Buddhism and modern science

9 06 2017


The Buddhist doctrine of “not-self” is a tricky concept to comprehend. It proclaims that the idea of self, what one thinks as oneself, doesn’t exist. That means, the “I” or “ego” doesn’t exist. As per Buddhism, self is something that can be controlled. What we perceive as a person or a self can be thought of as a conglomeration of five aggregates – form, feeling, perceptions, mental formations, and consciousness. Buddhism asserts that since each of these things can happen and exist outside of one’s control, none of these things can be the self and hence there is no self that exists. This follows that there is no single author of our actions and there is a sense of impermanence attached to everything we think as self.

This philosophy is in line with the scientific view of the mind in that there is no central CEO that is in charge of one’s thoughts, emotions, or actions, but rather there are several modules within the brain that act together or in isolation depending on the stimulus and situation. To be precise, there are seven modules of the mind representing: self-protection, mate attraction, mate retention, affiliation, kin care, status, and disease avoidance. There are submodules off each module. This modular theory of mind is developed by Robert Kurzban, and is thought to have been shaped by natural selection.

Whatever we think of conscious self is basically is a public relations representative, presenting a coherent picture to the outside world as both beneficial and affective, a tendency described as “beneffactance”. It is a term coined by psychologist Anthony Greenwald in 1980. Even if we are not always aware of the motivations behind our actions and decisions, we present ourselves as otherwise to the others and also self.

If more than one module is at play in a given situation, for example in the case of whether to engage in an extramarital affair, the modules corresponding to short-term and long-term implications may “argue” with each other, weighs costs and benefits, until one clearly wins. The reason we are aware of this internal dialogue is because the conscious self – the PR representative – needs to justify the actions to the society. It may not even be the real reason. Many of our decisions and thoughts are not consciously made. For example, consider the experiment done by Margo Wilson and Martin Daly, in which men who were shown pictures of attractive women preferred to have smaller amount money of right now vs a larger amount in future. This shows that the time discount rate of a particular person is not constant and can be influenced by various environmental factors. It is obvious from such studies and findings that our minds are unreliable and transient, which aligns with the impermanence view of Buddhism.

Now, let’s consider how this “not-self” and “modular view of the mind” manifest themselves in the Buddhist practice of meditation. Meditation can be of two forms – concentrated and open monitoring. In the concentrated mode, you focus on a particular thing, say breath, or a mantra etc. deflecting all the other distracting thoughts. In open monitoring mode, which can also be referred to as mindfulness meditation, one just observes all the thoughts that come to mind, but without pursuing them and without judging them.

When you are in the mindfulness meditation, the default mode network of the mind is triggered, in which several modules vie for your attention through feelings in response to the many thoughts that come to your mind. The default mode network gets activated in the mind when you are not focused on anything in particular. As you practice your mediation, and learn not to feed the thoughts that arise in your default mode network, and be detached to the interplay of the various modules, the default mode network quiets down. While the focused mode meditation is effective in quieting down the default mode network in the first instance, given the fact that you are focusing on something in particular, it is the mindfulness meditation that provides the sustainable change.

We operate with various biases acting on us. For example, without any conscious thought or decision, we attribute the good things that our friends do to their good nature and their bad deeds to external influences. And it’s the complete opposite in the case of our enemies. These are the frames that we create in our minds. Studies have proven that we are even biased about our own biases. We genuinely believe that we are less biased than others. Mindfulness meditation enables us to be aware of such mental frames and by doing so to influence and change them.

Over time, you will be able to carry forward the objective, less attached, and mindful stance to both things inside and outside your mind from your meditation practice into the daily life. This essentially means that by re-framing your mind or choosing your reaction or “no reaction” to your thoughts, you can bring a significant change to your perceptions.

Disclaimer: This write-up is my submission for an assignment as part of Buddhism and Modern Psychology MOOC on Coursera. 

Image credit: Lion’s Roar




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