Buddhism Vs. Neuroscience

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.

No Comments

  1. Doug on June 8, 2012 at 6:23 am

    Thanks for the article, Dana, I agree that there’s a whole lot of overlap between modern neuroscience and a Buddhist approach to the mind.

    With regards to the book by Sam Harris on Free Will, one of my favorite philosophers on the topic is Dan Dennett. He has a recent talk that’s an hour long on YouTube. You can see it by clicking HERE.

  2. Dana Nourie on June 8, 2012 at 9:44 pm

    Hi Doug,

    Thanks for the link. I am familiar with Dennett, and that he and Harris disagree on this issue. In fact, Harris directly addresses some of Dennet’s arguments in his book Freewill, though right now I don’t recall what those were. I’ll watch that video this weekend.

  3. NaturalEntrust on August 31, 2012 at 3:41 am

    Doug thanks for that link.
    Dana I think I trust Dan Dennett more
    than I trust Sam Harris to be a philosopher.

    Dan’s ideas on evitable sound very compatible
    with my experience 🙂

    So would be cool if you find out what Sam says about it.

    I wanted to comment on this thread some weeks ago
    but felt that I am so dominating that enough is enough 🙂

  4. NaturalEntrust on August 31, 2012 at 5:07 am

    I am not on that level. I did not get the pseudo-random
    generator and the really? random generator and
    what that where all about. But it had to do with
    being predictable and competent and so on.

    Dan Dennett sounds plausible to me.
    I wondr what Tom Clarke make out of
    that video? “We have practical free will”
    Dennett says in that video. I side with Dennett. 🙂

    But I hope he or somebody else find another
    thought experiment that us who don’t are
    into math and Chess can get next time.

    Much appreciated that you took time
    to refer to that video. Has we written
    all this down in an easy to read way?

    He referred to a Lian Clegg that have a pdf
    on “Protean Free Will”
    http://authors.library.caltech.edu/29887/1/Protean_Free_Will.pdf

    What do you know about that text?

    • Doug on August 31, 2012 at 7:20 am

      Dennett has a couple of books about free will; they are written at a relatively high level though. The more readable one is called _Elbow Room_. His other, later one is more complete and more dense, although I’ve only read part of it. IIRC it’s called _Freedom Evolves_.

  5. NaturalEntrust on August 31, 2012 at 8:52 am

    I know I have owned these two

    Elbow Room: The Varieties of Free Will Worth Wanting
    The Mind’s I (together with Hofstadter )
    and maybe read this one Library loan
    Brainstorms: Philosophical Essays on Mind and Psychology

    I had a period of “Philosophy” starting 1979 to 1986 or so.
    Then I gave up on it. My brain can not follow the abstract texts.

    But as I wrote. He made much sense in that video so thanks.

    I like this book by him best
    Darwin’s Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life

    But found these two
    Consciousness Explained
    Freedom Evolves

    to be okay but most likely beyond my grasp.

    Should I trust Sam Harris to say that Paul Bloom sided with him on free will?
    I like Paul Bloom very much.

    Would be interesting to know what Antonio Damasio think of all this?

  6. mufi on September 1, 2012 at 9:14 am

    These days, whenever I read about how neuroscience and Buddhism converge, I tend to think of Alan Wallace and other orthodox claims about the incompatibility of “scientific materialism” (or the like) and Buddhism (at least historically speaking).

    I’m well aware that there are valid responses to such charges, for example:

    There is no single “Buddhism.”
    For centuries, people have adapted Buddhism to their own culture.
    And who decides what is essential in Buddhism, anyway?

    But, at the very least, I think these charges warrant the caveat that many Buddhists will continue to stridently disagree with some of the basic assumptions of neuroscience – e.g. that consciousness is an embodied, biological process – and may even accuse anyone who does so of Buddhist heresy or the like.

    PS: Can you tell that I experienced something like this situation very recently? 🙂

    • Dana Nourie on September 1, 2012 at 9:35 am

      Yes, I realize there will always people people who cling to the idea of consciousness not being embodied. But for myself evidence comes first, and evidence is powerful that consciousness is embodied and arises from the brain and nervous system.

      Seeing is to the eyes, as walking is to the legs, as awareness is to the brain. Neuroscience can investigate on a much deeper level than we can personally, and one of the interesting things it’s revealing is how we delude ourselves through belief and desire. Also, how the brain creates many version of self repeatedly, changing, morphing it according to psychological factors, etc. This jives well with Buddhist teaching.

      There are always people who want to stick with earlier beliefs or philosophies instead of evidence, hence many odd beliefs still exist:-)

      • mufi on September 1, 2012 at 1:38 pm

        Dana: I agree with the general thrust of your comment, although I think the generic reference to “Buddhist teaching” begs for some qualification.

