Buddhism and Modern Psychology

Buddhism and Modern Psychology

Personally, I find it extremely fascinating how modern science has slowly started proving this or that bit of old teachings. Today people marvel at the latest scientific findings, but if we look deeply into some ancient practices or teachings, we realize that our ancestors might have known it all along. In my opinion, that is the case with Buddhist ideas and modern psychology.

Buddhists believe that mind is a particularly powerful yet quite tricky aggregate. It is not the ultimate controller of a human. Buddhist doctrine teaches how to gain control over one’s mind, suggesting there is something other than conscious Self that governs our behavior in life. It might be called as a not Self or Supreme Consciousness. Buddhism suggests that our Conscious Self cannot see things clearly, i.e. a certain degree of delusion is always there in each individual’s perception.

Buddhists know that quite often one perceives things for not what they are but rather for what this person is. In a famous fable that Buddha was preaching, a few blind from birth men who did not know what an elephant was were presented with one and were told to touch it. One of the blind men touched its trunk and said that an elephant was like a hose. The other blind man touched elephant’s leg and said it was more like a tree trunk or a large pole. The third blind man touched elephant’s tail and concluded that an elephant is like a broom or a brush. Can we say that these men were wrong? Each of them was partially right, and that was Buddha’s morale of the story – we see only partial truth but we might not be aware of it.

However, that faculty of awareness can be developed in every individual and that is achieved through meditation as per the Buddhist teaching. As far as I understand, once developed the faculty of inner awareness starts acting more prominently revealing to the human being its infinite nature and helping see that it is not the mind, either conscious or unconscious, that runs the show.

Today modern science seems to have found feasible proof to the Buddhist doctrine about the human mind. In 1960’s a researcher Michael Gazzaniga carried out a set of experiments with split-brain patients, whose left and right hemispheres had been disconnected, and came to fascinating conclusions. The information entering a particular part of the brain or in some subtle manner (as with the 25th frame effect advertising tricks) might not be consciously acknowledged by a human being but will still affect their behavior. In other words, people are sometimes not conscious of the actual motivation of their behavior. The latter was proved again in a study by Richard Nisbett and Timothy Wilson, when participants tended to always choose out of the 4 identical pairs of panty hose (people didn’t know they were absolutely identical) the one on the far right. When they were asked to justify their choice, the reasons would vary greatly. These findings prove that the conscious mind has a tendency to come up with certain stories to justify the behavior of an individual. Is it not a delusion just as Buddhists see it?

The Buddhist idea of not Self, i.e. the idea that there is no kind of solid self at the core of any human being that persists coherently through time and keeps things under control, finds proof in modern modular view of the mind theory, which stipulates that there is no chief executive in the brain but rather there are a lot of modules that take turns exerting dominant influence on thoughts and behavior of a person. In 2013, an evolutionary psychologist Douglas Kenrick co-authored a book “The Rational Animal”, which puts forth a modular view of the mind. Kenrick presents a modular model that in the realm of social behavior addresses seven main challenges that our ancestors had to meet in order to get their genes into the next generation. The modules designed by natural selection and identified by the psychologist attend to the seven areas of challenge and are as following:

  1. Self- protection
  2. Mate attraction
  3. Mate retention
  4. Affiliation (making friendships, alliances, etc)
  5. Kin care (taking care of other people who share the same genes)
  6. Status
  7. Disease avoidance.

Along with notion of mind modules comes the concept of a default mode network of the mind. In the early 2000’s researchers M.E. Raichle, D.A. Gusnard and colleagues identified the default mode network as a group of brain regions that seem to show lower levels of activity when people are engaged in a particular task like paying attention, but higher levels of activity when they are awake and not involved in any specific mental exercise. It is during these times that the mind usually wanders away and one finds himself daydreaming, recalling memories, envisioning the future, monitoring the environment, thinking about the intentions of others, i.e. all things that people often do when they find themselves just “thinking” without any explicit goal of thinking in mind.

How does default mode network of the mind corresponds with Buddhism? As mentioned above, Buddhist practices, i.e. meditation, are directed at quietening the mind. In other words, meditation can be seen as a tool to make the default mode network of the mind quieter. Unsurprisingly, brain scan studies have shown that the default mode network does indeed get quieter during meditation. It might not be an easy task to quieten the mind, and that is exactly why it is important to maintain the regularity of mediation practice so that one can tame their mind.

To conclude, I would like to express my simultaneous joy and gratitude to the modern science that gradually finds way of proving the magnificence of meditation and suggests it as a therapeutic practice to treat such mental disorders as depression and anxiety. Personally, I have felt the benefits of my two-year meditation practice, and the more I progress on the Path, the more enthralling it gets.

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