First published in The Hindu, 30 September 2023 

Besides getting ready for her arangetram, Neha plans to run a half-marathon. All this, while she’s interning at a reputed accounting firm, applying to foreign universities and prepping for her final CA exam. At one level, she really enjoys her Bharatanatyam classes and has always been into running. But of late, both dance and running have morphed from being purely pleasurable to mildly stressful. Furthermore, despite her stellar achievements, Neha feels unsure of herself. At times, her self-doubt balloons so much, she doesn’t see the point of striving.

Neha, like many young people today, is beginning to realize that this relentless push to achieve more and more has its own costs. In her gripping book, The Awakened Brain, psychologist, Lisa Miller, draws a distinction between our achieving and awakened brains. Our current system of education and modern society tends to put a premium on achievement while ignoring other facets of the human experience. And, this is possibly one reason why many young people are feeling drained, hopeless even. If we want to experience a greater sense of individual and collective wellbeing, what can we do differently?

Spiritual element

As a neuroscientist, Miller did not start out by studying the science of spirituality. She was interested in looking at neuroscientific markers of resilience. Her research involved examining the brains of people with “high and low genetic risk for depression” to see if there were any structural differences in their brains. Their data also happened to include a question on the importance of spirituality to a person. What Miller and her team found completely shook them. The brains of people who professed a high degree of spirituality were thicker and stronger “in exactly the same regions that weaken and wither” in patients with depression. In other words, a spiritual or awakened brain can serve as a buffer against depression.

Miller defines the spiritual brain as an innate capacity to “perceive a greater reality.” In a YouTube talk, Miller outlines differences between our awakened and achieving brains. When we have a “spiritual core,” our self-worth is inherently valuable. However, if we lack a spiritual dimension, then our self-worth rests on our abilities and aptitudes, subserved by the achieving brain. Further, our awakened brains perceive a greater meaning and purpose inherent in all life forms. But if we’re guided solely by our achieving brains, our identities revolve around our worldly successes and failures. Our interpersonal relationships are deemed sacred and are based on love for the awakened brain, whereas our achieving brains perceive them as more transactional and need-based.

When good things happen to us, the awakened brain is imbued with gratitude for these blessings. Our achieving brains either perceives these positives as well-deserved (with a concomitant sense of entitlement) or plain lucky. If we have a spiritual core, our paths in life seem anchored or even guided. From the perspective of the achieving brain, our journey through life is uncertain and instrumental.

Question of perception

Miller also points out that being spiritual is not necessarily synonymous with being religious. While religious people can be spiritual, a religious person may lack a spiritual dimension unless they feel a “perceived connection with a higher power or sacred world.” We may encounter transcendence in myriad ways. Some people may be moved by a view of the setting sun on a shimmering horizon, others by the harmonious sounds of a symphony. Still, others may feel part of larger whole when they hear the roar of a cheering crowd at a cricket stadium.

To awaken our spiritual brains, Miller exhorts us to open our doors of perception. To be receptive to new experiences and to seek meaning beyond our immediate selves and to forge connection with all living beings. However, to lead rounded yet grounded lives, we need to activate both our achieving and awakened brains. By integrating these two modes of approaching the world, we may find the elusive balance that most people are yearning for.

(The writer is the author of Zero Limits: Things Every 20-Something Should Know. She blogs at