Buddhism and Cognitive Science
Thursday, July 18, 2002

The Scientist Points Her Telescope East, and Spies the Back of Her Head
J. Niimi (c)2002
"The religion of the future should transcend a personal God and avoid dogma and theology. Covering both natural and spiritual, it should be based on a religious sense arising from the experience of all things natural and spiritual as a meaningful unity. Buddhism answers this description…If ever there is any religion that would cope with modern scientific needs it would be Buddhism."
-Albert Einstein [1]
Like Albert Einstein, the Buddha was a person concerned with nothing less than the nature of reality itself. A non-Buddhist may be surprised at this phrasing, since the primary figures in the major world religions are usually viewed by their devotees as semi-deities or gods. The Buddha did not consider himself to be more "holy" than any other human being, nor did he insist that his words be taken as law; his parting advice from his deathbed - don't accept anything as true until you test it for yourself, including my own teachings [2] - illustrate his true role: that of a scientific empiricist. In fact, scholars sometimes refer to the Buddha as the first psychologist.
An investigation of the cognitive aspects of Buddhist philosophy would entail at least some sort of exposition of the principles of Buddhism, but properly treated that task itself could warrant a separate paper, or book…or bookshelf. So a perfunctory crash course will have to suffice, focusing on some of the ideas that are salient to the particular focus of this paper, with the understanding that the notions and concepts has been recontextualized to an extent, and in the process, drastically simplified. It should also be noted that there are many different traditions within Buddhism, with differing structures of belief; unless specifically noted, this paper will refer primarily to Theravada Buddhism, or early Buddhism, the basic tenets of which provide the foundation for most contemporary disciplines.
In Continental terms, Buddhism's concerns could be described as epistemological or ontological, as opposed to "spiritual." Buddha means "awakened one." The Sanskrit word dharma, used to refer to the Buddha's teachings, can be loosely translated as "the laws of reality." The perspective the Buddha offered up was cognitivist: we can know the "real" or material world only through the mental representations we create, which are inherently colored by the degree of attention (ekagrata) we accord our six senses (modern science does not consider the brain to be a mere sense organ, as Buddhists did 2500 years ago). [3]
Thus, if it is as difficult enough as it is to quantify the present, it is close to impossible to speculate on where we came from, or where we are going (in the cosmic sense). This is the notion of "The Middle Path" - all of the data we need (and the only data we have) to apprehend consciousness and construct an understanding of reality is present to us right now. [4] Our worldly or "psychological" problems arise from the enslaving of this pure data to percepts and schemata that we mistakenly substitute for absolute reality, the main contrivance being the notion of a "self" separate from its environment. The aim of Buddhism is enlightenment through mindfulness, a state in which we have bypassed the fallible lens of self to experience reality in its unadulterated form, with completely present attention.
