Reality Science Zen

Time on our minds

Time” by Dominic Hargreaves

This week, I have a new article appearing on the Tricycle magazine website (“Letting Go of Time“), which I wanted to share.

In this piece I take a close look at our perceptions of time. In general, I usually think of time as being stable, constant, reliable. But, my own experience of time can be quite variable: time can seem to flow quickly, or slow to a crawl.

Using my own background as a neuroscientist and my Zen practice, I feel that I can see more clearly how time, the time we actually live, depends on the brain.

And, reflecting carefully on time has been very helpful for me, personally, to cultivate a deeper, more authentic patience. To be more present in my own life. For that, I am very grateful.

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Science Zen

Will there be an AI Buddha?

Image of a child holding hands with a robot
Image created with DALL-E, a generative AI that can create images from text instructions, such as “child holding hands with a robot, digital art

What will the future of computer science be in our lifetime? Will we find ourselves in a world where we work side-by-side with intelligent computer programs? Or, is humanity teetering on a precipice, where we may end up creating artificial intelligences which will end up competing with humans, perhaps violently?

These and other possible futures for artificial intelligence (or AI) have been a staple of science fiction for many years. It has felt to me that much of our fascination is drawn to the possibility that we could produce intelligent beings that meet, or surpass, the abilities of humans. But, while we have seen many useful technologies (such as in computer vision, for example), most of the advances in the area of real intelligence have seemed slow. Especially when we compare AI to human capabilities. And really, most of the AI available today falls well short of the cognitive abilities of my dog. And don’t get me wrong, I love my dog, but he is really not the brightest of pets.

Our dog, Charlie, looks like he is hard at work, but don’t be deceived!

In the last few months, though, it really feels like things are changing. As someone who teaches in a college, when people started to really talk about ChatGPT, it caught my attention. ChatGPT is a generative AI, and it is quite impressive. You can give ChatGPT an open-ended prompt (“How can we live a meaningful life?”) and it will give what reads like a thoughtful response.

I asked ChatGPT exactly this question, and the response I received was somewhat interesting:

ChatGPT: Living a meaningful life is a deeply personal and subjective pursuit, as what brings meaning to one person may not necessarily do the same for another. However, here are some general principles and ideas that can help guide you towards a more meaningful life:

  1. Identify your values: Reflect on what truly matters to you and what you believe in. Define your core values and use them as a compass to guide your decisions and actions.
  2. Set meaningful goals: Determine what you want to achieve in different areas of your life, such as relationships, career, personal growth, and contribution to society. Set goals that align with your values and give you a sense of purpose.

The response continued through eight more points (practice gratitude, mindfulness, nurture relationships, etc.) and wrapped up with a concluding paragraph. Nothing about the response struck me as problematic, and each of the points raised seemed to be a good recommendation. It lacked some of the life of the more inspirational texts I would turn to, when reflecting on the meaning of life. But overall I thought it was a strong response to the question.

If you have any experience talking with Siri or an Amazon Alexa, ChatGPT is a very different experience, and really quite impressive. So good, in fact, that many of my colleagues (college professors) worry about the ways in which this kind of AI will be abused. Even now, we are cetainly seeing more people use ChatGPT and other generative AI as a short cut for writing papers, presentations, etc. For the faculty I know, the range of reactions we see seems similar to those of the wider public: swinging widely from wild enthusiasm to dread.

No matter what the final impact of ChatGPT and its cousins are on our lives, they represent just one type of artificial intelligence. This moment is important, as we see technologies that had just been conceptually possible (something that was possible in principle, but which had not been built yet) becoming realized or actualized. As these and other types of AI evolve, I think that it is clear that our lives will be transformed, just as life was transformed by other technologies (consider the development of the internet, or radio).

Whether this transformation brings us into a more (or a less) wholesome life remains to be seen, and for us to decide. 

The Perversion of Wisdom

In a recent issue of Lion’s Roar, Ross Nervig wrote about the implications of AI for Buddhism. One example that he described was the Roshibot, a chatbot created by Jiryu Rutschman-Byler, and trained on the writings of Shunryu Suzuki.

In the introduction on the Roshibot webpage, Rutschman-Byler cautions that the chatbot “is not designed to relate facts, but to offer ‘plausible conversation’ or ‘coherent nonsense.’” He offers the Roshibot not as a teacher, but as an experiment in looking at the dharma through the lens of AI.

I spent a bit of time talking with the Roshibot, and found the “conversation” (in which I attempted to approach as if I were someone who was new to Zen) to be interesting. Roshibot’s responses were not bad, but I didn’t feel that I found much useful wisdom in them, or insights that would have been useful for my own practice (see the transcript below)

Me: How should I get started in Zen practice?

Roshibot: The first step in Zen practice is to find a good teacher. A teacher can give you important guidance, and you can learn from their example.

After finding a teacher, the next step is to begin a daily meditation practice. This can be zazen, walking meditation, or another form of practice.

It may take some time and effort before you feel confident in your practice. Just like any other skill, Zen practice takes time and dedication to develop. But with patience, and guidance from your teacher, you can make progress on the path.

Me: Why is meditation important for Zen?

Roshibot: Meditation is an essential part of Zen practice. It helps to quiet the mind and develop concentration, mindfulness, and clarity. Through meditation, we can become more aware of our thoughts and emotions, which can lead to greater insight into our true nature. Meditation allows us to deepen our understanding of the Dharma and realize the true self. Regularly practicing meditation is an important part of living a meaningful and skillful life.

Me: What does it mean to realize the true self?

Roshibot: Self-realization, or “enlightenment,” is a fundamental goal of the path of Zen. It means to go beyond our own thoughts and emotions, and to see things as they truly are without attachment, judgment, or bias. This means seeing our true nature, which is one of infinite wisdom and compassion. Self-realization is a state of being free from suffering and completely at peace with the world. It is important to remember that self-realization is not a one-time event, but a continual process that involves constant practice and meditation.

Me: How does self-realization free us from suffering?

Roshibot: Self-realization allows us to see the true nature of the world, which is one of perfect peace and harmony. When we see the true nature of all things, we are no longer attached to our own thoughts or emotions. This means that we are no longer bound by the suffering that arises from our attachments. We can live in the present moment, fully accepting and embracing the world as it is. When we are free from suffering, we can live with greater joy, peace, and contentment.

Me: How can we be sure that the true nature of the world is perfect peace and harmony?

Roshibot: The true nature of the world is something that cannot be described with words. It is beyond the realm of concepts and thought. We can only know the true nature of the world through direct experience. In the tradition of Zen, this direct experience is known as kensho or satori. It is a state of emptiness and clear, effortless awareness. When we realize this state, we become fully awake to the true nature of all things. From this place of enlightenment, the world appears as it truly is – perfect peace and harmony.

Me: If the world is empty, why would we describe it with the concepts of perfect peace and harmony?

Roshibot: The world is not empty in the sense of being nothing, but in the sense of being free from our attachments, judgments, and conceptual thinking. In the true nature of the world, there is no separation between self and other. There is just one interdependent reality that is perfectly inseparable and perfect in itself. When we experience this directly, we can see that it is inherently peaceful and harmonious.

In many ways, Roshibot assumes too much (in use of the terms peace, attachment, etc. that would need to be more carefully explained). When I pressed the chatbot to elaborate or clarify (what does it mean to say that the world is perfect peace and happiness?), Roshibot avoided going into depth. I had to smile at one point, when Roshibot says that enlightenment is a fundamental goal of Zen practice. Most teachers that I know would be very cautious to avoid putting the enlightenment in front of any student as some goal to work towards.

I can see the value of these kinds of chatbots that are trained using Zen teachings. They could certainly serve as more interactive ways for people to learn about Zen than a simple website or static document. And at the same time, I am glad that this was not my first experience with Zen or Buddhism. I don’t know if I would have continued, if I thought that Roshibot’s responses were an accurate representation of the practice and teachings of Zen.

My experience with Roshibot reminded me of a recent talk at the Sanshin Zen Community. In that dharma talk, Shinko Hagn considered artificial intelligence as he discussed the five skandhas (essentially the elements, or aggregates, that make up our experience according to Buddhism: form, feeling, perception, mental formations, and consciousness).

Shinko Andreas Hagn – “Five Skandhas — Emptiness and Interconnectedness”

Hagn had some skepticism about whether AI could truly be conscious (a skepticism that I do not share personally, see more below). But I appreciated a point that Hagn made about AI, acknowledging that they may be useful and serve useful functions in the world. And that we should take care to distinguish between the knowledge that an AI has from wisdom (the kind of wisdom we pursue in Zen and other traditions).

Roshibot and other AI chatbots do not represent the final evolution of these kinds of generative AI. These AI are based on models that are going to keep improving, and so the experience and depth of their answers may become richer in the future. Fundamentally, though, we should remember that we are not receiving responses from a person who has seen deeply into the true nature of reality. The responses might be based on true teachings, but we have no reason to expect that what comes out of the AI will truly and faithfully represent the insights that were used to train the AI. It is always better to search for a true teacher, and I do not see much value for us to learn from an AI Buddha.  

Sentient AI?

Talking with a generative AI such as ChatGPT can be captivating, and there are some moments when it can feel like you are having a real conversation. These experiences can make us wonder, is it possible for an AI to be conscious?

That is, can an AI be a person, with their subjective point of view that experiences the world, with an awareness of their existence that is similar to our own? That is a question that has captivated humans for many years, and one that will be increasingly important in our time as AI continues to develop. And, it is a very important question for those of us who work to live the bodhisattva’s vow to save all beings (“Beings are numberless, I vow to free them.” If AI could become sentient, then we may wake up one day to find that we have a new type of being to consider in our actions.

While there are many people who are skeptical about the potential for AI to become sentient, I think we should be open to the possibility. To be clear, I do not think that we have seen any cases of sentient AI today. However, based on my own knowledge and training in neuroscience, I do not see any theoretical reason why a conscious artificial intelligence impossible. I could be wrong, of course. And in this post, I won’t be able to flesh out completely why I feel that sentient AI is possible. I can say that my confidence that sentient AI is possible is based on the evidence we have that our experiences depend on information processing in the brain. With the right changes, a little extra stimulation here, a little less there, and any part of our experience can be affected.

