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 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

A Life of Happiness and Fulfillment

7 07 2015

Having taken a couple of MOOCs recently on the subject of “happiness”, and having read a lot of material on the topic, my first thought when I came across yet another happiness course, this time offered by an Indian institute, was – I already know about all the cutting-edge research and material on the subject, and listened to the great pioneers in the field; what’s more to know? what new can this course offer?

I know! I sound like a true fool. Because the adage goes – “A wise man never knows all, only fools know everything.” 😛

This changed a little, when I was taken in by the intro video, which basically promoted the course as something that offers the knowledge and wisdom in the form of immensely helpful and practical nuggets like the “seven habits of the highly happy”, the “seven deadly sins of happiness” etc. The course is offered by a business school. What else can we expect. 😛 My curiosity piqued and I decided to give it a try.

I quickly realized my earlier folly and was pleasantly surprised to find a lot of new and engaging material (even though I’m familiar with many of the main ideas from my earlier courses). The presentation too is new and more engaging.  And I soon found myself impressed and looking forward to more from the course.

It wasn’t far along into the course that I started to feel like this is the ultimate practical guide you can get on happiness. What a quick transformation! 😉

Devaluing happiness is the first deadly sin of happiness. At the risk of being dramatic, I admit that it is at this point that I let my defenses down and let myself completely carried away by the bounty of knowledge in front of me. Because I readily realized that we actually don’t give happiness the priority it deserves, in many situations.

Another mind-blowing useful piece of nugget I got from the first week of the course, is about the medium maximization. It’s a common phenomenon that we confuse means with goal and pursue the medium and lose sight of the goal. The most common medium is money. Other similar ones include status, fame etc.

But in some cases, it’s not easy to distinguish between the medium and the goal. For example, I like to travel. But is it a medium or a goal? What am I really after? Do I think that I achieve happiness by travelling? If so, am I doing it wrong by pursuing travel? Same with “reading”. What is my goal in reading? Is it the means or the goal?

If they are mediums, what if I can be happy even without doing those things? Why do I think that only doing those things will bring happiness to me? Questions, questions!!!

But, really, all mediums can’t be the same in their effect. Can they? It makes sense to think that materialistic pursuits are always meaningless and lead to unsustainable pleasure, unlike the experiential pursuits. Tom Gilovich and others have proved through research that people are happier when they gain experiences rather than material things. But this implies that even experiences are means to the ultimate goal – happiness. Albeit a more reliable and sustainable means, but means nonetheless.

But what if I get carried away by these experiences – that is  what if I pursue them with as much vigor as some people pursue money or status, do they lose their significance and become as empty and meaningless as material pursuits?

The first exercise itself, which involves coming up with my own definition of happiness and identifying the things/activities that make me happy’ had been so rewarding. I realized that I have never consciously thought about what makes me happy or what I actually consider as happiness. I hope to work on my perception of happiness, refine it, and procure a more sustainable form of understanding about the concept.

I was awestruck by the second deadly sin too – Chasing superiority. It hit the nail right on the head. The instructor not only offers the reasons why we chase superiority in the first place, but also addresses the common perception that it’s necessary for being successful and motivated, by letting us know that it’s only a misconception and unravels the hidden folds of this seemingly simple attitude. He also offers antidotes to all the sins in the form of practices and habits that mitigates the sins and  reinforce happiness.

The second week exercise is about Gratitude. writing a gratitude letter to someone you are grateful to and reading it to them. I kind of cheated on this exercise in my previous course :P. Expressing gratitude to someone whom you have taken for granted all your life isn’t easy. Even though I consciously feel it many times, the idea of putting the sentiment into actual words and delivering them in person makes me uncomfortable. Nevertheless, I would like to give it a honest try, this time. (This instructor says, “email” is fine too. 😛 )

I found the way how the instructor not only provides just enough science and research behind each concept, but also how he actually addresses the prevalent misconceptions about various deadly sins we indulge in on a regular basis, throws light on how they are damaging our happiness and offers practical tips about how to get rid of them, completely useful.

This is the biggest advantage of this course. I’m delighted to take this course and hope to get as much as possible out if it, given my hectic schedule these days. The fact that it’s converted to On-Demand format is really helpful.
I’m also pleasantly surprised by the depth of the content. There are lot of references to books and research articles. If only I can ever read them all.. 😛

For other happiness related posts, click here.

Say it with ‘touch’

3 10 2014

To touch is to give life  – Michaelangelo

Indeed, studies have shown that premature babies who were held at regular intervals gained significantly more weight than those who weren’t held.

It boosts immune system, trust, cooperativeness and bonding. We can also communicate through touch. An experiment conducted in Dacher’s lab had people to guess the emotion conveyed by the touch. While most of the emotions – compassion, anger, fear, anxiety, gratitude,love – have been guessed for about more than 50%-60% (the percentage by chance is only 8%), there are a couple of interesting and amusing findings that emerged:

  • When a woman tried to communicate anger to a man, he had no clue.
  • When a man tried to communicate compassion to a woman, she had no idea what’s going on.


Part 5 of Science of Happiness series.

Part 1    Part 2    Part 3    Part 4

Forewarned is forearmed

23 09 2014

Why would we want to understand our everyday thinking in the first place?

Because, we would like to improve it.