        It reminds me of the parable of the Blind Men and the Elephant, only in this version, we – including orthodox Buddhists and their advocates (e.g. see the quotes in my reply to Eric a.k.a. NaturalEntrust) – are the blind men and Buddhist teaching is the elephant. You and I seem to be groping in more or less the same region of the elephant’s body, whereas the orthodox are groping somewhere else entirely.

        On the other hand, being orthodox usually suggests an extreme conservatism, whereas unorthodox folks like you and I are probably less averse to cherry-picking from the canon.

        In other words, we’re only interested in the trunk, the legs, and perhaps the tusks. They can keep the rest!

        • Dana Nourie on September 1, 2012 at 1:40 pm

          Yes, Mufi, I have to agree with you 100% on what you say above here:-)!

      • Tom Alan on September 1, 2012 at 6:58 pm

        It is an established fact that specific thought processes are correlated with the activities of neurons in specific parts of the brain. On the other hand, correlation is not causation, as neuropsychiatrist Peter Fenwick has pointed out. Dr. Fenwick is one of the scientists who expresses skepticism with regard to materialism.

        Lecture at the University of Stockholm

        http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=78Deo40MA4s

        • mufi on September 2, 2012 at 5:21 am

          Tom,

          That “correlation is not causation” charge comes up a lot in this context. Briefly, Dr. Stephen Novella put it this way recently:

          …the conclusion that the brain causes the mind is the best inference from the data available…not only is there a correlation but it has the proper temporal relationship (brain activity and changes precede mental activity and changes), that there are no other plausible hypotheses, and that other hypotheses that can account for the correlation add unnecessary elements and so violate Occam’s razor.

          By “brain causes mind”, he means that the mind (or consciousness) is an embodied biological process, run by the nervous system, centrally the brain. It’s analogous to digestion or respiration. That’s the dominant hypothesis in neuroscience and other cognitive sciences, skeptics notwithstanding.

          In what sense is the hypothesis “materialist”? At least in the limited, operational sense that the body (including the brain) is composed of matter, without which (the weight of scientific evidence suggests) there are no prospects for conscious experience. Whether matter (or matter/energy) is all that’s real – perhaps not. But that question leads us away from theories of mind and into more metaphysical territory.

          At least in this context, whether or not you can accept this scientific hypothesis (as I do) might be less important than whether or not Buddhists can accept that it’s compatible to do so and still practice Buddhism (or at least some part of it, such as the ethics).

          • mufi on September 2, 2012 at 5:22 am

            PS: Here’s the source for that Novella quote.



          • Doug on September 2, 2012 at 5:36 am

            Thanks for the Novella quote, Mufi. He puts it well.



  7. mufi on September 1, 2012 at 9:16 am

    PPS: Apologies for the poor grammer in my previous comment, which I am unable to edit. I hope you will understand me, nonetheless.

  8. NaturalEntrust on September 1, 2012 at 10:04 am

    I am more of an outsider so most likely you Mufi
    and Dana and Linda and Ted has met and have
    exchanged views with many many more Buddhists
    than what I ahve during my whole life.

    My only experience is say three Swedes met personally?
    And then only those atheist Buddhists that publish them
    selves online in ways that I find using google?

    “I tend to think of Alan Wallace and other orthodox claims about the incompatibility of “scientific materialism” (or the like) and Buddhism (at least historically speaking).”

    So I get very curious on and apology for not having googled Alan B Wallace
    to see if he himself self identify as an orthodox or traditionalist or western Buddhist

    I had the wild guess that he saw himself as very western and modern and not
    orthodox or traditional? But that is my bias. I guess I have too few examples
    to base my take on it so I may be mistaken.

    But one thing that I had very strong prejudice where that almost 100% where
    holding this view ” the incompatibility of “scientific materialism”” and they are
    not alone. They share this with a lot of other “spiritual” people regardless of
    faith or practice.

    I’ve seen this daily on atheist forums since about 1996 and it where very
    apparent around 2000 to 2005 when I where active on forums for science
    and religion cooperating.

    Spiritual people talking bad about Richard Dawkins seeing him as
    a scientism support and that view they had seemed to me to get
    triggered by their idea ” the incompatibility of “scientific materialism”

    I guess I should start a thread about scientism. Why is it so bad?
    Ooops I should not I am too dominating as it is.
    So I hope some of the staff of SBA start such.

  9. mufi on September 1, 2012 at 1:14 pm

    Eric: Here’s a sample of some confrontational remarks, which were aimed at me in another forum:

    The Buddhist doctrine of “rebirth” is based on meditative practice as is the Buddhist doctrine of “dependent arising.” (It’s interesting that Flanagan is willing to accept the latter, but not the former.)