Stimulation of the nervous system affects the information processing that depends on the cells in the nervous system (mostly neurons) have on the neurons they are connected to. Each neuron in the brain responds to a complex set of chemical signals from other neurons and from the rest of the body, which affect the electrical signals that one neuron sends to other cells (mostly other neurons). We can describe the role that a neuron plays in the brain by describing all of the ways that it responds to signals that it receives, and all of the signals it sends to other cells. While this set of responses can be complex, and can change with experience, it is at least theoretically possible to completely describe the role that one neuron plays in the brain (and thus in our experience in each moment).

If you think about cochlear implants, this technology is based on an understanding of how cells of the cochlea usually respond to vibrations (produced by sound), and replicating the normal electrical signals. These implants are still improving, and have not yet been able to fully replace the input from the cochlea, but they have restored a great deal of hearing for many individuals. Similar work has the potential to restore sight in people who have vision loss, or to create prosthetic limbs that can be controlled by the brain, and which may also restore some sense of sensation (adding a sense of touch to a prosthetic limb). In all of these cases, some part of the normal inputs to the nervous system (or outputs, for controlling a limb) have been replaced by a computer system that can stimulate neurons, or respond to the signals of neurons.

Imagine if we could design a tiny, tiny, artificial neuron. One that completely mimicked the processing of the original. If we could replace a real neuron with an artificial one, what would happen? This is not likely feasible in practice (to actually replace one neuron in the brain would be technically very challenging, and it would be easier to replace it with another neuron, that physically copies the original, but the idea is possible in principle).

Based on what we know about the brain, I really have no reason to think that my experience would change if I replaced one (or two, or many, or most) of the neurons in my brain with artificial neurons. So, then I have no reason to think that the processing that is done by my brain could not be done in an artificial system, what we might think of as a computer. And so, I don’t see any reason that it is fundamentally impossible for a computer to replicate all of the processing that a human brain does. And, if a computer program fully replicated the processing of a human brain, then I don’t see any reason why that program could not be conscious.

However, while I think that sentient AI is possible, it is important to make a couple of points clear. First, it is very unlikely that any sentient AI would have an experience that is similar to that of a human. Our own experience depends on the brain, as it interacts closely with the body and the rest of the world. The specific experience we have depends highly on the structure of the brain (how it is built to process information) and how that brain interacts with the body and the rest of the world. It would be possible to replicate that structure in a computer simulation. Possible, yes, but largely pointless. These possibilities seem mostly motivated by some kind of thirst for using digital simulations of humans as a kind of artificial immortality (for instance, in the comedy Upload).

To create some kind of digital afterlife for humans, we would probably need to make highly accurate simulations of a brain (quite a feat on its own!). To preserve something like normal human experience, we would need to run this simulation while feeding it a rich representation of the internal state of the body, not to mention all of the interactions with the external world. Probably these could also be simulated in a digital world. But why would we do so, for a being that does not have a body, and is not in the world?

So, I would expect that a sentient AI that is conscious would have an experience of the world that is very different from ours: it would need to represent different kinds of internal variables, and probably process information about the world in different ways. It probably would have beliefs about the world, and something like what we recognize as emotions or motivations (which are important for setting goals and priorities). But, what it is like to be that AI would be very different from our own experience. Perhaps so different that we are not able to truly appreciate it.

Any sentient AI, which might have a very different experience of the world, is not likely to benefit from Zen practice. Our practice is focused on helping humans to awaken, and is specific to the conditions we find ourselves in. Sentient AI is likely to experience a different kind of suffering, and any path to awakening would need to be specific to their own experience. If there is an AI Buddha someday, it will teach for other AI, not for humans.

While I do believe that sentient AI is possible at some point in the future, we have another, more immediate, problem. It is very important for us to see clearly is how difficult it will be to determine if an AI is sentient or not. Already, we have seen people claim that some of the generative AI models are actually conscious. I am not surprised (that people feel this way), as it turns out to be a difficult question to recognize consciousness. After all, how do you really know that the person sitting next to you is actually conscious? In our daily lives, we rely on a set of cues (facial expressions, patterns of responses to verbal and non-verbal interactions) to really determine if another person is conscious and attentive. These cues are ones that can be faked by non-sentient AI, encouraging us to feel as if a non-sentient AI is a person.

So, I would encourage us to consider the possibility that AI could be sentient. And, to recognize that it will be a challenge to determine if a specific AI is sentient or not. If someday we do end up creating sentient AI, it would be a tragedy to be ignorant of this moment. We have an obligation to any sentient being, and I think that sentient AI should not be an exception. For this reason, more than out of a concern that AI represents an existential threat, I think that we should avoid creating sentient AI. The potential that we will create a new kind of sentient being, with perhaps new ways to suffer in delusion, seems too important for us to ignore.

I think of the animated film, The World of Tomorrow, which has a small story, intended to be humorous, where solar-powered robots on the moon must be kept in the light. And so, they are programmed to fear death, and to be afraid of the dark side of the moon, so they flee the darkness. They end up being abandoned there, left to flee and live in constant fear. They do occasionally send some of their depressed poetry back to the humans: “The light is the life. Robot must move. Move, robot, move. But why? Move, move, move. Robot. Forever move.

Only a fictional example, of course, but we should be very cautious to avoid the casual creation of new suffering. I think that we already have enough beings that need our care and concern.

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Ethics Science

Changing how we choose

It feels today that public debates (or rather arguments) have greatly intensified, over reproductive rights (especially abortion), racial justice, and LGBTQ+ rights (and especially for trans persons). At the heart, these conversations are grounded in morality what are we free to do, and how should we treat one another? What do we owe to one another?

As we see how polarized these struggles have become, it is easy to be discouraged, and feel that there is no way for us to agree on these basic, and important, questions. We might start to feel that there is no “right” way to do morality.

Looking out from this particular moment, we can see that so many behaviors have been moralized in one way or another. What is condemned in one time and place may be ignored, or even praised, in another. While we can identify some common principles across time and cultures (a respect for fairness, for instance), it has seemed to me that we could not establish that one particular moral system is good, or better than another.

And, as a scientist, I have also felt that morality is really outside of the reach of the scientific method. I often tell my students that in science, and psychology is no exception, our focus is on problems that we can approach empirically – questions that we can answer by making careful measurements in the world, using methods that exist today.

In classes, I often give them an example of a problem that is beyond the reach of science, such as “What is the meaning of life?” This is an important question, perhaps the most important one that any person will grapple with. And, the ways that we answer this question can shape the entire course of our lives.

But, as a psychologist, I cannot answer this question – there are no measurements I could make that would firmly establish the “true” meaning of life. I can ask other questions: how do people develop their sense of meaning in their lives? How do different systems (religious, agnostic, atheistic, etc.) impact people’s well-being, or their behaviors? How do important life events impact our beliefs about the meaning of life? The list of interesting questions that we can address is enormous.

But, I don’t think that I can answer that first question: What is the meaning of life? The question itself stands outside of psychology, and science.

And, in my conversations with my students, I have always included morality along with those other questions that are outside of science. Why do people help one another? Why do we judge, or hurt others? Certainly, these are the kinds of questions about morality that science has looked at closely. And, we have learned a great deal through their study. But, the fundamental questions: what is right, and what is wrong? – these are not questions that we can address through empirical means.

Photograph of the book Changing How We Choose by David Redish

Or, at least I thought so, until I read a new book, Changing How We Choose, by David Redish1. Dr. Redish is a neuroscientist whose work has focused in recent years on decision-making, and understanding how the brain allows us to choose the best actions for each situation. And, how those decisions can go awry (think of addiction, for instance). For anyone interested in learning more about the neuroscience of decision-making, and how decisions can go “wrong,” I would highly recommend his earlier book, The Mind within the Brain.

In his new book, Redish makes the case that across all of our various moral systems, we can see not only human universals in morality (reaching towards fairness, loyalty, avoiding harm, etc.), but that we can identify a goal towards which any moral system is striving.

The key, in Redish’s argument, is that morality is a set of tools, or a social technology, so to speak, that allows humans to cooperate with one another. In this framework, morality creates and maintains the conditions in which humans can work together and cooperate. At the very core, morality imbues cooperation with value, and supports cooperative behaviors while restraining selfish behaviors.

The Prisoner’s Dilemma

In building his case for cooperation as the key concern of morality, one Redish’s key frames comes from game theory. Game theory focuses on the mathematics of situations where people are in competition with one another, and where the best choice that you can make as an individual depends on what other people do. One classic example is the prisoner’s dilemma, which considers a case where two people are suspected of a crime. I personally like this version, from the Encyclopedia Britannica:

“Two prisoners are accused of a crime. If one confesses and the other does not, the one who confesses will be released immediately and the other will spend 20 years in prison. If neither confesses, each will be held only a few months. If both confess, they will each be jailed 15 years”  


Imagine that we have two people, Emma and Miguel, who are suspected to have committed a serious crime. If both of them do not confess, they will spend three months in prison, and otherwise the penalties will be the same as those in the case above. We can then represent the possible outcomes with a table:

Based on this way of looking at the problem, we can consider what Miguel and Emma should do, if they want to avoid spending time in prison. But, while we will consider this situation amorally (without worrying about what they should do in a moral sense), I do want to acknowledge that it feels wrong to treat serious crimes as games – if Emma and Miguel are guilty of a serious crime, we would generally hold that they should confess, right?

