The Buddhist view of the self has fascinating overlaps with the orthodox view among today’s neuroscientists. To Buddhists, the sense of self is an harmful illusion in the mind, a fiction foisted onto perception. The pros and cons of selfhood are subtle, but let’s start with the point of agreement: our sense of self is deceptive. The key deception is the notion unity and consistency in our personalities.
In his book How the Mind Works, Steven Pinker describes the mind as a collection of specialized modules and submodules with different functions. For the most part these modules crunch information outside our awareness much the way computers do, which allows us to perceive, navigate, and survive in the world. But then there are more general modules that weigh in directly on our decisions. Think for a moment about the disgraced Congressman Anthony Weiner, who sent lewd pictures of himself to women he didn’t know. We can imagine a conflict in his mind between modules craving sex and dominance and very separate modules that regulate his behavior according to social norms. We’d have to assume that his modules for forecasting future consequences were mostly inactive or simply overpowered by urges from elsewhere in the brain.
The picture that results from this line of thinking is one of many processes in the brain bickering with each other, struggling to overpower the others like vote-hungry politicians or rival states in a confederacy. This is sort of bickering that Freud hypothesized between the Ego, the Superego, and the Id, but it’s more fragmented than that. All our choices are the final acts of arguments in the brain that can take place on the order of milliseconds or days. And our sense of self is something like a CEO telling a post-hoc story about his corporation. We are only aware of a tiny sliver of what is happening throughout our minds. And this isn’t just idle speculation—there’s a large body of research documenting that unconscious social, physical, and language cues affect people’s behaviors, and documenting that people easily make up false stories to explain their disparate thought processes (David Eagleman’s new book drives this home).
The main takeaway is that Buddhists have been right to doubt our feeling of consistent control over our minds. The way things feel isn’t the way things are. The mind does not take a static stance, but is instead in constant flux, and this resonates with the Buddhist concept of impermance, or anicca. At some point, however, neuroscience becomes a bit more counterintuitive than Buddhism. Whereas most Buddhist writings assert some sort of free will that allows people to be morally accountable, hard determinism is the dominant assumption in science. Here is a long quote from Joshua Green and colleagues elaborating on this assumption:
“Neuroscience holds the promise of turning the black box of the mind into a transparent bottleneck. There are many causes that impinge on behaviour, but all of them—from the genes you inherited, to the pain in your lower back, to the advice your grandmother gave you when you were six—must exert their influence through the brain. Thus, your brain serves as a bottleneck for all the forces spread throughout the universe of your past that affect who you are and what you do. every decision is a thoroughly mechanical process, the outcome of which is completely determined by the results of prior mechanical processes. we have little reason to doubt that (i) the state of the universe 10 000 years ago, (ii) the laws of physics, and (iii) the outcomes of random quantum mechanical events are together sufficient to determine everything that happens nowadays, including our own actions. These things are all clearly beyond our control.”
Effects of selfhood
Buddhism and science are not nearly as aligned in their views on how harmful the self is. There’s no doubt that, as taught in Buddhism, anxieties and insecurities are tied up with self-conscious, judgmental thinking. And there’s also little doubt that decreasing self-conscious thought will generally boost people’s well-being. One famous psychologist, Mikhail Csíkszentmihályi, has found that happy people tend to seek interesting and challenging experiences that fully immerse their attention and channel their motivation. The resulting state is called flow, colloquially known as being “in the zone” or “on the ball,” and as in mindfulness, flow involves loosing the grip of self-consciousness and focusing attention on the moment. But beyond this initial agreement, psychology can help deconstruct the vague idea of the self into specific dimensions. These include an awareness of our body, an awareness of certain types of thoughts, a feeling of ownership and control over the mind, memories of events in our life, an interpretation of our social identity, a concept of our physical and mental traits, and a sense of consistent goals and values. It’s worth looking at some of these dimensions separately to check if some of them are useful, or maybe just plain unavoidable.
One crucial aspect of the self is called agency, which is the personal experience of creating our thoughts and actions. Never mind that agency can be a misleading feeling—there are many documented psychiatric and neurological disorders that remind us how agency can be desirable. Take schizophrenia, for example, which often involves an impaired sense of agency. Many schizophrenics experience their thoughts and actions as foreign. Here are some real examples from schizophrenic patients of the broken boundary between self and other:
- Auditory hallucinations: A woman hears a voice she attributes to God saying things like “Shut up and get out of here.
- Thought insertion: A man feels that another man named Chris is shutting down is mind to plant thoughts about killing people.
- Thought withdrawal: A man feels a mysterious force blocking him from thinking what he wants to think about.
- Passivity experiences: “They inserted a computer into my brain. It makes me move to the left or right”
- Made emotions: “It puts feelings into me…”
- Somatic passivity: “I have tingling feelings in my legs caused by electrical currents from an alternator.”
All these experiences of impaired agency tend to be disturbing and provoke paranoia. For Jared Loughner, the schizophrenic who shot representative Gabrielle Gifford’s, this paranoia fuels his belief that the government exerts mind control on everyone by controlling grammar. So in schizophrenia, the loss of agency, which we might call an involuntary breakdown in the illusion of self-control, causes more suffering than it prevents.
Of course for most people there’s no reason to legitimately worry about losing basic aspects of agency and self-concept. My point is that our sense of self has multiple components and that only some of them are worth diminishing.
Dementia in elderly people also features certain impairments of self. In Alzheimer’s disease, harmful plaques first develop in the hippocampus and precuneus, two areas key to recalling our past and imagining our future. As a result Alzheimer’s patients gradually lose their internal life story. Then there’s frontotemporal dementia, which more dramatically challenges our intuitions about self. In frontotemporal dementia, large swaths the frontal and temporal lobes degenerate, often leading to surprising personality changes. Science writer Carl Zimmer gives some examples: “One patient… had collected jewelry and fine crystal for much of her life before abruptly starting to gather stuffed animals at age 62. A lifelong conservative, she began to berate people in stores who were buying conservative books. Other patients have suddenly converted to new religions or become obsessed with painting or photography when they previously had no interest.”
Based on these glimpses of self-related dysfunction, I hope you can develop a more refined sense of what’s worth holding onto or letting go of. Personally, I cannot avoid my sense of agency, but I’m glad for the coherency it gives to my daily life. And I’m definitely grateful to have a reliable store of autobiographical memories that help me tell a story about my past and future. Then there are aspects of myself I think should be more open to negotiation, such as my beliefs about my strengths and weaknesses. Untangling the self is a subtle challenge, and neuroscience suggests some of those self-bits are welcome to stay.