Mind & Meditation: Observations From Buddhism & Science


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Does modern science lend support to Buddhist ideas about the human mind? Does modern science lend support to the logic behind Buddhist meditation practice? After summarizing what Buddhism says about human minds and meditation, I refer to three scientific studies which may enable one to answer ‘yes’ to both questions.

 

 


 

MIND & MEDITATION: OBSERVATIONS FROM BUDDHISM & SCIENCE

Introduction

This post addresses two questions. Firstly, does modern science lend support to Buddhist ideas about the human mind? Secondly, does modern science lend support to the logic behind Buddhist meditation practice? After summarizing what Buddhism says about human minds and meditation, I refer to three scientific studies which may enable one to answer ‘yes’ to both questions.

The Buddhist theory of mind

The Buddha saw the mind and body as inextricably linked, but he regarded the mind as most important. [1] His primary concern was the ever-changing sequence of feelings, perceptions, volitional thoughts and consciousness which, together with the body, encompass our entire human experience. He saw ‘self’ as comprising these rapidly changing ‘aggregates’, and therefore illusory. [2]

Accordingly, Buddhists believe that our underlying dissatisfaction with living is rooted in our deluded attachment to this transient self-identity. Generally speaking, the mind is experienced as an uninterrupted stream of consciousness that is remembering the past, or reacting to the present, or planning for the future, and these phenomena are perceived to be part of a coherent ‘self’. Whatever sensory stimuli the mind perceives it tends to judge as pleasant, or unpleasant, or neither, from the standpoint of a ‘self’, and accordingly there is identification with corresponding feelings of desire (“I want this…”), or aversion (“I don’t want this…”), or boredom (“I’m not interested in this…”). Buddhists regard this reactionary behaviour as mental suffering, an affliction that can and should be cured.

Resin Buddha II (PJL 10-2014) [SAM_8832_tonemapped]

‘Buddha Statue & Candle’


The logic and purpose of Buddhist meditation

For Buddhists, liberation from ‘suffering’ lies in recognising our human experiences as impermanent (anicca), unsatisfactory (dukkha), and not-self (anatta). [3] Buddhist meditators aim to tame the reactionary ‘monkey mind’ and stop its mood swinging by focusing attention on breaths entering and exiting the body until the mind is quietened. At this point they may continue to dwell in calmness or switch the attention away from breath to contemplate body, feelings, consciousness and mental objects (the ‘four foundations of mindfulness’) as anicca, dukkha, anatta, which is said to result naturally in non-identification and non-engagement with these phenomena. Buddhists believe these meditative practices are capable of bringing them all the way to enlightenment and liberation. [4]

The evidence of modern science

Even before Sigmund Freud first posited the existence of the ‘Id’ (pleasure-seeking, impulsive unconsciousness), the ‘Ego’ (pragmatic self-consciousness) and the ‘Super Ego’ (ethical, idealised consciousness) [5] it had been a working assumption among western philosophers that conscious awareness may not be the whole story of the human mind. [6] Whilst Freud’s conception of mind probably exaggerates the role of the self, there is modern scientific evidence that may lend support to Buddhist ideas about mind and the absence of a controlling ‘self’, and to the underlying logic of Buddhist meditation.

Consider for example Michael Gazzaniga’s ‘split brain’ experiments with subjects who had had the two hemispheres of their brain surgically disconnected for medical reasons. Normally, information from the right visual field enters the left hemisphere, and vice versa, and this information is processed by different parts of the brain. However, the surgical disruption of this process appeared to be causing the test subjects to give demonstrably false reasons for their actions whilst nonetheless believing sincerely that they were telling the truth. [7]

Consider also an experiment conducted by Richard E. Nisbett and Timothy D. Wilson, who used four identical pairs of nylon stockings to demonstrate positional effects on appraisal and choice – their test subjects would give sincere but spurious reasons for favouring the right-most pair of stockings on display (they preferred the colour, or texture… etc.) whilst denying being influenced by the positioning of those items. [8]

stockings

‘Glamorous Nylons’

Whilst neither experiment disproves the existence of a ‘self’ that is controlling body and mind, they do at least demonstrate that people aren’t always conscious of their motivations and don’t always have a clear perception of reality – which is in line with Buddhist observations about the human mind. [9]

F1

‘Brain Activation In Meditation’

As for meditation, consider a study by Judson Brewer et al, who apparently found that a part of the brain called the ‘Default Mode Network’ (DMN) quietens down when people meditate. [10] This network seems to be most active when people aren’t doing anything that demands their attention – they’re just walking along the high street, for example. At such times they’re likely to be raking over the past or fantasizing about the future whilst unaware of the present. There’s no potential threat and they aren’t engaged in meditation, or work, or sport, or some other task that requires their conscious focus. The job of the DMN appears to be to use ‘free time’ for reviewing future plans and recalling past events. To get beyond these kinds of self involvement requires concentration and mindfulness, which is exactly what Buddhist meditation aims to develop. [11]

Conclusion

There is scientific evidence indicating that people aren’t always conscious of their motivations and don’t always have a clear perception of reality, and whilst these experimental observations do not disprove the existence of a ‘self’ they do lend some support to the Buddhist theory of mind. There is also scientific evidence of a ‘default mode network’ (DMN) that ordinarily keeps one ensnared in self-referential activities. However, the DMN is quietened when engaged in Buddhist-style meditation aimed at calming the ‘monkey mind’ and developing insight. The logic behind Buddhist meditation practice would appear therefore to be supported to some extent by modern science.