If we do approach this situation just from the self-interest of Emma and Miguel, it is clear from the table above that the best choice for Emma and Miguel is to remain silent. In this case, they only spend a few months in prison. And, if they can work together, this might be a feasible “strategy.” But, the prisoner’s dilemma includes a wrinkle: Emma and Miguel each must make their decision alone:

“[The suspects] cannot communicate with one another. Given that neither prisoner knows whether the other has confessed, it is in the self-interest of each to confess himself. Paradoxically, when each prisoner pursues his self-interest, both end up worse off than they would have been had they acted otherwise”


This is an important point: if Miguel and Emma each do not know what the other chooses, and they are only in this situation one time, then the best strategy for them as individuals is different from the best strategy for them as a group.

Take Emma, for example, as she considers her options: if Miguel were to confess, then her best option is to confess as well (spending 5 less years in prison). And, if Miguel were to remain silent, her best option is still to confess (and spend no time at all in prison).

Apart from our moral concerns about responsibility for our actions (if a person really did commit a serious crime), this kind of analysis can feel unsettling – as if we are endorsing cold, selfish behavior.

The Assurance Game

A fundamental part of Redish’s argument is that for humans, most of our interactions are not competitive in ways that match the prisoner’s dilemma. Or, at least, they do not have to be competitive in this way.

In many cases, if humans can cooperate effectively, then the group of cooperating people is more successful than each person could be individually. To illustrate this, he uses the assurance game. Like the prisoner’s dilemma, the assurance game is a case where we will all be better off if we work together. But, in the assurance game, you can decide not to cooperate without suffering the kinds of risks (of loss, or punishment) that happen in the prisoner’s dilemma. Redish uses an example that was introduced by Rousseau in his work, A Discourse on Inequality, where Rousseau considers hunters working together to take down a deer:

“If it was a matter of hunting a deer, everyone well realized that he must remain faithful to his post; but if a hare happened to pass within reach of one of them, we cannot doubt that he would have gone off in pursuit of it without scruple.”


While today, hunting deer is usually an individual activity, it was not always so. So, we can imagine two people, Maria and Liam, who have a chance to work together to hunt for deer (without all of the benefits of modern hunting equipment). In this case, we can say that they will be more likely to succeed if they work together than if they hunt for a deer separately. If they were to hunt for rabbits alone, they are more likely to be successful, but also will get less food. Like the prisoner’s dilemma, we can represent the potential outcomes as a table, like this:

I personally do not have a great deal of experience with game theory, and for a time, the important difference between the assurance game and the prisoner’s dilemma escaped me. But, Redish points out that the key is that the assurance game rewards cooperation, without also rewarding people who act only in their self-interest.

In the prisoner’s dilemma, if Emma cannot communicate with Miguel, and has no idea what he will choose, her best choice may be to confess. And, the same is true for Miguel.

In the assurance game, Maria is better off hunting rabbits if Liam decides to hunt rabbits. But, she is not better off if Liam will hunt for deer with her. In fact, she is much worse off, because the benefit from a deer is much greater than that of a rabbit.

It is an oversimplification of Redish’s argument, and of the research fields that he draws on, but a key insight is that for humans who can live and cooperate together, in many cases the benefits of cooperation (to the individuals participating in that society) are much greater than a person could earn if they lived entirely on their own (if that was even possible). And, Redish sees that morality is focused on creating the conditions where more and more of our interactions are actually assurance games (where cooperation is nurtured).

“… what humans call morality is a set of mechanisms that help us turn our interactions into an assurance game and to find our way into the cooperate-cooperate corner of that assurance game, where we can reap the benefits of its non-zero-sum nature and make things better for all of us, both as a community and as individuals. Fundamentally, humans have evolved to work together. Morality is a set of tools that make us better team players”

(Redish, p. 265)

Redish presents morality as a set of tools, a kind of technology, that helps humans create and succeed in assurance games. The tools of morality are built out of our social interactions, but they also depend on a set of systems in the brain. Redish points to emotions such as shame and guilt. Guilt is commonly felt when a person realizes that they have violated a norm or rule for their community, while shame often comes when that violation is known by the community. “Guilt is a recognition of the offense, but shame is the recognition that one is part of a team and has let the team down.” (Redish, p. 64).

We might very well worry that in some times and places, shame and guilt are overused to restrict the behavior of some people in a society. But, would a society be better (work better) if every person had no ability to feel any guilt or shame?

I would guess not. But, this does not mean that guilt and shame are necessarily appropriate. We can consider how these emotions are used with any moral system, and ask if they are aligned with the goals of supporting cooperation. If we find they are being used oppressively, to restrict one group’s behavior or opportunities, then it does become possible to judge that moral system as less effective than it could be.

What does it mean for our Zen practice?

As we think of the implications of this work, I think that any religious person should consider how these arguments impact their own religious practice. As a Zen practitioner, I feel that it is important to think carefully about how we apply these lessons of the science of morality.

One part that I appreciate in Redish’s proposal for a scientific study of morality is how well it overlaps with the ways morality is understood in Buddhism and Zen. For example, in his commentary on Dogen’s Shishobo, Shohaku Okumura writes:

“Bodhisattva practice is not the way of self-sacrifice. The goal of our practice is to find a way we and other beings can live together without causing suffering to each other. This is the middle way between pursuing only one’s own interests and sacrificing oneself.”

(Okumura, p. 12)

And, while I appreciate the overlap between Redish’s proposal for a scientific understanding of morality, I don’t think that this view will replace our religious or spiritual frameworks. Redish has an interesting chapter on religion, in which he sees morality as the core of religion, writing:

“… quite literally, religion is about morality. It defines groups through shared beliefs, shared rituals, and shared sacrifice. It defines structures within those rules so that everyone has a part to play. It embodies rules that limit intragroup conflict.”

(Redish, p. 238)

I certainly won’t argue that religions (even Buddhism) are not concerned with morality. And, they do includes these elements that he describes. But, fundamentally, from the perspective of our lived experience, religion is not about morality. Or, at least is should not fundamentally be about morality. It should be about the “why” of it. Why do we exist, and what is the meaning of it all?

Religions, and other systems of belief, answer that question in different ways. Specific moral systems can follow from those answers. But, morality is not at the core of religion. A science of morality may be very useful as we consider the strengths and weaknesses of our moral systems. It may give us easier ways to have conversations across traditions and cultures with very different moral systems. But, it will not, or should not, supplant those traditions.

For comparison, consider the science of nutrition, in which I can see many parallels to the argument that Redish advances. Nutrition, as a science, focuses on the ways that our diet supports our bodies. Not every diet (in the sense of what we eat, rather than in the sense of restricting what we eat) is equally beneficial for our health.

And, we can see the traditional cuisines of a culture as a set of tools that support the nutrition of its people. Just as with morality, there is likely no single “correct” way to eat – there is no such thing as the one and only perfect nutrition. But, we can judge different patterns of eating against the effects of those diets on health. And, there are certainly failures when it comes to nutrition.

For example, once when I was a teenager, I spent about a week at a camp that was held on a military base in Ohio. Meals were available in the mess hall, but generally required getting up early, and this was a serious obstacle to me at that time. So, I had come prepared for the week with a large stash of Pop Tarts. And, for at least two full days, I do not think I consumed anything except Pop Tarts, water, and probably many soft drinks. I’m not sure how well I could tolerate that diet today, but even then, I do remember feeling very ill one night. It was quite some time before I ate another Pop Tart.

Like morality, there may not be a single, perfect cuisine to support nutrition. And, there certainly ones that we can identify as bad, like much of the highly processed foods that flood our stores and fight for our attention today.

But also, eating is not about nutrition. Not from our own position, the one that we actually live. To eat for nutrition is to let your cuisine die. Eating is moment of deep connection, a humbling acknowledgement of our interconnection to the entire world. Meals are also very social, a time when we come together in community. To reduce cuisine to nutrition – at the level of our own motivation – is a terrible mistake. The same is true, I think, for morality. The science of morality may give us new insights into the core, or most fundamental parts, of our ethical systems. It may help us also recognize what parts are superfluous, what we can discard. Maybe.

“We all do better when we all do better.”

Paul Wellstone

Redish opens his book with this quote by the late Senator from Minnesota, Paul Wellstone, who died tragically in a plane crash when I was in graduate school at the University of Minnesota. Senator Wellstone was a wonderful example of the kind of person that we would all be better for emulating. Buddhism and Redish’s science of morality would agree on that point, and I hope that the conversations that this new book stimulates will help us all work together to reach for this goal. We will all be better if we do.

1Full disclosure! Dr. David Redish was my graduate adviser for my Ph.D., and a colleague and friend today.

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Works cited

Britannica, T. Editors of Encyclopaedia (2022, December 23). Prisoner’s dilemmaEncyclopedia Britannica.

Okumura, S. (2005, September). “The 28th Chapter of Shobogenzo: Bodaisatta-Shishobo The Bodhisattva’s Four Embracing Actions – Lecture 5” Dharma Eye, 16. 

Redish, A. D. (2022). Changing How We Choose: The New Science of Morality. MIT Press, Cambridge, MA. Rousseau J.-J. & Cranston M. (1984). A Discourse on Inequality. Penguin Books.

Science Zen

Talking science with Simplicity Zen

I recently had the chance to sit down and talk about science and Zen with Berry Crawford, for his Simplicity Zen podcast. I have enjoyed Berry’s conversations with Zen practitioners, and I was delighted to talk about my own experience with Zen, and about our shared interest in science. The full interview is below, and you can also find Simplicity Zen wherever you get your podcasts:

Simplicity Zen – YouTube

I hope that you enjoy the interview, and after reflecting on our conversation, I would just add a couple of points. As I’ve worked on this blog to express my own understanding of science and Zen, I feel that there are a couple of points that have been important for my own practice.

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The first is that for me, personally, it is important that the various ways that I understand (and make sense of) the world are not in conflict. As an overly simplistic example, I would personally struggle to hold on one hand a system of beliefs that claimed the Earth was flat, or that our planet was only a few thousand years old, and then on the other hand to also accept findings from astronomy, geology, evolutionary biology. The incongruence, the fundamental incompatibility, between these systems is too much for me.

