Mind and Brain from the Perspectives of Buddhism and Western Science

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Larry Barsalou and John Dunne


It’s a pleasure to provide the first CMBC lunch blog entry of this academic school year. On Wednesday September 22nd, 23 faculty and students from a number of departments here at Emory had the pleasure of hearing, and also participating in, an illuminating discussion led by Larry Barsalou (Dept. of Psychology) and John Dunne (Dept. of Religion) on the topic of “Mind and Brain from the Perspectives of Buddhism and Western Science”. In this blog, I will try to highlight some of the key points that I took away from their presentations, to mention some of the discussion points the attendees raised, as well as discuss some of my own impressions in the hopes of continuing discussion on the topic.

A Common Goal of Understanding the Mind

Larry began his presentation by highlighting a few commonalities between Buddhist and Western scholars (particularly those in the cognitive sciences). Scholars from both traditions share a goal of constructing a theory of how the mind works. Further there is an underlying assumption in both perspectives that an understanding of the mind may yield practical implications. Perhaps a more surprising similarity is that both view the mind as a system of information processing. That is, the mind is viewed as a complex causal mechanism that involves interplay between perceptual information, attention, action, conceptual knowledge, as well as emotional processes.

This shared interest and common view provide the foundation for much of the recent and ongoing discussions between scholars from the two traditions. However as was illustrated in Larry and John’s opening comments, it appears that it is the differences between the two perspectives that provide promising avenues for furthering our understanding of the mind and brain, both theoretically and methodologically.

Theoretical Implications: Understanding Emotions and Self

One case in which the theoretical traditions of the two perspectives differ is on the topic of emotion. Larry described that traditionally in cognitive science research, emotion has been viewed as somewhat separate from other cognitive (e.g., perception, attention, memory) processes. Buddhist scholars do not make this same assumption and instead hold that the study of emotion and cognition cannot be separated. An interesting fact Larry mentioned was that in many traditional Buddhist languages, the word “emotion” does not even exist.

A second difference with regard to the case of emotions, is that Buddhist and Western scholars may classify emotions differently. For example whereas in psychology the emotion of pride is considered to be positive, in Buddhism it is considered to be negative.

The differences in views might lead to new and more refined accounts of emotional processes. One could imagine that applying Buddhist theories to emotions might provide new insights into the interpretation of extant data as well as offer novel predictions for future research (e.g., what the behavioral and neural profiles underlying pride might be).

Both Larry and John also discussed a second case in which Buddhist and Cognitive Science traditions diverge: the notion of self. Larry suggested that within traditional psychological research, the self is viewed as a critical mechanism of mind that should operate in an optimal fashion. I find this view to be exemplified in the many developmental and comparative studies where the acquisition of certain behaviors indicative of a self-concept (e.g., self-recognition) is seen as an important developmental milestone (in individuals) and as an important evolutionary achievement (in a species).

John notes that rather than viewing the self as something that is real and positive, Buddhists view the self as an illusion that is the source of many problems. John elaborates that the illusion manifests itself in two ways. First, we have the illusion that we are the same person as we were in the past and as we will be in the future. This sense of self (referred to as “self as object” or the “autobiographical self”) affects the conceptual schemas with which we interpret our experience. Second, we are also prone to the illusion of the permanence of self with which we subjectively experience the world. This sense of self (referred to as “self as subject”) operates at the level of actual perceptual experience. In both cases (self as object and self as subject), it is this mistaken sense of permanence that distorts experience and leads to dysfunctional features of behavior. The goal of many Buddhist contemplative traditions is to liberate one from these false notions of permanence.

Methodological Implications: Combining First-Person and Third-Person Approaches to the Mind

One topic that both John and Larry touched on was a research tool that has arisen from the collaborative efforts between the two traditions. This recently established methodology, which John called “neuro-phenomenology”, reflects a way to link the different research methods typically used by Buddhist and Cognitive Science scholars.

In Buddhist traditions, much of what is known about the mind comes from highly refined first-person introspection of states of mind. Though as John notes, describing these accounts strictly as first person may not be entirely accurate since the analysis of this data comes from years of developing, among Buddhists themselves, appropriate tools and categories to interpret the data. That being said, this data source can be contrasted with the types of third-person data central to theories of mind within Western Cognitive Science, which include recording behavioral, neural and physiological processes in research subjects while they perform carefully designed tasks.

Western and Buddhist scholars have begun to develop ways in which the first person accounts of phenomenal experience are inter-correlated with the third person data obtained from scientific instrumentation. One benefit of linking the two data sources is that it provides a way to examine how brain activity (as measured through third person data) differ in cases where attention is reported to be more or less stable (as reported through introspection). Examining these changes in brain activation across instances of viewing the same images or performing the same task may provide insights into the dynamics between mental processes that are obscured in traditional brain imaging research.

Impressions and Thoughts

Wednesday’s presentations were followed by a fascinating discussion between Larry, John and other lunch attendees. A number of questions raised addressed how other findings and theories within psychology relate to the Buddhist perspective. For instance one topic John discussed at the end of his comments was that the goal of certain contemplative practices is to become capable viewing one’s own thoughts as thoughts as opposed to viewing them as what they represent. Bob McCauley (CMBC) raised the point that in a sense this idea is related to the finding of field vs. observer memory, the notion that remembering personal experiences can take the mode of remembering as if experiencing the event and the mode of remembering as if observing the event. Philippe Rochat (Dept. of Psychology) brought up his own research on the development of self-awareness in childhood and how differing levels of self-awareness that is evident at different stages in development might be related to the different notions in Buddhism of self as object vs. self as subject.

I’ll end this entry with a question that came to mind both during the lunch and while writing the blog. I don’t doubt that the method of neuro-phenomenology discussed above has the potential to yield important findings on mental processes. I am curious, however, how this method could be extended to studying populations other than human adults (e.g., pre-linguistic infants or non-human animals). If our methods of studying the mental capacities of adult humans become increasingly distant from those used to study the capacities of infants or non-human animals, won’t our accounts of how those mental capacities develop and evolve suffer?

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