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Notes

[1] “Mind is the forerunner of all (evil) conditions. Mind is their chief, and they are mind-made… Mind is the forerunner of all (good) conditions. Mind is their chief, and they are mind-made…” The Buddha – as quoted by Douglas M. Burns, ‘Buddhist Meditation and Depth Psychology’, Access to Insight (Legacy Edition), 30 November 2013.
<http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/burns/wheel088.html>

[2] “An uninstructed, run-of-the-mill person… assumes form to be the self… He assumes feeling to be the self… He assumes perception to be the self… He assumes fabrications to be the self… He assumes consciousness to be the self…” – The Buddha, as quoted by Thanissaro Bhikkhu (translator) ‘The Five Aggregates: A Study Guide’, Access to Insight (Legacy Edition), 30 November 2013.
<http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/study/khandha.html>

[3] “Investigation into the Three Universal Characteristics — anicca, dukkha, and anatta — is a fundamental requirement for the growth of liberating insight. Once we have thoroughly analyzed… and completely understood… detachment must follow and with it freedom from the dukkha of existence!” – Susan Elbaum Jootla, ‘Investigation for Insight’, Access to Insight (Legacy Edition), 30 November 2013.
<http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/jootla/wheel301.html>

[4] “This is the only way, monks, for the purification of beings, for the overcoming of sorrow and lamentation, for the destruction of suffering and grief, for reaching the right path, for the attainment of Nibbana, namely the four foundations of mindfulness.” – The Buddha, as quoted by Nyanasatta Thera (translator), ‘The Foundations of Mindfulness: Satipatthana Sutta’, Access to Insight (Legacy Edition), 30 November 2013.
<http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/nyanasatta/wheel019.html>

[5] “The id, wholly unconscious, embodies the instincts related to psychosexual gratifications (libido) and operates without relevance to the dictates of logic or external reality [and is] governed essentially by the pleasure principle… The ego, wholly conscious, is essentially the mind as ordinarily conceived. It is the instrument of learning and of adaptive relationship to the environment… concerned essentially with perception, memory… speech and volitional activity. The super-ego, while closely related to the consciousness, is in part unconscious… it operates as a monitor of conduct and a major source of control through repression… [It] constitutes the nucleus of conscience and provides the foundation of adult morality.” – O.L. Zangwill, ‘Freud On mental Structure’, The Oxford Companion To The Mind, Oxford University Press, 1987, p. 278.
<http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/583721.The_Oxford_Companion_to_the_Mind>

[6] G.W. Leibniz (1686), for example, “offered a theory of mind… that allowed for infinitely many degrees of consciousness and perhaps even for some thoughts that were unconscious, the so called ‘petites perceptions‘. “- Robert Van Gulick, ‘Consciouness’, Stansford Encyclopedia Of Philosophy, January 2014.
<http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2014/entries/consciousness/>

[7] “It became clear that visual information no longer moved between the two sides… Ultimately, we discovered that the two hemispheres control vastly different aspects of thought and action…It appears
that the inventive and interpreting left hemisphere has a conscious experience very different from that of the truthful, literal right brain… The left brain’s consciousness far surpasses that of the right.” – Michael S. Gazzaniga, ‘The Split Brain Revisited’, Scientific American, July 1998.
<http://www.utdallas.edu/~otoole/CGS2301_S09/7_split_brain.pdf>

[8] “Subjects were asked to say which article of clothing was the best quality and… why they had chosen the article they had. There was a pronounced left-to-right position effect… with right-most stockings [preferred] over the left-most by a factor of almost four to one. When asked about the reasons for their choices, no subject ever mentioned spontaneously the position of the article in the array… virtually all subjects denied it…” – Richard E. Nisbett and Timothy D. Wilson, ‘Telling More Than We Can Know: Verbal Reports on Mental Processes’ Psychological Review 84, 1977).
<http://people.virginia.edu/~tdw/nisbett&wilson.pdf>

[9] “It’s hard to conclude much with confidence about the self as it normally exists… But psychologists have managed to establish that people are sometimes not conscious of the actual motivation of their behavior. And that they may actually kind of come up with stories about the actual motivation when they don’t know the real motivation.” – Robert Wright, ‘Modern Psychology and the Self’, Buddhism and Modern Psychology (Week 3: Lecture 3), Coursera in association with Princeton University.
<https://www.coursera.org/learn/science-of-meditation/>

[10] “The default mode of humans appears to be that of mind-wandering, which correlates with unhappiness, and with activation in a network of brain areas associated with self-referential processing… Our findings demonstrate differences in the default-mode network that are consistent with decreased mind-wandering. As such, these provide a unique understanding of possible neural mechanisms of meditation.” – Judson A Brewer et al., ‘Meditation Experience Is Associated With Differences In Default Mode Network Activity And Connectivity’, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, December 13, 2011, vol. 108 no. 50.
<http://www.pnas.org/content/108/50/20254.full>

[11] “When people meditate, the default mode network kind of gets quieter… The job of the default mode network seems to be to take advantage of free time… if you’re not engaged in some task that requires focus… then, in a way, that’s free time. And what the default mode network does is try to use that time, in some sense usefully. You know, taking care of your business. Your social business. Your professional business, whatever.” – Robert Wright, ‘Mindfulness and the Brain’, Buddhism and Modern Psychology (Week 2: Lecture 3).

Image Sources

‘Buddha Statue & Candle’ – PJL 2014

‘Glamorous Nylons’ – Sam Somers, ‘Getting The Most Out Of Life, One Chocolate At A Time’, Pychology Today, March 15, 2012.
<https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/science-small-talk/201203/getting-the-most-out-life-one-chocolate-time>

‘Brain Activation In Meditation’ – Judson A Brewer et al.,  ‘Meditation Experience Is Associated With Differences In Default Mode Network Activity And Connectivity’.

 

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