So, some of my own reflections about science and Zen are about how I have probed and poked at my own understanding. I’ve been working to take a careful look at their basic compatibility, and for how I would express teachings from Zen using my own knowledge of science, and especially in the areas of neuroscience and psychology. This has been a useful exercise for me, and helped me deepen my own practice.

The second point, which I also think is very important, is that I see science as only one way (out of a great many) that we can make sense of the reality we find ourselves in. Like other belief systems, science helps explain the world, and to help us to act effectively in that world. Beyond science, there certainly are other systems for explaining the world and how it works, and people can live well, and humanely, with very little appreciation for science as a discipline. And, at least when it comes to questions of ethics and morality, I am not very concerned about whether or not people believe in science. I care about how people live.

And, if people can believe that the world is flat, or that the Earth is only a few thousand years old, and they also live their lives in a way that is kind? If so, then the specifics of their beliefs don’t matter to me. At least not in this area. In other areas, it may matter quite a bit. For instance, if you want to become a pilot, or a geologist, or work in any number of careers, then science and the knowledge it has generated will be critical to your success.

My own personal commitment to science comes from the power of the approach: when we live up to our ideals, as scientists, we can see very far into the workings of the world, and can use that information to improve the lives of all beings.

However, in the deepest sense, every system we use (science included) to understand reality will always be limited, as I reflected on in an earlier post. We create a set of concepts, or labels, that we use to pin reality down and make sense of it. I see myself as one thing, and you as another. I see my home, and all of the structures that make it up. I see how problems can arise in my body, or in the function of my home, and I look for potential solutions. Those systems are very useful to us – it is hard to imagine how we could function in the world without them. In the end though, what we treat as fixed things – me, you, a house – are dynamic, ever-changing. Our bodies are constantly in flux, and we are truly more patterns than things.

In our practice, can drop these systems? Can we let them soften, dissolve, even for a moment? That is the challenge for me: to see how not only how I understand Zen teachings within the framework of science, but also how to set down that framework, to put it aside.

Reality Zen

One life or many? Rebirth and the brain

Where are we going when we pass out of this life? For that matter, where did we come from, to find ourselves here? For many, myself included, these are important questions – perhaps the ones that first drew us to deeply engagement with spiritual practice.

Like many in the Midwest, I grew up in a largely Christian community. And, although I did not personally have a strong connection to a church, the idea of an afterlife – in which some part of our consciousness would continue past our physical death – was familiar to me.

And as I encountered Zen as a teenager, discussions of an afterlife, and specifically the Buddhist idea of rebirth, were not emphasized in the teachings I encountered (especially those which were popular in the U.S.). So, I was very interested to come across an excerpt of Roger R. Jackson’s new book, Rebirth in the latest issue of Buddhadharma magazine (Summer, 2022), which considers the various ways that Buddhists today understand rebirth. Jackson identifies several broad, often overlapping, approaches, ranging from those who hold that rebirth is literally true, to those are more agnostic about the metaphysical truth of rebirth, and to secularists who often ignore or reject the teaching.

As a scientist, I find myself personally more persuaded by the agnostic or secular camp. And, while I appreciated Jackson’s article, I did find myself reacting, pushing back on some of the approaches described, especially what he calls the neo-traditional approach. This would include attempts to reconcile a literal version of rebirth with our scientific understanding of the world, in part by carving out exceptions to physical laws. He summarizes one such argument by the Dali Lama, that:

… although there may be a stronger connection between neurological events and ordinary mental states than traditional Buddhists believe, there remains the possibility that there are extraordinary mental states that do not depend on the neurological system, namely, the meditative experiences of advanced tantric yogis…

Jackson, p. 19-20

This is an interesting idea: that there could be mental states (something which we can experience) that are not dependent on our body and brain. This kind of approach, to carve out some distance between the mind and the brain, seems to be a common approach that some will offer when we look for ways that parts of our self (our memories, personality) could survive the death of our bodies.

However, before we carve out an exception for any mental states (from brain activity), we should look closely and ask: do we need to do so? And here, I would say that the answer is,  no.

Our knowledge about the brain, while still growing, has shown that our mental experience is deeply bound to the delicate functioning of our nervous system. Anyone who has taken care of a loved one recovering from a stroke, or through the painful erosions of dementia, has seen firsthand how important the brain is for our mental experience. Our sense of our “I”, as a stable sense of self, is a kind of illusion – you cannot find a permanent, stable “I” or self in the brain. And, the illusion is a fragile one, that depends in each moment on the continuity of our experiences, our memory, and our personality.

Could it be that there are mental states which exist independent of the activity of the nervous system, as the Dali Lama or others have suggested? Perhaps, but the literature of neuropsychology is full of descriptions of individuals who have lost their memory, or their ability to feel emotions, or experienced a dramatic change in personality after suffering brain damage or disease (and, for the interested reader, I would recommend Paul Broks’ beautiful book, Into the Silent Land, for some examples).

One of the most famous cases in neuroscience is that of Henry Molaison, who had parts of his brain surgically removed to treat very severe epilepsy. Mr. Molaison’s epilepsy was improved after the surgery. But, he tragically lost the ability to make new memories, because parts of his hippocampus were removed in the operation.

For more than forty years, he never made a new memory (though he could learn some new things, closer to what we could call skills). And, if brain damage can block the ability to make memories in this life, I doubt we will be able to carry our memories over to some future life.

Beyond memory, it is difficult for me to identify an example of a feeling, thought, emotion, or any mental state, that cannot be disrupted or transformed by affecting the nervous system. To think that the mental states of meditation are somehow exempt is unnecessary. And, that is why possibility that rebirth is literally true (instead of true in a more metaphorical sense) seems very unlikely to me.

However, even if you find yourself in agreement, you might still be asking: What if you are wrong?

The only reply I have is – of course I am wrong, how could I not be wrong? Or rather, can any of us be right?

I see quite a bit of evidence that our mental experience depends on the activity of our brains, following the laws of nature. But, for our practice, I find it very important – critical – to remember that the very idea that we have a brain (or a body) is itself nothing more than a useful tool. And we should be careful not to let our tools shape how we see reality itself.

The brain is something that we can observe. I’ve held one (though, thankfully, I have never seen my own!). But, calling that thing I was holding a “brain” is also a concept. Like other concepts (trees, cars, weather), “the brain” helps us make sense of the world. There is our direct experience of brain, or tree, or weather. And, there is a step (that we often do not even see) where we name “the brain,” “the tree,” and “the weather”.

Each concept helps us group together what we experience. Concepts help us explain why our experiences appear to have structure, order. And, the scientific approach offers a very powerful way to explain how these things that we have named work, how the physical world works.

But, no matter how good our system is for explaining the world (and the scientific approach has done very well), every approach will always be only partially accurate. Because, in the most important sense, the idea that we have a body, or a brain, is itself an idea, something we add to our actual, direct experience. A useful fiction. Like our idea of “the weather” or “a whirlpool,” concepts give us handles that we can use to grasp at a part of reality. But, in doing so, we have to ignore the ways that a concept has left something out about the real texture of reality.

All-in-all, I find the scientific approach to making sense of experience very useful. Too useful, it turns out, to allow others to carve out space for rebirth (in that literal sense of the concept). Once we do that, we have really left science behind, in order to save the idea that we will be literally reborn after this life. And, just as I am wrong (because my own understanding is built on a set of abstractions) every system we use to understand and make sense of the world is wrong. We all have rebirth wrong, and that is ok.

In the end, remember that whatever system we use to make sense of our experiences, none can be “true” in a satisfying, final way. Each requires some kind of unfounded assumption. From the specific perspective of our practice, though, what matters most is what flows out from those assumptions.

While I consider myself a scientist, in matters of spiritual practice, I really do not care what you believe. I want to know – how do you live?

If our beliefs help us realize the truth of impermanence, of interconnection, and to commit our lives to the benefit of all beings, then those beliefs are valuable. That is the real measure of a belief system. Any system of belief that lets us turn away from the world, or to selfishly cling to our own small, ego existence is useless. And, for our spiritual practice, arguing over which belief system is correct is a waste of our precious time, whether we think that we have one lifetime ahead of us, or many.

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Jackson, R. R. (Summer, 2022). How do we make sense of rebirth? Buddhadharma, 17-35.

Reality Science Zen

A look into Being You by Anil Seth

The mystery of consciousness – how minds arise in the material world – has perplexed me for most of my adult life. This question drew me to both Zen Buddhism and neuroscience when I was in college. Still today, I believe that it is important to understand why consciousness exists – because the nature of consciousness, and of our self, can tell us a great deal about what we truly are, in the deepest sense. o, it is no surprise that I was very excited when I came across Being You by Dr. Anil Seth, a new book on the science of consciousness.

Being You by Anil Seth

In the book, Dr. Seth presents a synthesis of current research on consciousness, with a focus on his one work (primarily in the area of perception). In the prologue, Seth begins with a description of a time when he went under general anesthesia.

Experiences of anesthesia are not exactly common (many people have likely never had a surgical procedure that requires general anesthesia. Or, they have only had one, if any). But, general anesthesia is also not exactly rare. Personally, I have been put under anesthesia twice, but not since I had my wisdom teeth removed when I was a teen.

So, given the “ordinariness” of this procedure, I was impressed with how Seth used it to tease out the problem of consciousness:

Five years ago, for the third time in my life, I ceased to exist… I returned, drowsy and disoriented but definitely there. No time had seemed to have passed… I was simply not there, a premonition of the total oblivion of death, and, in its absence of anything, a strangely comforting one.

Anil Seth, “Being You” (pages 1-2)

From this (rather unsettling) start, Seth goes on to lay out the problem of consciousness: how does our consciousness emerge from the activity of a brain? He acknowledges that many other researchers and scholars have struggled with the “hard problem” of consciousness, which he introduces with a quote from Dr. David Chalmers:

It is widely agreed that experience arises from a physical basis, but we have no good explanation of why and how it arises. Why should physical processing give rise to an inner life at all? It seems objectively unreasonable that it should, and yet it does.

