Monday, May 15, 2006

The Science of No-Self

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For a long time I was skeptical about this whole no-self part of Buddhism. As an ego firmly entrenched in a body, no-self seemed like nonsense. "Here I am," I would say, "an I fully capable of self-awareness, and with a consistent, unbroken chain of identity." Seemed pretty logical to me.

An off-hand comment about the lack of a "juicy walnut in the center of your head where the little captain sits" ("This is your brain on Buddhism," Tricycle, Spring 2006), which stemmed from the Science and Clinical Applications of Meditation conference last November in Washington, D.C., got me thinking about the implications of that statement.

The comment was based on a presentation by Wolf Singer (this page was translated from German, so it's pretty rough), Director of the Max Planck Institute for Brain Research. He suggested that it's possible to see "the synchronization of brain rhtythms as a possible mechanism for the unification of distributed mental processes." That means that the brain puts together all the brain functions scattered in lobes and various other structures and makes a self out them.

Science has come to the conclusion that there is no "self." What we call a self is an illusion the brain creates to consolidate and make sense of experience. Essentially, how the mind creates a self out of millions of neuronal processes is similar to how we create a whole picture out of parts of an image, or how we see a whole word with only a few letters showing (think Wheel of Fortune). These are micro processes in the brain, while the creation of self and mind is a macro process, but both rely on the ability of the brain to generate gestalts.

Essentially, science is beginning to tell us that self cannot be pinned down to any one function of the brain, so it must be a gestalt of many functions or processes. Essentially, it is an illusion -- just as Buddhism has been telling us for 2,500.

Please understand that this does not mean that consciousness is an illusion, as many neuroscientists continue to insist (think William Calvin or Daniel Dennett). Consciousness is generally considered to be an emergent property of matter, a kind of side effect of neural processes. This is conjecture at best, and just plain wrong most likely.

But simply saying that self is an emergent property of non-local functions in the brain does not remove the reality of interiority. We still have an inner experience that is unique to each of us. It's just that we now know that the "I" identified with that experience is illusory and transient.

The self that consciousness creates and holds as a solid, continuous experience just is not as solid and continuous as it would have us believe. There is no permanent self; it is created over and over again in each instant, just as Buddhism has taught us. That the brain can do this is a miracle in its own right. That we have developed ways to see through the magic and break apart the illusion is an ever greater miracle.

For more on the Buddhist concept of anatman (no-self) try this site, which seeks to reconcile anatman with Advaita Vedanta.

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