Buddhism and Neuroscience

Over the last few decades many Buddhists and quite a few neuroscientists have examined Buddhism and neuroscience, with both groups reporting overlap.

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Question: What is your summary of the author’s main ideas. Post your own answer in the comments before reading those made by others.

Over the last few decades many Buddhists and quite a few neuroscientists have examined Buddhism and neuroscience, with both groups reporting overlap. I’m sorry to say I have been privately dismissive. One hears this sort of thing all the time, from any religion, and I was sure in this case it would break down upon closer scrutiny. When a scientific discovery seems to support any religious teaching, you can expect members of that religion to become strict empiricists, telling themselves and the world that their belief is grounded in reality. They are always less happy to accept scientific data they feel contradicts their preconceived beliefs. No surprise here; no human likes to be wrong.

But science isn’t supposed to care about preconceived notions. Science, at least good science, tells us about the world as it is, not as some wish it to be. Sometimes what science finds is consistent with a particular religion’s wishes. But usually not.

Despite my doubts, neurology and neuroscience do not appear to profoundly contradict Buddhist thought. Neuroscience tells us the thing we take as our unified mind is an illusion, that our mind is not unified and can barely be said to “exist” at all. Our feeling of unity and control is a post-hoc confabulation and is easily fractured into separate parts. As revealed by scientific inquiry, what we call a mind (or a self, or a soul) is actually something that changes so much and is so uncertain that our pre-scientific language struggles to find meaning.

Buddhists say pretty much the same thing. They believe in an impermanent and illusory self made of shifting parts. They’ve even come up with language to address the problem between perception and belief. Their word for self is anatta, which is usually translated as ‘non self.’ One might try to refer to the self, but the word cleverly reminds one’s self that there is no such thing.

When considering a Buddhist contemplating his soul, one is immediately struck by a disconnect between religious teaching and perception. While meditating in the temple, the self is an illusion. But when the Buddhist goes shopping he feels like we all do: unified, in control, and unchanged from moment to moment. The way things feel becomes suspect. And that’s pretty close to what neurologists deal with every day, like the case of Mr. Logosh.

Mr. Logosh was 37 years old when he suffered a stroke. It was a month after knee surgery and we never found a real reason other than trivially high cholesterol and smoking. Sometimes medicine is like that: bad things happen, seemingly without sufficient reasons. In the ER I found him aphasic, able to understand perfectly but unable to get a single word out, and with no movement of the right face, arm, and leg. We gave him the only treatment available for stroke, tissue plasminogen activator, but there was no improvement. He went to the ICU unchanged. A follow up CT scan showed that the dead brain tissue had filled up with blood. As the body digested the dead brain tissue, later scans showed a large hole in the left hemisphere.

Although I despaired, I comforted myself by looking at the overlying cortex. Here the damage was minimal and many neurons still survived. Still, I mostly despaired. It is a tragedy for an 80-year-old to spend life’s remainder as an aphasic hemiplegic. The tragedy grows when a young man looks towards decades of mute immobility. But you can never tell with early brain injuries to the young. I was yoked to optimism. After all, I’d treated him.

The next day Mr. Logosh woke up and started talking. Not much at first, just ‘yes’ and ‘no.’ Then ‘water,’ ‘thanks,’ ‘sure,’ and ‘me.’ We eventually sent him to rehab, barely able to speak, still able to understand.

One year later he came back to the office with an odd request. He was applying to become a driver and needed my clearance, which was a formality. He walked with only a slight limp, his right foot a bit unsure of itself. His voice had a slight hitch, as though he were choosing his words carefully.

When we consider our language, it seems unified and indivisible. We hear a word, attach meaning to it, and use other words to reply. It’s effortless. It seems part of the same unified language sphere. How easily we are tricked! Mr. Logosh shows us that unity of language is an illusion. The seeming unity of language is really the work of different parts of the brain, which shift and change over time, and which fracture into receptive and expressive parts.

Consider how easily Buddhism accepts what happened to Mr. Logosh. Anatta is not a unified, unchanging self. It is more like a concert, constantly changing emotions, perceptions, and thoughts. Our minds are fragmented and impermanent. A change occurred in the band, so it follows that one expects a change in the music.

Both Buddhism and neuroscience converge on a similar point of view: The way it feels isn’t how it is. There is no permanent, constant soul in the background. Even our language about ourselves is to be distrusted (requiring the tortured negation of anatta). In the broadest strokes then, neuroscience and Buddhism agree.