David Chalmers, “Facing up to the problem of consciousness

This problem, a kind of philosophical koan, is one that has gripped me for as long as I can remember. As a college student, I vividly recall long walks on the unpaved roads near my home, looking across empty corn and soybean fields at the setting sun. I struggled to understand, then and now, – why do I experience this light as a rich set of colors?  Why does the winter breeze feel cool? How does my subjective experience actually come from the activity of the brain?

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In this book, Seth recommends that we set the hard problem aside, and to focus on what he frames as the “real problem.” The real problem frames the goals for a science of consciousness to “explain, predict, and control the phenomenological properties of consciousness” (p. 25).

While at some level, this feels like Seth is dodging the important question, I left feeling that this could be a valuable mindset to bring to consciousness research. He made an interesting comparison to early theories about life, some of which held that life required something extra, “a spark of life.”

But, a focus on describing and detailing the basic properties of life and living systems has eliminated a need for something “extra” to explain life. As Seth summarizes:

As the details [of life] became filled in – and they are still being filled in – not only did the basic mystery of “what is life” fade away, the very concept of life ramified so that “being alive” is no longer thought of as a single all-or-nothing property… Life became naturalized and all the more fascinating for having become so.

Anil Seth, Being You, p. 32

I don’t know that the consciousness research will follow a similar path, and let go of the hard problem in the end. But, I think that Seth makes a strong argument that focusing on the real problem will help consciousness research move forward. His own book gathers many of the fruits of this approach.  

Is seeing believing?

As a Zen practitioner and neuroscientist, one section of the book that I found particularly compelling was how Seth looked at the contents of our conscious experience – essentially our actual subjective experiences. He focuses on our perceptions of the external world at first, and points to how our perceptions of reality are limited. The argument he uses is pretty much consistent with what I’ve written here about how our senses are limited, and misleading, and about the limits of our ability to truly experience “reality.” He argues, for example, that all of our sensory experience of the world – the sights, sounds, smells, etc. that we experience – are not really faithful representations of the world, but are our “best guesses” – in a statistical sense – about what is out there in the world.

This is easily demonstrated in visual illusions, where our experience of color is not determined just by the wavelengths of light that are falling on the retina in our eyes, but also by the context. For example, in the checkerboard below, both boxes A and B really are the same color, but we perceive A as being much darker because of the surrounding context:

Checkerboard Illusion – Mental Floss – “5 Color Illusions and Why They Work

But, there is an important difference in emphasis in Seth’s approach, compared to how I would normally describe perception. Usually, I would say that my experience of the world (what I see, hear, taste, etc.) is a representation of the sensory data that that I am receiving. It is how my brain is representing the information coming in from my sensory nerves. I would accept that the brain is attempting to correct for missing information, or context (as in the visual illusion above), so of course we should not trust our perceptions to be direct measurements of the world. The goal of the brain is to produce a useful representation.

But, I would normally accept that what I am experiencing is the incoming sensory information itself. That view, the one I held, assumes that perception is as a process where our senses provide a window onto the world. That window is not fully transparent, certainly. The window controls what information gets through, and transforms or distorts it.

But, Seth goes farther, I think, and in an important way. He argues that our experiences of the world, the contents of our consciousness, is not the sensory information itself. Seth points out that the brain has no direct link to “reality” – it is stuck inside the skull. And the information that the brain receives from the senses is only partial, and often imprecise. So, at each moment the brain must make its best guess about what is out there, in the world, to try to explain the (unreliable, incomplete) sensory signals that are received.

In this view, what we actually experience – the feeling of texture, the color of the sky – is not the sensory information itself. Instead, we experience the predictions that the brain is making, the brain’s best guess about what is out in the world. The sensory information itself, in this view, is mainly used to verify if our guess (a prediction) about the world is true. For this reason, Seth describes our experience of the external world as a controlled hallucination, one where the brain is creating a set of predictions (also referred to as “top-down” – that is, from the brain) that are compared to incoming sensory information (also referred to as “bottom-up” – that is, from the sensory organs).

It seems as though the world is revealed directly to our conscious minds through our sensory organs. With this mindset, it is natural to think of perception as a process of bottom-up feature detection – a “reading” of the world around us. But what we actually perceive is a top-down, inside-out neuronal fantasy that is reined in by reality, not a transparent window onto whatever that reality may be.

Anil Seth, Being You, p. 88

Seth describes this as a controlled hallucination, because he argues that the brain is always making these kinds of predictions. And, when the process of making “top-down” predictions becomes disconnected from those sensory signals, that is when we would start to experience real hallucinations.

But, and for me this was a critical point, Seth points out that the line between hallucination and accurate perception is not a sharp one, but a matter of degree. The brain is constantly making predictions, and what we experience are the predictions. When they are tied to the sensory data, then we would say that a person is accurately perceiving the world. But in both cases, they make up the contents of our conscious experience.

You could even say that we’re all hallucinating all of the time. It’s just that when we agree about our hallucinations, that’s what we call reality.

Anil Seth, Being You, p. 92

Under this view, hallucinogenic drugs may decrease the impact of sensory data, allowing top-down predictions (our best guesses) overwhelm our experience. While Seth does not give much attention to other states, this could also explain some of the properties of dreaming. Or even the kinds of hallucinations that can be common during intensive meditation (makyō):

The makyō I’ve experienced include the sense that my hands in the zazen mudra were huge (a persistent one early on), faces in the wall I sat facing (a particularly beautiful Avalokiteshvara), and the piercing song of a bird coming from the far side of a lake perhaps three miles away.

Dōshō Port, “Is Awakening (Kenshō) a Hallucination (Makyō)?

Are we more or less than beasts? Than machines?

I found Being You to be a worthwhile read, and there were many other sections that I found personally relevant (as a Zen practitioner, and as a neuroscientist).  I would recommend the book to others, because it was one of those books that showed me the world from a new perspective.

But, there were other sections of the book that I would have liked to see Seth develop further. One of these areas was Seth’s presentation of his overall theory of consciousness, and our sense of self – what he calls the “beast machine” theory. After arguing that our perceptions of the world are fundamentally controlled hallucinations, Seth makes a similar case about emotions and interoception (sensations from the body).

Around this point, Seth introduces a theory of consciousness, and the self, that is grounded very strongly in our status as living being, and in our biological drive to stay alive. We can easily take life for granted, but in reality, keeping even one cell in our body functioning is a delicate dance. How much more difficult when that body has trillions of cells? Seth argues that this drive, to live, is at the core of our brain function:

Evolutionarily speaking, brains are not “for” rational thinking, linguistic communication, or even for perceiving the world. The most fundamental reason any organism has a brain – or any kind of nervous system – is to help it stay alive, through making sure its physiological essential variables remain within the tight ranges compatible with its continued survival.

Anil Seth, Being You, p. 196

Working from this premise, Seth develops the “beast machine” theory of consciousness (and self), which he states as “Our conscious experiences of the world around us, and of ourselves within it, happen with, and because of our living bodies.” (p. 181) 

I cannot do justice to the argument here, certainly, but I feel that in this area, he has drawn too narrow of a foundation. Staying alive is a key goal for any living being, and to be certain, it is not an easy process. At every moment, our bodies must work to push back against entropy.

But, is that our only goal, evolutionarily speaking? 

Perhaps, but many of the behaviors we engage in are only very weakly related to our physiological survival. Some motivations fit very well: consider the drive to eat, drink, find shelter (all of which help keep our bodies in an optimal range). But what of our motivations for exploration, sex, and parental care. What of the drives that support our social communities? These motivations might somehow serve physiological goals (keeping our body alive), but the direct benefit to our own physiological state seems tenuous.  Seth draws one explanation for exploration (as a way of better predicting what you’ll need to do in the future to protect yourself), but I felt even that link was thin.

To flesh out Seth’s theory of consciousness and self, I would have appreciated seeing him integrate more of what we know about other systems in the brain, besides perception. For instance, while there is some attention to decision-making (in the chapter, “Degrees of Freedom”), this part of the book could be developed further. For the interested reader, I would recommend Dr. A. David Redish’s book, The Mind Within the Brain for a good overview of decision-making systems in the brain (full disclosure: Dave was my PhD adviser, so I’m not entirely objective!). For those interested in a Buddhist perspective on the mind (focusing on cognitive and evolutionary psychology), I would also recommend Robert Wright’s excellent book, Why Buddhism is True.

And, while these concerns might seem technical, or trivial, I think they do matter a great deal. Or could, some day.

If we believe that consciousness is intimately tied to our status as living creatures, then we will have concerns about extending any moral protections to non-living beings. And at the moment, that makes perfect sense. But, what about in the future?

Seth uses the popular examples of the android Ava from the movie Ex Machina, and the androids in the series Westworld (both of examples of humans treating their creations quite terribly). By centering his theory on our status as living things, Seth seems unwilling to accept that these (fictional) creatures could be conscious. And he wonders about these kinds of cases: “Will we feel that these new agencies are actually conscious, as well as actually intelligent – even when we know that they are nothing more than lines of computer code?” (p. 269-70).

Seth does state clearly at other points in the text that he is claiming that he believes machine consciousness to be impossible. But, the tone of the book seems skeptical of the potential for machine consciousness, and I worry about that. If you read Being You, I would ask that you look at that part of the book very carefully. If you walk away from this book holding on to a theory that will make it harder for us to recognize machine consciousness, if it ever emerges.

If you end up believing that the take-away message of Ex Machina and Westworld is that we should be worried about being too nice to androids, I think you missed the point.

As work in artificial intelligence proceeds, there is no guarantee if and when one of these robots/androids/programs would become conscious, but if we don’t admit that it is possible, then I do worry that we will unintentionally (callously?) be introducing new suffering into the world.

And, if we are truly committed to freeing all sentient beings from duhkha, we should at least be ready to pay attention to the androids.

Meditation Science

How do we become our best self?

Many of us come to our meditation practice with the hope that we can improve ourselves, that we can become our best self. This is a natural, normal place to begin. But, in Zen Buddhism, we often encounter teachings that ask us to examine our motivation for our practice very closely, lest it lead us to greater suffering.

