Over the last few decades many Buddhists and quite a few neuroscientists have examined Buddhism and neuroscience, with both groups reporting overlap. I’m sorry to say I have been privately dismissive. One hears this sort of thing all the time, from any religion, and I was sure in this case it would break down upon closer scrutiny. When a scientific discovery seems to support any religious teaching, you can expect members of that religion to become strict empiricists, telling themselves and the world that their belief is grounded in reality. They are always less happy to accept scientific data they feel contradicts their preconceived beliefs. No surprise here; no human likes to be wrong.
But science isn’t supposed to care about preconceived notions. Science, at least good science, tells us about the world as it is, not as some wish it to be. Sometimes what science finds is consistent with a particular religion’s wishes. But usually not.
Despite my doubts, neurology and neuroscience do not appear to profoundly contradict Buddhist thought. Neuroscience tells us the thing we take as our unified mind is an illusion, that our mind is not unified and can barely be said to “exist” at all. Our feeling of unity and control is a post-hoc confabulation and is easily fractured into separate parts. As revealed by scientific inquiry, what we call a mind (or a self, or a soul) is actually something that changes so much and is so uncertain that our pre-scientific language struggles to find meaning.
Buddhists say pretty much the same thing. They believe in an impermanent and illusory self made of shifting parts. They’ve even come up with language to address the problem between perception and belief. Their word for self is anatta, which is usually translated as ‘non self.’ One might try to refer to the self, but the word cleverly reminds one’s self that there is no such thing. More:
Neuroscientist Vilayanur Ramachandran outlines the fascinating functions of mirror neurons. Only recently discovered, these neurons allow us to learn complex social behaviors, some of which formed the foundations of human civilization as we know it.
India has become the first country to convict someone of a crime relying on evidence from a controversial brain scan test that produces images of the human mind in action. Anand Giridharadas in the New York Times:
Mumbai: The new technology is, to its critics, Orwellian. Others view it as a silver bullet against terrorism that could render waterboarding and other harsh interrogation methods obsolete. Some scientists predict the end of lying as we know it.
Now, well before any consensus on the technology’s readiness, India has become the first country to convict someone of a crime relying on evidence from this controversial machine: a brain scanner that produces images of the human mind in action and is said to reveal signs that a suspect remembers details of the crime in question.
For years, scientists have peered into the brain and sought to identify deception. They have shot infrared beams through liars’ heads, placed them in giant magnetic resonance imaging machines and used scanners to track their eyeballs. Since the Sept. 11 attacks, the United States has plowed money into brain-based lie detection in the hope of producing more fruitful counterterrorism investigations.
The first three postings in this series remind us how complex the individual topics of cognitive science, Buddhism, and religious experience can be. Certainly there are many interpretations of each-many more than an entire monograph could account for, let alone a column in the New York Times-and reminders of the density of such topics are valuable and need to be repeated. But the cultural phenomenon that David Brooks’s column describes is its own topic altogether. Just what this phenomenon is will probably take a while for historians to describe and for critical scholars to assess. My preliminary suggestion is that we are witnessing an aesthetic urge, in which scientists and Buddhists find common cause in their pursuit of a beautiful-albeit potentially dangerous- “theory of everything.”