Long before my interest in Buddhism, I was fascinated by how our brains work, how thoughts arise, how consciousness works, and where this feeling of self comes from. In my opinion, going back to childhood, I’ve never seen the brain and body as separate, but instead two integrated systems.
My interest in neuroscience was partly why I found Buddhism so intriguing. I was fascinated by how Buddha broke down and separated thoughts and emotions, awareness and consciousness. I heartily disagreed with him that I wasn’t my thoughts or opinions. After all I had come to build an intellectual self I was quite proud of!
At the same time as I dug deeply into my practice, and my mind, I started to understand what he meant. I saw the fleeting nature of thoughts, how they drove emotions and vice versa. I saw how often I got caught up in unwanted thoughts, made up conversations with people who made me angry, and fantasies that helped me escape boredom. It was a noisy place inside my head!
As I learned more about my mental landscape through meditation and mindfulness, neuroscience was growing in it’s discoveries exponentially. More evidence came on the scene that showed thoughts arise within the brain, and even consciousness itself was being studied in terms of the brain. None of this was surprising as it had always been my belief that mind was the subjective experience of thinking and decision making, and consciousness was how the brain enabled us to be aware of the world around us, our self awareness, and even our subjective thinking and imaginings.
About the same time I was struggling with the concept of not self laid out by Buddhist teachings, neuroscience started publishing theories and evidence that indeed there is no self to be had, no central driver to speak of, no unchanging internal self that made all the decisions, etc. I had to let down my resistance to this idea, as now science was making the same claim as Buddha had. Could this be?
I found most the Buddhist writing on not self confusing. Sometimes they even seemed to be suggesting I didn’t exist, that my thoughts were not my own, and that I shouldn’t care about myself. Yet at the same time they advised self compassion, while not taking things personally. Yet, I suspected they were on to something, just not wording it in a way that made sense for me.
As I read more brain books and listened to science podcasts on how the brain creates illusory selves, it made more sense, and then I started looking at myself, and especially my thought processes more closely. I started seeing how thoughts create a sense of self. How physical sensations in the body create a sense of being, and then how thoughts pile on top of that to create a self that reacts to the sensation. Little by little, I saw how my mind created self often throughout the day, in many different forms, either through thoughts, emotions, body or all of those. Often when I’d catch myself, the process would halt in its tracks. Could any of these selves I was witnessing be the “real” me? They all are and none are. In any given moment that self building is going on, there is that illusory self, a fabricated self created through thoughts and emotions.
Neuroscience and Buddhist teachings on not self reveal humans to be incredibly dynamic, changing beings.When we understand everyone is dynamic, we don’t get so attached to our idea of them with yet another illusory self, one that you have created for another person.
Not all scientists agree that there isn’t a self. I heard a talk with one who spoke in terms of the conscious self, that which is aware, makes decisions, forms ideas, etc., but that there is a more hard wired unconscious self, the one who can’t break the habit the conscious self has decided needs to be dropped, the self that seems unchanging, personality traits that are consistent throughout life, the one who fails your conscious expectations.
One area that seems to be getting general consensus is that of consciousness as a biological process(es). There is a lot of dispute about whether consciousness is created in the brain by individual neurons, or by regions, or by networks of neurons throughout the brain, but the majority of neuroscientists and modern day philosophers agree that consciousness is either an emergent property of the brain, or is somehow created by the brain/body a set(s) of processes.
What science has to say about the workings of the brain, consciousness, and the self has helped me enormously in my practice. While some of the language in the suttas seemed arcane, books and podcasts on brain science clarified for me what was being said, and more importantly what I could investigate on my own in my practice.
Neuroscience and Buddhism go together very well on the topic of not self, the nature of thoughts, emotions, and the creation of the sense of self through dynamic processes. While scientists learn to see these at work through fMRI and other methods, Buddhist practitioners see these processes at work through meditation and mindfulness.
Neuroscience is on the scene regarding the brain benefits of meditation and mindfulness. These studies are in their infancy, but there is great dialogue going on between meditators and scientists as well as some sound studies being conducted.
If you are interested in learning more about the brain and how it creates the feeling of self and why, as well as other fascinating information, the books posted here have great information.
My favorite and most recent find is The Brain Science Podcast. Dr. Ginger Campbell interviews the authors of books on the brain for lay people, as well as those who have written heavy-weight tomes and research papers. What I appreciate about these podcasts is they are thorough coverage of the book or topic. This either tells me what I want to know, or gives me better idea if I want to invest time in reading the whole book. Additionally, Ginger asks great questions, makes sure that the professors define their terminology, and explain what they mean. I listen to these everyday while on my exercise machine, so it’s great motivation for me to get in my daily workout while learning great brains stuff!
While the idea of not self, or an illusory self, is a bit disturbing, now some scientists are finding evidence that free will is also illusory. This is not only creating much controversy within science, but it has many people upset by the idea. Even so, Sam Harris has done a superb job in stating his argument, and in detailing examples of how we can see into our own experience that indeed free will isn’t what we thought it was. If you’ve dug deeply into not self, then free will also being a dynamically created process may not only seem obvious but may be fascinating to explore. This book Free Will is short, and well worth reading!
Another great book on free will, emergence, how the brain creates the feeling of self as a story, social responsibility, and various levels of how brain and mind are constrained is Who’s in Charge? Dr. Ginger Campbell has an excellent talk about the book Who’s In Charge called How Mind Emerges from Brain. I recommend listening to the talk, then reading the book. The author of the book Dr. Gazzaniga seems to be in agreement with Sam Harris, but explains emergence and various ways of looking at the brain/mind issue and social responsibility in more detail.