Brief Notes: Neuroscience and Buddhist Thought

Troxler’s Fading

Around 2,500 years ago, the ancient Greek philosopher Hippocrates put forward the idea that the brain might be the centre of the mind (disagreeing with Aristotle, who thought the mind resided in the heart) [Page 3]. Within contemporary Western scholarship, the historical Buddha is also believed to have lived around 2,500 years ago (although other dating systems suggest that the Buddha lived around 3000 years ago). The point here, is that through the Indian Buddha and the Greek Hippocrates, a transformation occurred with the progression of human understanding (as science), which took the brain (organ) and mind (function) as its subject matter. Whereas Hippocrates examined the physical structure of the brain, the Buddha examined how that brain functioned (by observing the emergent mind). The Buddha’s system appeals to the individual because once explained properly, it can be applied here and now, without recourse to institutions or bureaucracy, etc. However, as the Buddha instigated a form of logical enquiry that was probably unique in the world at the time, it is important for Buddhists not to reject science, or fall into an idealistic malaise. A continuous education is the preferred path. Whereas the ancient Greeks identified 5 senses – taste, smell, vision, hearing and touch – the Buddha devised a similar categorisation and added composite ‘mind’ to this list, which included perception, thought formation and consciousness. Although modern neuroscience is of the opinion that 5 senses are not enough to fully describe for the full range of human experience (which includes sensations from both ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ the body), nevertheless, just 4 kinds of receptor cells have been identified operating within the brain. These are light (i.e. sight), chemical compounds (i.e. taste and smell), mechanical force (i.e. hearing, touch and balance), and tissue damage (i.e. pain) [Page 96]

Neuroscience is a thoroughly modern and complex examination of the evolution, purpose and function of the physical organ of the brain, which is housed within the skull, and weighs around 3 pounds. The brain requires between 20% to 25% of total energy of the body to function (which is a huge investment), with only around 3% supplied by an adequate blood supply at any one moment. This means that 3% of the neurons are firing at any given moment, but this represents around 500 million brain cells. As the brain operates, functionality ebbs and flows as the blood supply is shifted from focusing on one area to another. Although blood flow is always present in the brain cells, it is the extent or richness of the oxygen supply that varies. The brain possesses 300 million receptor cells, and fewer than 3 million receptor fibres (Page 98). This distinction matters because the brain receives a substantial amount of information about the world, but cannot process all of it. As a consequence, data is filtered with much discarded as irrelevant or not useful given current circumstances. The human brain has evolved to ‘think’ and is composed of 86 billion neurons, with each possessing around 1000 synapses (Page 5). Brain evolution appears to have begun around 14 million years ago in Africa, with a major growth around 2 million years ago, with the last major growth occurring between 200,000 to 50,000 years ago.  It is that a natural and rapid global warming and global cooling around 1.5m years ago, facilitated the growth of the human brain from 400cc (in Australopithecines), to 1000cc in Homo Erectus. It is believed that was caused by extreme climate change over a 200,000-year period, with the East Africa experiencing continuous bouts of flooded valleys being replaced with scorching deserts in cycles of just 1,000 years. This environmental changeability generated the material pressure that forced a permanent growth in human brain size. A similar situation occurred between 50,000 – 200,000 years ago, whereby the human brain again grew from 1000cc to 1400cc (where it stands today, albeit with a 2% to 3% reduction), although in this latter case, a debate is still underway as to the exact nature of the stimulus (with climate change being the most obvious candidate). The brain increased in size and functionality due to various environmental pressures required for the human species to survive. This progress from basic instinct to sublime thought has seen the ‘mind’ emerge from the functionality of the modern, human brain (a process linked to the latest evolutionary change in size). In this regard, the emergent mind is related to the firing of bio-electrical and bio-chemical processes between and across the synapses, but due to its complexity, cannot be ‘reduced’ to these processes (according to most neuroscientists).