Credit: Kevin, “Day 47 – Zazen

Note: a version of this essay was published recently by The Tattooed Buddha

For instance, consider the First Noble truth in Buddhism, that that human life is characterized by duhkha (often translated as suffering, but dissatisfaction is closer). Steve Hagan, in “Buddhism Plain and Simple” explains that our suffering has three major sources. We cannot avoid pain (physical and mental). Change is core part of our experience (so pleasure is fleeting). And, if we identify our life with our self (our existence as a separate being, one thread of identity that traces its way from birth to death), then we can suffer greatly as we worry about when that thread will be broken. ⁠

If we do not understand the causes of duhkha, or dissatisfaction, in a deep way, then our approach to our meditation practice may just continue our attempts to avoid pain, to resist change, and to turn away from the knowledge that our lives will end someday. Instead of working towards freeing ourselves from duhkha, our practice could end up being cosmetic, something closer to spiritual plastic surgery.

And in fact, the comparison to surgery seems appropriate here. In medicine, we have made great strides in our ability to heal the body, and repair injury. But, at our local dermatologist’s office this week, I was struck by the number of advertisements for purely cosmetic treatments. Rather than focusing on treating a medical condition, or conditions such as acne, the focus felt to be on fighting against the inevitable decline of our bodies. Or, helping us meet some standard of beauty that we felt we have fallen short of.  

And, this seemed like just more duhkha – any benefits we might obtain will fundamentally be unfulfilling, if we do not realize that we cannot stop aging entirely, or that there are limits to how much we can modify our bodies.

In our lifetimes, we are going to see more of these kinds of advertisements, and we will see more that reach past our external appearance to try and shape our minds as well. Even today, our ability to repair the nervous system is improving, and cochlear implants for individuals with hearing loss are a good example. More interventions are on the horizon (for individuals with vision loss, or paralysis, for example). ⁠

And, there is considerable promise to intervene far beyond sensation (hearing, vision) and movement (paralysis). You may have seen a story recently, about a case where direct brain stimulation was used to help a young woman who had a long history of treatment-resistant major depression (for a good summary, see this summary by Dr. Francis Collins).

Credit: Ken Probst, University of California San Francisco

This case is remarkable, and one that will be very important as we work to create new, and more effective, options for mental health treatment. ⁠

Some of these treatments will change our lives for the better, as reconstructive surgery has done. But, following closely behind that work will be those companies that want to sell us all manner of neuroscience enhancements – perhaps as a kind of cosmetic surgery for the brain.

Recently, I listened to an episode of Shankar Vedantam’s Hidden Brain, that captured this tension – our interest in using new technology to improve our daily lives, and be more effective. In the second half of the episode, Vedantam visits George Mason University, to learn about research using transcranial direct current stimulation (dTCS) to help regular people improve their ability to focus their attention after being distracted. In the piece, he describes the allure of this kind of neurostimulation in a way that seems very familiar:

… the idea of running an electrical current through my head is not exactly appealing. But the possibility that I could juggle the many demands on my time? That’s irresistible.

Shankar Vedantam, “Work 2.0: Life, Interrupted” starting at about 34:56

In recent years, many groups have been studying the effectiveness of tDCS to influence our cognition and emotion. The basic technique is quite simple and essentially uses a battery to send a very weak current through the brain.

While research like that described in the episode have shown that tDCS has some potential to improve some cognitive skills, Dr. Melissa Scheldrup (who was a graduate student at the time), expressed hesitation about using the technology casually:

I personally don’t think that tDCS should be used in somebody’s everyday life. It should be used as a tool to look at the underlying physiological process. So, I don’t think that everybody should have a helmet that has this… it’s like cheating.

Melissa Scheldrup, “Work 2.0: Life, Interrupted” starting at about 47:54

While I personally am not as worried about this technology becoming a type of cheating, I do have concerns about adopting this technology to help us be better workers. I worry that this may just be a shortcut, that stops us from looking more deeply at why we feel we need to be better workers.

But, many companies are pressing forward with technology aimed at neuroenhancement. For instance, I recently came across an article from the Huffington Post from back in 2015. The story was about a device produced by the company Thync to help us decrease anxiety using transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS) of the vagus nerve. The first line was interesting: “What if you could zap your brain into a state of calm or energy with only the push of a button?

Indeed, what if we could?

Thync’s stimulator was based on at least one interesting research study (published in 2015 in Scientific Reports), but their early consumer devices never really caught on.

Today, Thync seem to be marketing some new products, like one that they call the “FeelZing” energy patch. An ad on their site promises “Energy and focus boost for 4 hours,” and “Reduced mental fatigue,” where a dose of electrical stimulation can give you a boost without needing to use caffeine or other stimulants. Images in their promotional video show a person apparently in seated meditation. The narrative appears to imply that the FeelZing gives the benefits of meditation (energy? focusing?) without needing to resort to caffeine or stimulants.

Personally, I find this work, to apply research findings to better our lives, to be very interesting. And, to also be fundamentally flawed if we use them in isolation. It feels that some of this work is focused on treating the symptoms of our dissatisfaction, rather than the root cause of the disease of suffering. To really benefit from any of these technologies, we need to look at the root of our suffering. Otherwise, we may just be leaning more heavily into duhkha.

And here, I think that some advice on Zen practice may be helpful. While there is no perfect way for us to ensure that our meditation practice is not just more duhkha, I have appreciated advice from Zen teachers such as Dainin Katagiri. Of zazen (the practice of seated meditation), Katagiri said that “Some Zen teachers tell us how helpful it is for us to do zazen… But I said just the opposite: zazen is useless” (Dainin Katagiri, “Returning to Silence”).

Meditation is useless?  This may seem like a contradiction, to recommend that we pursue a useless practice. But, the important point is that when our meditation practice is motivated by what we expect to “get” out of it (the benefits), then this can be an obstacle to ending suffering.

In a similar vein, Charlotte Joko Beck advised us that the fruits of a meditation practice may not be those we expected when we first sat down:

What we get out of practice is being more awake. Being more alive. Knowing our mischievous tendencies so well that we don’t need to visit them on others. We learn that it’s never okay to yell at somebody just because we feel upset. Practice helps us realize where our life is stagnant.

Charlotte Joko Beck, “Nothing Special: Living Zen

What I have appreciated about these approaches to Zen practice is the call to be aware, as much as we can, of when our motivations are driven by duhkha. And, to still act (to continue meditating, to continue to learn about our bodies and the brain).  Katagiri pointed out to how we can work to transform our “thirsting desire” – our ambition, our craving to get what we want – into something that benefits all beings:  

According to the story of Zen Master Rinzai’s life, he planted pine trees at the temple for two reasons: one was to make the scenery of the temple more beautiful, and the other was so they would be there for future generations. His activity was based on human thirsting desire, but his purpose was vast, extending in the universe. If you use thirsting desire in a selfish way it is really dangerous, but if you use thirsting desire for the benefit of others, your purpose, your hope extends far.

Dainan Katagiri, “Returning to Silence”

Our desire for pleasure, for power, and to hold off the inherent transiency of life can all lead to suffering. But, if we “know that thirsting desire is something that can be used for all sentient beings”, as Katagiri said, then we can transform that desire and through it, the world. ⁠

If we understand these points, then I think that the fruits of our meditation practice, and from our use of new technologies will lead us to our best self. And, that best self happens to be one that has let go of all of our gaining ideas.

Featured Reality Science

The invisible world beyond sensation

Many meditation traditions involve developing our awareness of what is going on around us. Part of that work involves opening up to more fully experiencing the richness of sensation. But, even as our practice matures, and our awareness of the world deepens, even in that moment we are still surrounded by an invisible world, beyond our senses.

As I noted in an earlier post, our perceptions of the world seem direct, and unquestionable. In fact, though, our brains must do a lot of work to make an accurate guess about what the physical world is like. The gap between our perception and the physical world is something that we can easily demonstrate with visual illusions, where we find our perception is out of alignment with the physical world.

While the idea that our perception may skewed is easy to demonstrate, we may not appreciate that from the very first steps, our experience of the world is also very limited. At a fundamental level, our brains must do a considerable amount of work in order to gather information about the world, using our senses.

And, since gathering information is costly (in terms of developing and maintaining each sensory system), our senses are focused on finding the information that is most useful to us, not on representing the entirety of reality. So, while it may seem as if we have access to the entire world, what we can experience is really only a sliver of the reality that surrounds us in each moment.

What information is it that our brains focus on? Each of is probably familiar with our senses of sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch. To these, we should also add our vestibular sense (our sense of balance, and the ability to detect when our body starts moving or rotating), and proprioception (our sense of where our body is in space).

We often miss our vestibular and proprioceptive systems when we talk about sensation, probably because they often operate outside of our awareness. We may not even notice them until they are disrupted (think of getting dizzy after a carnival ride, or if you have ever experienced bouts of vertigo). Together, these senses represent the range of information that is available to us, through our direct experience, in each moment.

The challenge for each of our senses is to take some stimulus in the world (the chemicals that make up an odor, the waves of pressure that make up sound), and convert those stimuli into the language of the brain. Changes in the electrical potential across the membranes of the sensory receptors, which drive the release of chemical signals (neurotransmitters) that hand the signal off to the next step along the path to the brain. Research on the neuroscience of sensation has made great advances in our understanding of the intricacies and activity of our major sensory systems. Today we can describe in very fine detail the major steps that go into each of our sensory experiences.

For example, this fall, the 2021 Nobel Prize in Medicine recognized the work of Dr. Ardem Patapoutian and Dr. David Julius on the neuroscience of sensation. Specifically, the prize was awarded for Dr. Patapoutian’s work on proteins that are critical for our sense of touch, and Dr. Julius’ work on the proteins that allow us to detect heat, cold, and pain (and, which are targeted by the chemicals in chili peppers, making them spicy).