    “Buddhist contemplatives base their highly detailed accounts of the sequence of death, intermediate state, and rebirth [on] meditative practices that enable the adept to refine and stabilize the mind so that an unbroken clarity of awareness is maintained throughout all these events.”

    (source: pg. 184, “Choosing Reality” by B. Alan Wallace – a Buddhist scholar and former Buddhist monk)

    Buddhism is not compatible with materialism. You can attempt to redefine Buddhism, but your definition has absolutely no relationship with historical Buddhism.

    A “materially grounded spiritual seeker” (to use Flanagan’s words) is an oxymoron. Spirituality presupposes “spirit.” If you’re a “spiritual seeker,” then you’re seeking the “spirit.” (I have to state the obvious because there are many here who would attempt to obscure the issue.)

    [Note: “Flanagan” is a reference to philosopher Owen Flanagan, whom I often cite on the topic of Buddhism as it relates to secular thinkers.]

    Strong stuff, huh? I actually referred this person to this forum, so we’ll see if he shows up. 🙂

    • Doug on September 2, 2012 at 5:46 am

      Interesting exchanges, Mufi, but that kind of talk really doesn’t bother me. I think s/he’s right that the definition is not consistent with “historical Buddhism”, in that the Buddha of the Pali Canon specifically rejected the sort of materialism at issue here as ‘annihilationist’. But “abolutely no relationship” goes too far. Of course, a scientifically responsible Buddhism has a very close relationship to historical Buddhism, even though they are not precisely the same thing.

      But number one, isn’t Buddhism prey to the same realities as the rest of the universe? Isn’t it prey to change and alteration with new conditions?

      And number two, shouldn’t the Buddhist parable of the raft help us to see that the Buddha dharma is only a means and not — or at least not necessarily — revelatory of the truth of physical reality? It seems like your interlocutor there is clinging to a particular early form of practice which is out of tune with our deep understanding of factual reality. We can’t hold the Buddha responsible: he had no access to the sort of information we do. But there’s no point in clinging to outmoded opinions simply because some old text affirms them.

      Finally, re. “spirit”: this is a bugbear of a term even within the atheist/skeptical community, as I’m sure you know. But scientifically competent commentators like Sagan and Neil Tyson offer what amounts to a redefinition of the term. What they are after is a naturalized spirituality. If the term rankles, dispense with it.

      • mufi on September 2, 2012 at 9:51 am

        Doug: Thanks for the thoughtful (and consoling) feedback.

        I’ll just add that “anti-materialism” seems to have become a sort of umbrella ideology for various (and contradictory) belief systems (strange bed partners).

        In this case, “historical Buddhism” has been pressed into the cause, only because my correspondent regards me as a “materialist” ideological opponent and saw an opportunity to embarrass me, after I revealed my Buddhist sympathies – even though I was pretty clear that those sympathies are focused on the ethical/contemplative tradition(s).

        His overall contention boils down to a false dilemma (i.e. a logical fallacy) between historical Buddhism and no Buddhism at all – or at least not by that name, which then leads to an argument over semantics, in which I might argue that, in this context, “Buddhist” is more of a relative term – i.e. relative to all those naturalists and secular humanists whose lives are not informed or consciously guided by any Buddhist teachings at all.

        But some arguments just fall on deaf ears.

  10. NaturalEntrust on September 2, 2012 at 12:09 am

    Tom thanks for the link to Fenwick
    I recognize the name but have not read him.
    To listen for one hour to somebody that I
    disagree with that is optimistic.

    Can you point out at what minute he say
    what made you give us the link?

    What according to you is the most pertinent
    that he say? What do you trust most?

  11. NaturalEntrust on September 2, 2012 at 12:23 am

    Mufi, yes hope they show up
    or you have to tell me how I can
    show up in the Lion Den 🙂

    Does those see themselves then
    as orthodox or traditional and not
    as modern western Buddhists?

    All of you want to go back to the original texts.
    Would that not give you all a common ground?

    Would it then be fair to say that the interpretations
    are what differ so all of you are traditional but
    the secular has let go of those things they think
    are cultural views about reincarnation renamed
    as rebirth and karma seen as just retribution
    used as a skilful means to get people to behave?

    My naive approach is that words like materialism
    are deep down in connotations that makes it
    almost impossible to use.

    Marxists are into dialectic materialism and
    those who go to the Mall Shopping Centers
    they are into Consumer Materialism and
    those that are for the Free Market Liberalism
    they are into Capitalistic Materialism and then
    we have the old Carvaka or what the name is?

