Buddhism and Neuroscience Converge About “The Self”

Even as an atheist, I have always found Buddhism – with its almost uniquely nontheistic orientation, its relatively pragmatic doctrines, and its philosophical principles — to be fairly palatable as far as religions go.

A recent study reported in Quartz confirms this sentiment by demonstrating that Buddhist teachings about the self — our concept of who we are — meshes remarkably well with the latest findings in neuroscience.

“Buddhists argue that nothing is constant, everything changes through time, you have a constantly changing stream of consciousness”, Evan Thompson, a philosophy of mind professor at the University of British Columbia, tells Quartz. “And from a neuroscience perspective, the brain and body is constantly in flux. There’s nothing that corresponds to the sense that there’s an unchanging self”.

Neuroscience and Buddhism came to these ideas independently, but some scientific researchers have recently started to reference and draw on the Eastern religion in their work—and have come to accept theories that were first posited by Buddhist monks thousands of years ago.

One neuroscience paper, published in Trends in Cognitive Sciences in July, links the Buddhist belief that our self is ever-changing to physical areas of the brain. There’s scientific evidence that “self-processing in the brain is not instantiated in a particular region or network, but rather extends to a broad range of fluctuating neural processes that do not appear to be self specific”, write the authors.

Thompson, whose work includes studies of cognitive science, phenomenology and Buddhist philosophy, says this is not the only area where neuroscience and Buddhism converge. For example, some neuroscientists now believe that cognitive faculties are not fixed but can be trained through meditation. And there may be scientific backing to the Buddhist belief that consciousness extends into deep sleep.

To be sure, Buddhism does not entirely comport with science on this matter; for example, it still holds that consciousness is dependent on non-material forces beyond the body, something most neuroscientists (including the one who led this study) disagree on. And neither scientists nor Buddhists have a clear understanding about the relationship between consciousness and the brain.

Nevertheless, it is still fascinating to think that over a thousand years ago (if not sooner), people were already developing a conception about the self that ultimately comports with modern science. Perhaps this reflects the intuitive nature about the self; that most people, upon deeper reflection, can sense that there is something rather odd and elusive about their sense of self.

What are your thoughts?

2 comments on “Buddhism and Neuroscience Converge About “The Self”

  1. My interest in Buddhism is ongoing, as is my practice of chanting–following a study that I cited in my own book’s (“Tending the Epicurean Garden”) chapter on the science on meditation. I’m not only interested in the theory and doctrine, but also the practice. Research by Dr. Marian Diamond demonstrated that chanting lowered stress levels, blood pressure and heart rate; in addition there are neuroscience studies on how chanting can change the brain.

    Concerning secular Buddhism, I have a series of five reasonings based on Sam Harris’ book Waking Up. The first one is here: https://theautarkist.wordpress.com/2015/09/22/review-of-sam-harris-waking-up-part-i/

    I also more recently wrote Reasonings on the Lotus Sutra, which is a Mahayana Buddhist Text; and am publishing every Friday a meme series on the parallel sayings of Buddha and the Epicureans.

    It’s always good to read your insightful blog, particularly when I come across items like this one. I expect this conversation will continue to evolve.

    • Thank you sir, the sentiment is certainly mutual. I am familiar with Harris’ discussions on the topic, but I have yet to check out that podcast. I will certainly do so now!

      Warm regards as always. Thank you for taking the time to reply and share your thoughts and experiences.

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