My New Brain

Friday July 13, 2007

Brain

Regular readers of thinkBuddha.org will be relieved to hear that a few days ago, I got myself a new brain. About time too, I hear you say. I have actually coveted a second brain for a long time, and so was delighted when I opened the box that Elee gave me as a present after my PhD exam, and found a little pink cauliflower nestled inside. I’m still keeping my old brain for day-to-day use, but the new one will come in handy for special occasions.

The reason I have long yearned for a second brain is that, although I am very interested in the things that the brain does and spend a not inconsiderable amount of time reading about all these things, for whatever reason, my own brain simply doesn’t seem to want to retain the information. What I needed, I realised some time ago, was a brain that I could get my hands on, that I could take apart and put back together again, a brain that I could poke at. Hence the second brain, plastic, colour-coded and easy to take dismantle so that I can get to know the brain’s architecture in greater depth. This autumn, I’m teaching a course in consciousness (what is it? do we have it? how much of it do we have? what difference does it make?), so having a second brain on hand will be useful for this.

For me, finding out about the brain is a part of the same broad process of inquiry to which meditation also belongs. In one sense, they are both processes of making friends with your own head. What strikes me more and more is the gulf between what we think is going on with our own heads, and what actually is going on, and through meditation and reading about the way that the brain works, I have come to be a bit more sceptical about my everyday folk psychology. This is not to say that I subscribe to the view that somehow Buddhism will one day be vindicated by science, as in the entertaining headline on the Buddhist Channel three or four days ago: Meditation tests prove Buddhists right ! It is not about proving Buddhism or Buddhists right. After all, there is much about Buddhism – at least in many of its traditional incarnations – that is almost certainly wrong, and also a great deal, perhaps (although this is not necessarily the same thing) that we could well do without.

So it is not because any of tribal, religious or mystical commitments that I still believe that meditation has much to say about the brain. It is because of this long and baffling process through which, in meditating, I have come to suspect that the world view that the brain generates and in which we spend most of our days is – whatever its survival value – a bizarre fiction. And begin to unravel this fiction is a fascinating business.

(See my earlier articles on Buddhism and Science and the Dalai Lama on Brain Science).

Tags: , , , , ,
 
#1 · Andy

13 July 2007

Will,

Have you read ‘Consciousness Explained’ by the philosopher of mind Daniel C. Dennett? It’s not an easy read (some bits you really need to skim over if, like me, you don’t know the first thing about computer programming). Nevertheless the book has some interesting ideas, debunking much of pop psychology and taking several stabs at Rene Descartes. Dennett closes the book talking about how consciousness is an illusion, or as he calls it a ‘magnificent fiction’. There is no HQ or boss in the brain, no little ‘me’ sitting in a Cartesian cinema watching the images on the screen. There is no ‘centre of narrative gravity’.

Interestingly, Dennett’s ideas about fictions and illusions have been embraced by two practitioners of meditation, Susan Blackmore and Sam Harris. Both Blackmore and Harris refuse to call themselves Buddhists, even though they draw a great deal from Buddhist teachings (Zen in the case of Blackmore and Vissipana and Dzogchen in the case of Harris).

I think the worries that certain people have over whether they are ‘Buddhist’ or not strike me as slightly over-anxious. Perhaps it’s because we tend to think of ‘Buddhist’ as a religious label (such as ‘Catholic’, ‘Anglican’ or ‘Sunni Muslim’) rather than as a philosophical label (such as ‘Kantian’, ‘pragmatist’ or ‘Aristotelian’). I’d happily call myself an Aristotelian in my ethical views, but it’s not like I go around thinking ‘I’m an Aristotelian’ or looking for Aristotelian friends. Nor does it mean that I have to think that slavery is okay (as Aristotle did!). Philosophical labels tend to be more flexible. I think we need to cultivate a similar flexibility in our definition of ‘Buddhist’.

There’s a book by Steve Hagen called ‘Buddhism is Not What You Think’, which seems like it is worth a look regarding what we should reject and keep in Buddhist ‘philosophy’ (whatever that is!).

Andy

P.S. Love your blog. Meditation, philosophy and literature. Three of my biggest passions! Keep up the excellent work.

#2 · Will

13 July 2007

Yes, Andy, Dennett is great. I really loved Consciousness Explained, and I’ve been impressed by Sue Blackmore as well. Sam Harris I am less convinced by, at least in the realm of his political views.
You are right to some extent about philosophical labels, but it might depend upon the philosophy in question. I mean, have you met any Husserlians?

All the best,

Will

#3 · Peter Clothier

14 July 2007

Congratulations, Dr.! Delighted for your success. And as for the new brain—well, pink icing on the cake! I believe we could all use one outside the body—if only as a reminder that we need to do the work within. Cheers, PaL

#4 · robin33

16 July 2007

I recently conducted a meditation class in the university that I worked in and was told that some Christian cannot attend meditation class (as per their pastor advice)

My only words were… hmmm did you look at yourself today? I mean your real self and not the reflection on a mirror.

Hope it was not too provoking.

Thanks for sharing this wonderful news

Comments are turned off for this article.