trauma. The ancients knew how to heal the brain. The yogis would fast and then they would eat foods rich in brain nutrients to repair the brain. At the foot of the Himalayas—the source of the Ganges—the fruits, berries and barks have brain nutrients that heal the centers affected by trauma. The yogic or shamanic practices were designed to upgrade the quality of the information in the luminous energy field. The combination of the two allowed us to experience samadhi, bliss, illumination and inner peace. These techniques were developed by ancient sages who discovered healing practices that we can now use to heal ourselves and others by intervening directly on the information and field around the body. All energy contains information—the most conscious you can make that energy, the wiser the energy, the less you need…

Read the rest of this article in the Spring 2011 issue of Integral Yoga Magazine.