The work by Drs. Julius and Patapoutian represent important advances in our understanding of the very first steps of sensation: taking some information from the world (light, vibrations, sound, flavor) and converting that information into the language of the brain. Research in this area has greatly advanced our understanding of how our brains are able to “touch” the world around us, by recoding physical stimuli in neural signals. The proteins that Drs. Julius and Patapoutian have characterized are a key step in this process. Having a protein that can start the process of turning heat into a change in the electrical potential of a neuron is the first step in building a window into the world around us. And without these proteins, we would be deeply anesthetized, unable to feel physical contact with much of the world.

And, research across our sensory systems has also demonstrated the limits of our sensation. We can only directly experience stimuli for which we have receptors. And even then, only for stimuli that fall in their working range.

So, as we look closely at our sensory systems, we find that our direct experience of the world is limited in two major ways: 1) in the range of information we can detect, and 2) in the kinds of information that we can detect.

All of the light we can see is just a small slice of the electromagnetic spectrum.

For the first point, consider vision. Most humans with normal vision can see a rich range of colors. (And, even humans with color vision deficiencies (often referred to as color-blindness) can distinguish a wide range of colors).

Color is our direct, personal experience of the wavelengths of light around us. What we typically refer to as light is technically visible light. For most humans, visible light is made up of electromagnetic radiation (photons) which have wavelengths that fall in a range from about 400 nm (violet) to just over 700 nm (red), stretching from violet to red. Any color that we can perceive is a representation of the wavelengths (or mixtures of wavelengths) of light that are entering our eyes at the moment.

But, what lies outside of this range, and outside of our vision?  Photons with shorter wavelengths we call ultraviolet (UV) light and gamma rays, while photons with longer wavelengths make up infrared light, microwaves and radio waves. Think about that for a moment. Radio waves, gamma rays, and the calmest color of green we have ever experienced. All are in reality photons, and the only important difference between them is their wavelength.

At this moment, some of those other photons, for instance UV and infrared photos, are all around you. Some are passing into your own eyes. And yet, most likely, you can’t see those photons in the UV spectrum, or infrared light. But, why not? Is it impossible to do so? 

Of course not: we can easily “see” UV and infrared light by using special tools (think of infrared (IR) cameras, which allow us to image heat, or see in the dark, when there is little visible light).

And, other animals have visual systems that detect UV or infrared light. Bees, for instance, have a visual system that is sensitive to a range of wavelengths that is similar to humans, but shifted to shorter wavelengths, including the ultraviolet range. Many flowers have evolved to have striking UV patterns which serve as cues for pollinating insects like bees, so the experience of a flower is very different for bees and humans, even from the very first step. So, beauty truly is in the eye of the beholder (or at least starts there).

Flowers under visible light and UV filters. Credit: How Plants Work

Outside of vision, this point holds as a general truth: that what we can perceive is only a fraction of what exists around us at any moment. Consider sounds that are very low, or very high in pitch (beyond our hearing), textures too fine for our fingers to catch, and odors too faint for us to detect. All of these exist in the world, right here and now, just beyond what we are experiencing.

On the second point I raised above, we are not only limited in the range of our experience, but also in the very kinds of sensations we can experience. There are qualities of the physical world that we can demonstrate exist, but which we cannot feel directly. Other animals can, though. For instance, numerous species have developed receptors that allow them to detect types of stimuli that humans do not experience directly, such as magnetic fields, the polarization of light, or electric fields (usually by animals such as fish, living in the water).

In each case, these species of animals have developed proteins that can detect stimuli in the world, and sensory systems that represent that information in a useful way. This allows these animals to directly experience physical stimuli in the environment to which we ourselves are blind. Birds use magnetic fields for navigation, similar to our use of a compass. Some fish have a passive electrical sense, that allows them to feel electrical fields in the water, while others actively generate electrical fields that allow them to feel objects in the water. While we sometimes think of these electric fields as weapons (in the case of electric eels), more often the electric sense is used to feel what is in the water in conditions where vision is ineffective.

Electric eel. Credit: Christine Schmidt

So when we look closely at what we can bring into our awareness of the world, we find that humility is always warranted. Right now, in this moment, there is more to the world than what we can experience directly. That invisible world lies beyond our senses, beyond what we can ever experience directly. To reflect deeply on this is important, lest we become overconfident. We cannot hold the entirety of this moment of the world in our perception.

But along with humility, gratitude is also warranted. While our experience is only a sliver of reality, life is so bountiful that even a drop has depths that we cannot exhaust.

Featured Reality Science

Is there a mystery at the heart of reality?

Has science removed all of the mystery from our world? In our lives today, science has dramatically advanced how we make sense of reality, allowing us to better understand the causes of events. We know much more today about the factors that lead to every event that happens in the world, leading to the expansion of our technology, the refinement of medicine, among other things.

Note: a version of this essay was published in the first issue of Midwest Zen

Today, it could feel like science will eventually explain every part of our life, and that in today’s world, there is no room for mystery.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, science is built on a set of assumptions about the world (that there is an objective world that exists outside of our perceptions, that phenomena in that world are orderly, and that they can be described by general laws and theories). This work, the scientific approach to the world, has allowed us to peer deeply into the fabric of the world, and to look out into the vastness of the universe.

But, even if science eventually “succeeds” – even if we believed that our scientific understanding could be complete, and that such a goal were reasonable – I would hold that even then, there will remain a mystery at the heart of reality: the mystery of existence itself.

Fundamentally, every explanation about the universe, about this life that we keep finding ourselves in, has to take existence itself for granted. Whether we explain the world based on scientific theories, or we look to religious traditions to make sense of the origin of the universe, we can never find a firm vantage point to clearly see if our explanation is really true.

The very existence of existence, the fact that there is a world that our life plays out in, is mysterious. In science, we can trace the life of the universe back to its earliest moments with reasonably high confidence, and there are many strong theories about how the universe came into existence. Some are speculative, and our understanding of this early period is still developing, but we have at the moment a healthy range of plausible options. But, why was the universe able to come into existence in the first place? Why was it possible for something, anything to be? On this question, we have no good answers. Or, none that would not just push the fundamental question of existence back a bit further, unanswered.

We should have similar concerns about religious traditions that explain the existence of the universe through divine intervention – in the end we are left wondering, why is there a God (or gods) in the first place?

In an essay, William James captured this question very well, as he weighed the various approaches people have used to grapple with the question of being:

Not only that anything should be, but that this very thing should be, is mysterious! Philosophy stares, but brings no reasoned solution, for from nothing to being there is no logical bridge.

William James, “The Problem of Being

Since I first read this essay, this line has stuck with me: “From nothing to being there is no logical bridge.

While I try to acknowledge this mystery in my life, and in my meditation practice, it is not out of an effort to answer the question: I’m not looking for the “truth” about reality, in a way that would banish this mystery. The mystery of existence is perhaps something we can feel, or approach, and it may be that mystical states (a perception that we experience oneness with existence, or a relaxation of our individual ego) can help us appreciate that mystery. But, I don’t believe there is any possible way for us to perceive the source of existence. I could be wrong, but understanding why there is anything at all seems to be a fundamental limit to our existence.

And, while the fundamental question of existence is mysterious, that has not led me to reject the scientific approach. I personally still feel that the world around us is orderly and predictable. I have not felt a need to reach for magic, or miracles (in the sense of causes that operate outside of natural laws) to explain what happens in the world.

For me, this is the same way I feel about the possibility that life, and intelligent life, exists beyond our own planet. In the entirety of the universe, the number of stars around us is likely countable (that is, finite), but vast, deeply vast. The rich variety of life on Earth is supported by a single star, our sun. In our galaxy, the Milky Way, there are an estimated 100 to 400 billion stars, and that is just one galaxy. In the observable universe (what we can actually observe is limited by how far light can travel and the expansion of the universe), there may be around one hundred billion galaxies, each with hundreds of billions of potential suns for their own gardens of life.

Spiral galaxy NGC 3254, image credit: ESA/Hubble & NASA, A. Riess et al.

The sheer number of stars around us, at this moment alone, is staggering, and really beyond comprehension. In all of that creation, could our planet be the only one to support life? The only one with life that has turned its gaze back to itself, and taken delight in the miracle of existence?

Maybe, but I would not bet against those odds!

However, while I have a great deal of confidence (faith) in the existence of life out in the universe beyond our own planet, I have very little faith in reports about UFO encounters, which claim that our planet is regularly visited by beings from other planets. Recently, there were a set of reports about UFOs, some of them related to releases of information from the United States military. While a UFO, or an unidentified aerial phenomenon (UAP) includes any unexplained aerial encounter, most people who are excited about them see evidence of aliens visiting Earth.

While the possibility of life on other planets is very high, from what we know now, the challenges to actually travel between stars is formidable. Unless we find some solutions that can get around limits like the speed of light, any actual travel to another star will take huge investments of time and energy. Other civilizations on other planets may have solved these problems, but the idea that they would have already found us seems pretty unlikely. Not impossible, but one of the principles of a scientific attitude is when you propose a very unlikely theory (that aliens are visiting our planet), you need exceptional evidence, and we certainly don’t have that yet. I would expect that most UFO reports are going to turn out to have rather mundane explanations (such as problems with specific cameras on military planes).

In the same sense, the heart of our existence is a mystery, but not one that necessarily opens the door for magic (unfortunately!) or other approaches to explain existence. This mystery is the foundation of our reality: a firm bedrock that patiently tolerates our efforts to turn it over, and examine it. A mystery that effortlessly dodges both scientific and mystical attempts to tame it. Each effort to break through this mystery, whether through scientific investigation or through mystical experience, leaves the foundation unmarred, unmoved.

Personally, I have found that appreciating the mystery of existence to be an important part of my own meditation practice, and I think that this quote from Carl Sagan captures my own attitude today:

For myself, I like a universe that includes much that is unknown and, at the same time, much that is knowable.

A universe in which everything is known would be static and dull …

A universe that is unknowable is no fit place for a thinking being.