    Indian philosophy materialism and we have
    Greek and Roman Atomism and so on.

    I mean it is a word that send so many signals
    that it is almost impossible to use.

    And what about this contrast dichotomy of

    material – spiritual not being the same 🙂

    You have to start with spirit if you are a
    spiritual seeker. Very logical that one.

    No wonder that I have given up on philosophy.

    They would accuse me of being into scientism.

    I only trust natural science to be able to say
    something reliable about the world.

    And even them one have to be “wise” to get
    what they say and not to imply too much.

    Suppose we side with Sam Harris then and
    his mission to resurrect the word spiritual.

    How to know if that is the anti-materialism
    spiritualism or the natural science form of
    “breath” spiritualism.

    I don’t mind the “breath” spiritualism at all.
    It is logical seen from a historical perspective.

    They saw that living sentient beings had breath
    and that is what they referred to. And Wind where
    a kind of breath too. Earth had its own breath.

    What do we name the anti-materialists form of spiritualism?

    • mufi on September 2, 2012 at 5:28 am

      Eric:

      I’m not sure that my correspondent (i.e. the author of those quotes) in that case is even a Buddhist – more like: an anti-materialist who’s trying to use Buddhism, along with other religious/spiritual traditions, to support his position.

      See my reply above to Tom re: what “materialism” means in the context of mind theory and science.

      Suffice it to say: I see no contradiction to being a materialist in that sense and being an anti-materialist in some other sense (e.g. metaphysics, ethics, or politics) – so long as we’re clear about which definitions we’re using and where.

  12. NaturalEntrust on September 2, 2012 at 1:36 am

    Mufi, here is a .pdf that allow one to read B. Alan Wallace
    own words in it’s context.

    http://www.alanwallace.org/ChoosingReality23.pdf

    I did find one of the quotes there too.

    So what does he self identify with? Does he seem
    himself as a Tibetan Buddhist that defend their take on things?

    Does he not see himself as a modern western Buddhist
    that follow some views and practices that the Tibet Buddhists
    also do?

    As I get it he defend a kind of “centrist” Buddhism.
    Is that not close to or Nagarjuna the Middle way?

    Maybe the modern western Buddhists needed their own term
    and say they are “centrist” instead of middle way Buddhists?

    But are not Secular Buddhism also middle way or centrist?

    Or else one can not use the word Buddhism without going beyond ‘
    what the word Buddhist allow without breaking apart in practice?

    Sorry to give a not so proper analogy.

    I could say that I am Lutheran Protestant Christian then despite
    me being 100% atheist and even very aggressive anti-religious.

    Would that not stress the usage of the word Christian in same way
    as the Secular Buddhists do? My atheism goes back to Jesus in same
    way as your Secular Buddhism goes back to the original texts.

    I see no major differences apart that I very seldom would say
    that I am into Jesus Christ as my savior. Almost all Swedes got
    baptized to be Christians due to tradition and not through faith.

    So formally all Swedish atheists are in that way true Christians
    that only have left the practice temporarily seen from the practice. 🙂

    Anyway. I read B. Alan Wallace and get the notion that he is
    a true believer and I get the notion that SBA are true pragmatic
    practicers of a Buddhist tradition interpreted less literally
    but still too literal for my own personal taste?

  13. mufi on September 2, 2012 at 5:32 am

    Eric,

    I shouldn’t speak for the SBA as, so far, I’m only a consumer of its web content. But I would agree that “pragmatic practicers” seems a fair way to describe those who contribute and participate here, and that (from what little I’ve read of his so far) “true believer” seems a fair way to describe B. Alan Wallace.

  14. Tom Alan on September 2, 2012 at 12:28 pm

    Eric, I got Dr. Fenwick’s remark, that correlation is not causation, from this video, at 9:00

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sWuOB9Ivg-g

    At 35:45, before he takes questions, Fenwick concludes his Stockholm lecture with a note of skepticism about dying being the end of life.

  15. NaturalEntrust on September 2, 2012 at 1:50 pm

    Tom much appreciated you took time to find
    that part of the video.
    time is not 10.50 PM locally so I will not comment
    now but maybe tomorrow. Thanks

  16. NaturalEntrust on September 3, 2012 at 12:09 am

    I fail to find the text about it. I will look for it
    sooner or later. But the way he present it there
    don’t give me the idea that this is really research.

    they collect stories and that would be like
    collecting stories of meeting Jesus or Aliens.

    I guess I am not your kind of man here.
    I am anti-woo too much to trust what he say.
    Sorry

  17. Tom Alan on September 3, 2012 at 6:14 am

    Look for it.

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