A hundred years ago, Eastern influence on Western thought was perhaps most evident in the realms of philosophy and literature, as seen in the writings of American Transcendentalists like Thoreau and Whitman. [5] However, the seminal psychologist William James recognized the value of studying the psychological ideas inherent in Buddhist philosophy. When the Buddhist spokesman Dharmapala attended one of James's lectures at Harvard, James was quoted as having said to him, "Take my chair. You are better equipped to lecture on psychology than I, " and after one of Dharmapala's own lectures, James declared, "This is the psychology everybody will be studying twenty-five years from now." [6] James often drew on Buddhist cosmology when framing perceptual concepts, such as his term "stream of consciousness," which is the literal English translation of the Sanskrit vinnana-sota, a Buddhist metaphor for the impermanent nature of the mind (anitya). In the landmark text Varieties of Religious Experience, James also breaks new ground for modern psychology by addressing the functional value of meditation. [7]
Meditation is one of the keystones of Buddhist practice and philosophy, the primary tool for fostering mindfulness, and has been the subject of some study by cognitive psychologists. The eminent Buddhist figure Chogyam Trungpa provides an elegant metaphor for the role of meditation: "In the Buddhist form of meditation we try to look at the perceiver of the universe, the perceiver which is self, ego, me, mine. In order to receive guests, we have to have a place to receive them. It is possible, however, that we may not find it necessary to invite any guests at all. Once we have created the place where guests are welcome, we may find they are there already." [8]
Much of the scientific study of meditation tends to support the claims of Buddhist practitioners as well as modern theories of attention, memory, and concept formation. In one experiment measuring meditators' abilities to control spontaneous intrusive thoughts, Fabbro and Muzur et al. employed Baddeley's idea of articulatory suppression, the engagement of the phonological loop in order to control unwanted thoughts. Groups of individuals trained in meditative techniques were found to have fewer intrusive thoughts than a control group in a task using the recitation of the Ave Maria prayer as an articulatory suppressant and a working memory task in the form of numerical memorization. [9]
Deikman attempted to formalize the Buddhist view of schemata reorganization in a concept he called de-automatization. This idea describes one of the primary concerns of the meditative traditions, the eradication of habitual cognitive modes, and is characterized by a shift from what Deikman identifies as an action mode (entailing the manipulation of the environment) to a receptive mode of unadulterated observation and passive experience. [10] De Silva also notes the very close parallels between early Buddhist strategies for reducing "intrusive cognitions" and modern cognitive-behavioral techniques, and adds, "…Some of these parallels also have practical implications…when an early theory or treatise offers testable ideas and techniques in an area of current interest." [11] Often, though, there is resistance within the academic community to this cross-disciplinary type of approach, as Christopher deCharms encountered when he took leave from his neuropsychology work at UCSF to pursue the research on Tibetan monks outlined in his book Two Views of Mind: Abhidharma and Brain Science. [12]
Neurologist James Austin undertook a systematic series of studies of kensho - the Zen state of pure cognization, an analog to the concept of nirvana (or nibbana) in Tibetan Buddhism. As a medical student on sabbatical in Japan, Austin had experienced a spontaneous flash of kensho one day while standing on a subway platform. [13] His medical background brought an unusual rigor to his introspection on Zazen (sitting) practice, and led to a great deal of formal clinical study. His work continues some of the same interests of Anand (1961), who measured EEG activity in yogis, and Kasamatsu and Hirai (1966) who studied alpha activity in Zen masters and abolition of habituation to stimuli (which was seen as consistent with the Zen state of satori, or freedom from
preconceptions). [14]
Austin's conclusions are somewhat ambiguous - while he posits theories of localization for experiences of "non-self-ness" (a triangle between the amygdala, hypothalamus, and central gray 15), he also acknowledges that states of attention as complex as those attained in meditation or mystical experience are extremely hard to pinpoint, or even to measure. In another series of studies Newberg and d'Aquili propose that sensations of spiritual connection or transcendence of the self correlate with decreased blood flow to structures in the posterior superior parietal lobe, in a region they refer to as the "orientation association area," the module of the brain that compiles sensory data into a perception of the body's location in its environment. [16]
Clearly, experimental research in meditation has been taken to a new level by neurologists; in fact, this clinical focus has been dubbed "neurotheology" in some circles. Whether or not this can be called a "higher" level of study than more phenomenological-oriented research is a philosophical point hotly debated by both cognitive scientists and Buddhists, and especially so by the contingent consisting of both of the above populi. Eleanor Rosch, best known for her groundbreaking studies of categorization, has also studied cognition in the meditative traditions, as well as Buddhist history, and seems to be an advocate not just of the scientific study of Buddhist paradigms, but scientific study from a Buddhist paradigm. She is critical of neuroscientific research that produces Cartesian and reductive explanations of meditative cognition, proposing instead that cognitive research be embedded in a more ecological approach that gives credence to the phenomenological elements of Buddhist practice. [17]
Rosch and Varela have developed a model of cognitive science that they call enaction. In the enactive view, cognition is "a history of structural coupling that brings forth a world," operating "through a network consisting of multiple levels of interconnected, sensorimotor subnetworks," and is successful when it "becomes part of an ongoing existing world…or shapes a new one." 18 As starting points, they cite Merleau-Ponty's ideas of embodiment as being both biological and phenomenological, as well as Husserl's beliefs about the ways in which the material world bears the marks of human cognizing.