But why would we like to improve it?

Because it affects our day-to-day decision-making and we want to make better decisions.

By trying to understand the science of everyday thinking, we attempt to understand the biases, influences, and attitudes that affect our thinking, how they affect, and how the awareness of them would enable us to be better thinkers.

But, ironically, the renowned psychologist, Daniel Kahneman, who has studied human judgment and decision-making and the inherent heuristics and biases at play for decades, confesses that his thinking has not improved much over the time. But he has a valuable advice for us: “Pick up an area and work on improving it, rather than focusing on improving overall thinking in general.”


Well, let’s just believe in the adage – “forewarned is forearmed”, and keep this not so encouraging confession aside for now.

It is startling, to say the least, to discover that we operate under the influence of a large number of psychological biases, heuristics, and cognitive errors on a daily basis. To start with, we are subjected to “Naïve Realism”, which implies that we believe the world to be as it seems. But actually it’s not – we see it through our “lens” (perception) and it’s different for everyone. People tend to underestimate the contribution of their beliefs and theories to observation and judgment and fail to realize how many other ways they could have been interpreted. This tendency is referred to as “Fundamental Cognitive Error”.

Do you know that everyone one of us like to see himself/herself as above average? This is called “the above-average effect”. Do you relate to the experience where you plan for the end exams or a paper submission and largely fall short of the time it really takes to accomplish them? Well, you are not alone. We all have this tendency called the “Planning Fallacy”, where we underestimate how long it will take for us to complete a task.

“Availability Heuristic” causes us to misinterpret ease of cognitive processing as being indicative of a larger category. So, over-hyped news items or tragic events that are stuck to memory make us believe that they are more prevalent. The classic example is airplane crashes vs road accidents. Even though more people die on the road compared to on a plane per day, the fact that the airplane crash is given more media coverage leads us to believe that flying is more dangerous than driving.

Of course, there is the “Confirmation Bias”, by which people look for and gather evidence that supports or confirms their beliefs or hypotheses. And by “Representativeness Heuristic”, we estimate the likelihood of an event by comparing it to an existing prototype that already exists in our minds.

The most interesting cognitive bias is the “Fundamental Attribution Error”. It describes the tendency by which we attribute others’ behavior in a given situation to their personality traits rather than external factors, especially negative behavior. For example, if a colleague is late to a meeting, we think that he/she is lazy or irresponsible.By contrast, we attribute our lapses in behavior almost always to external circumstances. Given the same situation,  when we are late to a meeting, we believe that it’s just a bad day.

The discussion of these hidden forces reminds me of an article on Harvard Business Review, which I’ve read so long ago. In fact it’s the first of its kind I’ve read and it was an enlightening revelation. The article is called “The Hidden Traps of Decision Making”. Some of the traps are:

  • Anchoring – giving disproportionate weightage to the first information received
  • Status Quo Bias – the tendency to maintain the status quo
  • Framing effect – the way a problem is framed affects the decision in a big way

You can read the full article here and enlighten yourself.

There are many other interesting things that underlie our thinking and shape our behavior. David Meyers’ Exploring Social Psychology is a wonderful book that explains several phenomena pertaining to our behavior with others. It’s a must read for anyone interested in understanding the inherent players of social behaviors. There’s an amazing course called “Social Pyschology” on Coursera, covering the same and more material. Unfortunately, I couldn’t take it both the times it was offered during the past two years. I compensated a little, by reading David Meyer’s book and I must say I’m immensely rewarded. I’ll cover the book in a separate blogpost.

Part 2 of Science of Everyday Thinking series.

Part 1

The science of everyday thinking

16 09 2014

A few months ago, I took this amazing course from edX called ‘The Science of Everyday Thinking” offered by Queensland University, Australia. I thoroughly enjoyed the course and found it very fulfilling. Too bad I didn’t think of narrating my experiences on this blog back then. It would have been a very rich and rewarding endeavor. Nevertheless, I would like to take this opportunity to reminisce about the wonderful journey it was and try to put forth some of the interesting and useful facts and findings in a short series of posts.

The best thing I liked about the course, besides the content and the interviews with renowned researchers, is the way in which the instruction is delivered. It is delivered in the form of a conversation between the two instructors against varied backdrops. This novel approach created a sense of informality and increased the dosage of fun element in the learning.

The first thing that comes to my mind when I think about the course is the module on “Learning”. Each one of us has his or her own way of learning. Different things work for different people, or so we think. But research indicates that a handful of powerful strategies help in learning, universally. Scientists say that it is always more beneficial to practice these strategies instead of wasting time and effort in less fruitful methods. The strategies include:

  • Retrieval practice
  • Using flash cards
  • Distributing the practice over a few weeks instead of cramming the night before the test
  • Spacing effect –  spacing the learning is good for retention
  • Mix up examples from different chapters and try to figure out which is which
  • Transfer: take knowledge acquired in one context and apply it to another
  • Testing yourself.
  • Stop and think: can you summarize?

Researchers remind us that learning is a difficult process and that there is no easy way to do it right. That is, unless you go through the uncomfortable-ness of testing yourself, summarizing, coming up with new examples etc., real learning doesn’t happen. You won’t learn much just by more highlighting, re-reading or writing.

Part 1 of Science of Everyday Thinking Series.