How did Buddhism get so much right? I speak here as an outsider, but it seems to me that Buddhism started with a bit of empiricism. Perhaps the founders of Buddhism were pre-scientific, but they did use empirical data. They noted the natural world: the sun sets, the wind blows into a field, one insect eats another. There is constant change, shifting parts, and impermanence. They called this impermanence anicca, and it forms a central dogma of Buddhism.

This seems appropriate as far as the natural world is concerned. Buddhists don’t apply this notion to mathematical truths or moral certainties, but sometimes, cleverly, apply it to their own dogmas. Buddhism has had millennia to work out seeming contradictions, and it is only someone who was not indoctrinated who finds any of it strange. (Or at least any stranger than, say, believing God literally breathed a soul into the first human.)

Early on, Buddhism grasped the nature of worldly change and divided parts, and then applied it to the human mind. The key step was overcoming egocentrism and recognizing the connection between the world and humans. We are part of the natural world; its processes apply themselves equally to rocks, trees, insects, and humans. Perhaps building on its heritage, early Buddhism simply did not allow room for human exceptionalism.

I should note my refusal to accept that they simply got this much right by accident, which I find improbable. Why would accident bring them to such a counterintuitive belief? Truth from subjective religious rapture is also highly suspect. Firstly, those who enter religious raptures tend to see what they already know. Secondly, if the self is an illusion, then aren’t subjective insights from meditation illusory as well?

Adapted from seedmagazine.

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15 Comments


  1. Religion + science /=/ overlap (AU) + not necessarily contradicting

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  2. Buddhism forms a parallel to Neuroscience and what those who study it believe. The mind is illusory and both units believe that the mind is an impermanent with a joining of different parts

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  3. The author is skeptic about religious beliefs but found that the ideas of buddhism are in agreement with what is found in neuroscience: the illusory and impermanent nature of life. Buddhist belief about the non-self, anatta, is supported by what is encountered in patient’s with stroke. Instead of a unified formation of consciousness, functions such as language comprehension and speech are simply divided processes produced by different parts of the brain. These processes themselves must also be questioned for their stability as they are susceptible to change over time. The author believes that buddhists, though pre-scientific, needed an objective view of the natural world applied to the self to get “so much right.”

    Reply

  4. Buddhism and neuro =/= overlap, but they don’t completely contradict. Language and mind = fragmented. Buddhism basis = natural world.

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  5. Despite initial doubt, author comes to the agreement that neuroscience and Buddhism converge on the idea that self is not unified or permanent , rather an ever changing illusory thing made of shifting parts. Author also believes Buddhists didn’t get this right by accident. He thinks they used empirical data to come to this conclusion. They noticed the nature of worldly change and applied that idea to human mind.

    Reply

  6. MI: Buddhism and neuroscience agree that the mind is not a unified entity. Example of Mr. Logosh- case study- who lost but one component as a result of injury to brain.
    Author tone: Often a skeptical when religion and science agree, but concedes that this was not chance, perhaps early buddhists understood humans were part of the natural world.

    Reply

  7. Bud and neurosci =/= overlap (AU). B + N don’t contradict. Self = changing.

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  8. Author initially dismissed the overlap of neuroscience and buddism but later acknowledged it. Buddism and science recognizes nothing is permanent, it is ever changing, and concepts such as “self” and “language” are illusions. Yet, buddism’s shared concepts with science was not done by accident per the author.

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  9. Buddhism and neuroscience = common beliefs = mind – uncertain, can’t find meaning.

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  10. MP: author disagrees that there is an overlap between Buddhism and Neuroscience, but he roots Buddhists being correct to them looking at nature for a long time

    Reply

  11. The author acknowledges that science and religion usually do not agree, but does concede to the idea that Buddhism and Neuroscience do share an idea; that the mind is illusory, constantly changing. This was exemplified by the case of Mr. Logosh, who could not speak (seen by a hole in his brain), but was able to the next day. The author concludes with saying that, again, he often doubts any truths spoken by religion, but highly doubts that the Buddhists came to their belief without some empiricism.

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  12. Buddhism and neuroscience overlap

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  13. Buddhism and neuroscience do overlap, although the author is skeptical about this.

    Reply

  14. MIP:
    (1) Despite initial doubt, buddhism + neuroscience = overlap (au)
    (2) Both recognize mind = changing, evolving and uncertain

    Tone:
    Critical –> Neutral

    Reply

  15. MIP: N+ B = overlapping
    AU, believes this bc B empirical beginning

    Reply

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