The Buddha’s system of thought deals primarily with the emergent mind and has very little, if anything, to say about the physical organ of the brain. This is interesting from the perspective of the Buddhist meditation practice that sees the adherent sit day by day in the grave-yard, contemplating the rotting of human bodies left by poor families without being buried or cremated. Presumably the (unbroken) skull hid the presence of the brain, which quite literally melted away in quick order. Although it is true that within pre-modern times there was uncertainty as to where the centre of awareness was located, the Buddha does appear to ascribe the head as the centre with the middle of the fore-head as the epicentre. He also seems to suggest that an enhanced awareness can a) be developed through discipline and concentration, and b) ‘expanded’ throughout the body and into the environment. This is not to suggest that Buddhist thought is in any way a ‘neuroscience’, it obviously is not, but what the Buddha has to say is a very sophisticated interpretation about how he perceives the ’emergent’ mind, that appears very ‘modern’ in its observations. (In this regard, the Buddha’s logical assessment of the mind should be considered a perceptual psychology, rather than a form of psychiatry). in short, the Buddha logically explains the emergent mind from the perspective of the subjective observer.

Neuroscience states that there are 6 primary senses, which are processed as data received from the outer world, as it flows through the brain. There are 6 different areas of the cortex which automatically sorts this information into the following 6 categories of sensation:

1) Visual 2) Auditory 3) Somatosensory (i.e. body sensations) 4) Olfactory (i.e. smell) 5) Gustatory (i.e. taste) and 6) Vestibular (i.e. balance) [Page 95-96]

The 6 primary emotions (linked to facial expression) as defined within neuroscience are:

1) Disgust 2) sadness 3) Happiness 4) Fear 5) Anger and 6) Surprise

Within the Four Noble Truths, the Buddha defines reality as a psycho-physical nexus formed by matter, sensation, perception, thought formation and consciousness. He further states that there are 6 senses including things seen, things heard, things smelt, things tasted, things sensed through the body, and things sensed through the mind. He also reduced sensations to ‘pleasant’, ‘unpleasant’ and ‘neutral’, implying tha all of the spectrum of sensation can and does fall into these three broad categories. What is interesting in this regard, is that when people suffering from semantic dementia were asked to sort photographs of facial expressions into the 6 emotional categories of neuroscience, they tended to reduce their effort to just 3 categories – ‘pleasant’, ‘unpleasant’ and ‘neutral’, as the dementia had taken away their ability to further discern categories (Page 84-85). This does not mean the Buddha suffered from dementia or that his system is deficient in some manner, but it is interesting to note that in his day, many people did not have access to a formal education, and as life was defined through a theological simplicity, it could be argued that there was not the sophistication of synaptic connection that is often evident in the modern (developed) world. Whatever the case, the Buddha saw no reason to over-complicate his basic teaching, although it is true that in many of the texts attributed to him, there is a ‘minute’ assessment of perceived reality that many around him did not fully understand. It could be speculated that certain stages of dementia perhaps equal various stages of educational deficiency, with individuals possessing a similar view of the world. Of course, I am tentatively suggesting that a lack of sophisticated synaptic connection (formed by the positive experiences of a fulfilling education), could be similar in structure to a mind suffering from a reduction in synaptic connections (due to dementia). Perhaps the Buddha’s philosophy exactly reflects the state of human thinking at the time of his life, with his enlightenment representing an altogether new era in human thought.

Finally, if you stare at the centre dot of Troxler’s Fading diagram above, you will experience how your brain sieves information out of your perception, whilst emphasising the details it sees fit to tell you. As you stare, eventually only the central dot will remain and the periphery detail will seem to disappear. This sieving of information will last as long as the attention is strongly fixed upon the central dot – because when the concentration relaxes, the brain will start to allow the peripheral information back into your conscious attention zone. For Buddhists with enquiring minds, this might be an interesting observation with regards to meditation and concentrative effort. Absence of evidence does not equal evidence of absence. When we ‘perceive’ we must be very careful about ‘what’ and ‘how’ we are perceiving. Information may be lacking in one area, or a small amount of information might be over-emphasised giving a false impression of an over-all reality. When the Buddhist practitioner ‘looks within’, what is it that is being seen?


(Added to this list might be ‘Elevation’, ‘Interest’, ‘Gratitude’, ‘Pride’ and Confusion’ – Page 92)




Reference: New Scientist – Instant Expert – How Your Brain Works, John Murray Learning, (2017) – Inside the most complicated object in the known universe.

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