Carl Sagan, “Can We Know the Universe? Reflections on a Grain of Salt”

When Sagan writes about what is unknown, he was not really referring to that which we can never know, but more to the work that is left to do for science (that part of experience that can be explained using scientific theories). But, I would also say that it applies here: there is something important about understanding that some parts of experience are fundamentally unknowable. To experience directly, to touch the mysterious, is equal parts humbling and wonderful.

Featured Science

Getting out of our heads

What is this life that we find ourselves living? What is this place that we find ourselves in? For me, these were the kinds of the questions that brought me to meditation, and to Zen practice when I was younger. Growing up, I was not exposed to a strong religious tradition, and felt that I lacked a framework to explain the larger meaning of this life. Over the years, I have felt that my meditation practice has been an important part of how I have found my way in life, helping me to be more aware of the ways in which my own reactions to events in my life can draw out resistance, and struggle. Meditation has opened up more space in my life, to move out of the comfortable ruts of habit, to act with less defensiveness.

Today, I am somewhat grateful for not having a formal religious upbringing, as I feel that opened some space for my own explorations. And, I am still very concerned with the question: what is the nature of this reality that we find ourselves in? How can we move skillfully through the world?

Beyond my meditation practice, and Zen Buddhism in particular, science has been a critical part of my understanding of the world that we are in, and what we are (the nature of human existence). I see my meditation practice as focused on careful observation of life from the “inside,” so to speak: the world as we actually, directly experience it. Even early in a meditation practice, cultivating awareness of our lives can provide many insights, about how we may close ourselves off to others, or to how rumination can lead us to suffer.

For me, I see the scientific approach as complementary to my practice: if my focus in meditation is often to look at the direct experience of life, then the scientific approach is to look at life (the conditions that give rise to our existence as sentient beings, and the structure of that experience) from the “outside,” so to speak. The scientific approach begins from the observation that our experience is generally not random: there is a structure to our experience, and the world appears to operate according to firm, dependable principles.

Some people will call science a religion, and I can see how that is reasonable, but in my experience it is a useful tool. Science is a way of building knowledge about the world, starting from set of foundational premises, really assumptions, that are critical to the entire structure. When introducing science in psychology and neuroscience, we tell our students that science is grounded in four “canons”:

  • empiricism (knowledge is built on observations of the world)
  • determinism (events have orderly causes)
  • parsimony (if we have two explanations for the same event, we prefer the one that is simpler, e.g. the one that explains the event with the fewest assumptions)
  • testability (that our inquiry is limited to questions that can be answered using empirical observations)

Other scientists might debate the number and nature of the foundations of science, but these basic principles are the bedrock of strong science (and these specific four are ones used in a textbook that I am fond of, by Pelham & Blanton, Measuring the Weight of Smoke, and if you are interested, I’d suggest checking out this sample chapter).

Science has proven to be an exceptional system for understanding the structure of the world around us. However, science also has very strong limits (boundaries) that come from the four canons. One in particular is the focus on testability: as scientists, we are only concerned with questions that can be addressed using empirical observations (our own direct observations, or those we can make based on tools, such as thermometers to measure temperature, scales to measure weight).

For this reason, I feel that science is a critical part of making sense of the world, but I don’t see it as a religion, or a spiritual practice, as science is agnostic, or disinterested, in fundamental questions. As a scientist, I find the important questions (“What is the meaning of this life?” for instance) are unanswerable.

So, then why do I feel that science complements my practice at all?

Mainly, it is because I can see the ways in which our perceptions of the world are inherently limited by our human form, and science, especially psychology and neuroscience, have helped to reveal the nature of our limits, and their sources.

For example, consider illusions: cases where our perception (experience) does not describe the world accurately (as we would measure the world more objectively). The “blind spot” is a good example: people with normal vision often forget that each of us is blind in a small part of each of our eyes, the blind spot. You can demonstrate this for yourself (here is one online demonstration from McGill University, from a site with a number of interesting educational activities about the brain).

The blind spot exists because of a quirk of the anatomy of our eyes (and specifically the retina, the very back of our eye). The light sensitive cells in the retina gather information to send into the brain. That information travels into the brain through the optic nerve. But, the fibers that gather to form the nerve pass through the retina, creating a “hole” where there are no light-sensitive cells. (If you have ever had a photograph taken of your retina during an eye exam, you will likely have been able to see the optic disc, which is where the optic nerve is passing through the retina).

So, each person with normal vision is partially blind in each eye. And, each of us is also generally unaware of the blind spot. Our own blindness is hidden from us. However, with careful observation, we can demonstrate the existence of the blind spot, and some very interesting studies have also been done, to study how the brain fills in the blind spot with a guess as to what should be there, based on the context around that location.

As another example, take the Müller-Lyer illusion (right). For most people, the horizontal line in the top figure appears to be longer than the horizontal line in the bottom image.


But, they are the same length! You can test this by holding up a piece of paper along each end, or try visiting this link to this illusion on The Illusion Index, for an animation that shows the length of each line, and gives more info on the illusion. The reason we experience the Müller-Lyer illusion is still a matter of debate (some have pointed out that the arrowheads at the ends of the lines function as depth cues, for instance).

Illusions such as these show that our perceptions (what we experience) can deviate strongly from the world around us (what people generally would experience, if we measured the world objectively). In many ways, this is expected, as our perceptions are not thought to be intended to report exactly what is out in the world around us. Rather, what we perceive is our best guess about the world, or a balance between our best and most useful guess.

Outside of perception, there are also fascinating cases where our understanding of our own ability to pay attention fails us. One example that I like to discuss with my students is inattentional blindness, a situation in which we are unaware that we are not attending fully to what is going on around us. The video below is based on the work of Dan Simon and his colleagues, and is an excellent demonstration (if you haven’t seen it already, that is!).

Inattentional blindness is related to selective attention, the idea that our ability to attend to what is going on around us is usually limited, and we can only focus on a few things at once. But, we are often blind to the fact that we are not processing other events or objects. And, we may miss something important, even when it feels like we are paying attention intensely!

While people may vary in how strongly they experience inattentional blindness (just as with visual illusions), it is very likely that many of us, much of the time, are blind to how much information we are filtering out all around us.

Work with perceptual illusions and “cognitive illusions,” such as inattentional blindness, have helped to demonstrate not only that our perceptions of the world can be limited in important ways, but that careful measurements of the world can show us more clearly the ways in which our experience can be distorted.

This is the first step, for me, to trying to correct for these distortions (to be more humble, for instance, that I may have missed an important event, has been a great help when the people around me disagree on what happened in a specific incident). I have found this to be a very valuable perspective for my own practice, to approach my own experience with humility.

One other area of science, and especially psychology and neuroscience, that is important for my own practice comes from studies of how our perceptions of ourselves as stable, separate beings is built. For instance, I took a moment just now to look at my right hand. I raised it up, stretched out my fingers, then clenched my fist. The feeling of ownership was very strong: this is my hand, certainly. The perception of ownership comes, almost automatically.

But is ownership of my hand really a given?

For example, in my home right now, there is a silicone replica of a hand on a nearby table. I know that this hand is false, and not a real hand.

(Don’t worry, having an extra hand lying around is quite normal in our home, living with a child who is an artist. Because, after all, who isn’t going to need an extra hand someday?)

Now, imagine that my child were to set this false, silicone hand down on my desk. Right next to my own right hand, maybe while I was distracted. And, imagine that the silicone hand and my own were both covered at the wrists, so I could not see where my arm ended, and my hand began.

Looking down, would I be confused about which was my own hand, and which was the false one? Probably not, but why? Is ownership of my hand natural, and given?

No, that does not seem to be the case. While it seems that the decision (that is a false hand, this is my hand) is easy, and effortless, in reality the decision requires active work by our brains. And one easy way to demonstrate this is with the rubber hand illusion (this piece in The Guardian has a nice description of the illusion, and some interesting work on the effects of the illusion on the brain).

To experience the illusion, I could hide my right hand under my desk, and leave the false hand in the same orientation. Then, if someone were to touch my right hand (under the desk), and the false hand, simultaneously, and in the same pattern, I might start to experience the rubber hand illusion. It would start to feel as if the false hand is actually my own. Not every person is susceptible, but for those who are (and I am one of them), it can be a very disconcerting experience.

I know (in an intellectual sense) that the false hand is not real, that it is not even made of flesh. But as I see someone touching it at the same time I feel someone touching my hand, the perception of ownership is real. It can fluctuate between shades of ghostly displacement, and something sharper, stronger feelings of “self.” This is an illusion just as much as the Müller-Lyer, where lines of equal length appear to differ in our perceptions.

While it seems to be a simple thing to say, “this is my hand, that is not,” in reality, it is much more difficult to do. The existence of the rubber hand illusion points to the fact that it really is difficult to find our body in the world, and we (our brains) weigh information from several senses (sight – seeing our hand, proprioception – feeling where our hand is positioned, and touch – feeling something contact the hand).

Where these sensations are strongly correlated (I see someone touch a hand/I feel my hand being touched), then usually, what I am seeing is my own hand. This leads to the feeling of ownership, that is part of building up a sense of myself as separate from the world around me. What it is especially important, I think, is that this sense of myself is built, not found in the world. And, it is unstable (if something as simple as the rubber hand illusion can unsettle it, momentarily).

Are these insights fundamentally different from those offered by Buddhism? Probably not (many of you can likely identify parallels or independent observations in Buddhism that offer similar insights). But for me, to be able to better understand the nature of our form and how it operates in the world has been invaluable. But, also something that I set aside in my practice, and especially in meditation.

As Shohaku Okumura advised, our intellectual understanding can be important, and we should set it aside in our meditation:

It’s really important to first have a kind of intellectual understanding about what our practice is. When we sit on the cushion, we should forget about it, and just sit. It’s the same as when we drive a car, or when we learn how to drive a car. First we have to study about the parts of the car, and how to deal with it. But when we really drive a car, we should forget about that knowledge, and just drive.

Shohaku Okumura, Mind and Zazen