Another major influence on the enactive model is Varela and Rosch's involvement with Chogyam Trungpa and his Naropa Institute (now University, a center for Buddhism studies in Boulder, Colorado) as well as their endeavors with the Mind and Life Institute, the mission of which is to encourage dialogue between cognitive scientists, the Dalai Lama, and followers of the meditative traditions in the spirit of collective inquiry. [19] Francisco Varela's personal experiences with Trungpa and meditation practice had an enormous impact on both his personal life and his work; he describes his initial interaction with Trungpa as "…one of the most intelligent things that ever happened in my life." [20]
Varela's subsequent work with Humberto Maturana on autopoeisis (or "biology of cognition") seems to resonate with perspectives gleaned from the meditative tradition. The term "autopoeisis" means "self-production," and encapsulates one of the main concerns of the paradigm: how biological entities maintain identity as constantly changing systems - how persistence and continuity are balanced with constant regeneration at the cellular level. The question harkens back to the inexorable process of anitya, the primacy of change, and the answer is sympathetic with Buddhist cosmology as well: mind is inseparable from experience, the body, and the world. [21] The primary metaphor of autopoeisis, as well as Zen Buddhism, is the circle - the loop of self-organization, and the interdependent cycle of system-cognizing-environment and environment-responding-to-cognization, in contrast to the linear "input circuit" assumption of cognitivism and the dualism of active system vs. static environment implied in both cognitivism and connectionism.
The enactive paradigm has had numerous repercussions on research approaches as well as normative approaches. Autopoeitic computer programming has enriched the fields of robotics and AI, aiding in the design of machines that "adapt" more deeply to shifting environments. Websites for therapists to share resources on autopoeitic therapy philosophies have bloomed on the Internet. This development seems to continue a popular interest in cognitive-behavioral-type therapy modes, which emphasize a dynamic, proactive emergence of identity over the inert, taxidermic psychoanalysis strategies of yore. Rational Emotive Behavioral Therapy, developed by Albert Ellis, has been compared to Vipassana (insight) meditation, in that both practices are predicated to a similar extent on the idea that emotion is mediated by cognition.
We can compare this to an early series of EEG studies that at one point had led cognitive scientists to believe that alpha activity could be consciously piloted through biofeedback. The facetious resemblance of "alpha states" to brain responses in experienced meditators fostered a shallow hope in "satori through technology." [22] Bathetic attempts to replicate wisdom from the meditative traditions through jargon or industry have now been succeeded by genuine attempts at integrating cognitive theory and dharmic phenomenology. This should be taken as a genuine emblem of progress.

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1 Albert Einstein, from writings as quoted in the Zen Mountain Monastery newsletter (1989).
2 Sutta Pitaka of the Pali Scriptures [online database].
3 Charles Johnson, "The Elusive Art of 'Mindfulness'", The Chronicle of Higher Education (April 13, 2001): B12.
4 David N. Snyder, Ph.D., Right Understanding in Plain English: The Science of the Buddha's Middle Path (Las Vegas: Vipassana Foundation, 2000).
5 Rick Fields, How The Swans Came to the Lake: A Narrative History of Buddhism in America. 3rd ed. (Boston: Shambala, 1992).
6 David Scott, "William James and Buddhism: American Pragmatism and the Orient," Religion 30 (2000): 335.
7 William James, Varieties of Religious Experience. (1902; New York: Viking Penguin, 1982).
8 Chogyam Trungpa, "An Approach to Meditation", The Meeting of the Ways: Explorations in East/West Psychology (New York: Schocken Books, 1979): 121.
9 Franco Fabbro and Amir Muzur, et al. "Effects of Praying and a Working Memory Task in Participants Trained in Meditation and Controls on the Occurrence of Spontaneous Thoughts," Perceptual and Motor Skills 88 (1999): 756-770.
10 John F. Kihlstrom, unpublished notes for course on Implicit Cognition [internet], University of California, Berkeley, 1999.
11 Padmal de Silva, "Early Buddhist and Modern Behavioral Strategies for the Control of Unwanted Intrusive Cognitions," The Psychological Record 35 (1985): 437.
12 Christopher deCharms, Two Views of Mind: Abhidharma and Brain Science (Ithaca: Snow Lion Publications, 1998).
13 James H. Austin, Zen and the Brain: Toward an Understanding of Meditation and Consciousness (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1998).
14 Kihlstrom, course notes.
15 Eleanor Rosch, "Is Wisdom in the Brain?", Psychological Science, vol. 10, no. 3 (May 1999): 222-224.
16 Andrew Newberg and Eugene d'Aquili, Why God Won't Go Away: Brain Science and the Biology of Belief (New York: Ballantine Books, 2001).
17 Eleanor Rosch, "Transformation of the Wolf Man," The Authority of Experience: Essays on Buddhism and Psychology, ed. John Pickering, Curzon Studies in Asian Philosophy (Surrey: Curzon Press, 1997): 6-27.
18 Francisco Varela, Evan Thompson, and Eleanor Rosch, The Embodied Mind: Cognitive Science and Human Experience (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1991).
19 Francisco Varela, Gentle Bridges (Colorado: Shambhala, 1991).
20 Francisco Varela, "Mind Waves: An Interview with Francisco Varela", interviewed by Erik Davis, Shamballa Sun (1990).
21 Humberto Maturana & Francisco Varela, Autopoeisis and Cognition: The Realization of the Living, Boston Studies in the Philosophy of Science; v. 42 (Dordrecht: D. Reidel, 1980).
22 Kihlstrom, course notes.
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Additional Sources
Daniel Dennett, "Review of F. Varela, E. Thompson and E. Rosch, The Embodied Mind," American Journal of Psychology 106 (1993): 121-126.
Padmal de Silva, "Buddhist Psychology: A Review of Theory and Practice," Current Psychology, vol. 9, issue 3 (Fall 1990).
Han F. de Wit, Contemplative Psychology (Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 1991).
Gerald Du Pre, "Buddhism and Science"; "Buddhism and Psychology"; "The Buddhist Philosophy of Science", Buddhism and Science (Dehli: Motilal Banarsidass, 1984).
Kathleen M. Galotti, Cognitive Psychology In and Out of the Laboratory, 2nd ed. (Belmont, CA: Brooks/Cole - Wadsworth, 1999).
Tomio Hirai, M.D., Zen and the Mind: Scientific Approach to Zen Practice (Tokyo: Japan Publications, 1978).
William James, Psychology (Greenwich, CT: Fawcett, 1963).
David J. Kalupahana, The Principles of Buddhist Psychology, SUNY Series in Buddhist Studies (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1987).
John Pickering, "Buddhism and Cognitivism: A Postmodern Appraisal," Asian Philosophy 5 (March 1995).
Jonathan Shear and Ron Jevning, "Pure Consciousness: Scientific Exploration of Meditation Techniques," The View From Within: First-Person Approaches to the Study of Consciousness (Bowling Green, OH: Imprint Academic, Philosophy Documentation Center, Bowling Green State University, 1999): 189-209.
Kam-Tim So and David W. Orne-Johnson, "Three Randomized Experiments on the Longitudinal Effects of the Transcendental Meditation Technique on Cognition," Intelligence 29 (2001): 419-440.
C.S. Vyas, Buddhist Theory of Perception (New Dehli: Navrang, 1991).
Donald M. Wulff, Psychology of Religion, 2nd ed. (New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1997).
(c)2002 J. Niimi

posted by J. Niimi 9:32 PM