Brain Computer Interfaces and the Need for Mindfulness
Countless tales and myths about telepathy and mind reading can be found in ancient wisdom traditions, and some well known Buddhist teachings are even transmitted only via the mind. Mind termas (gong ter) are teachings and sometimes empowerments revealed to the mind stream of tertons (gTer sTon), or Dharma treasure revealers, who are often reincarnations of the realized disciples of Guru Rinpoche appointed to discover termas in the form of texts, relics, and/or transmissions of teachings concealed from all living beings until the time they are meant to be found.
The word terma may sound familiar to some, even when hearing it for the first time, as if awakening the recollection of some distant memory. Termas are rather intriguing treasure texts, relics, and teachings, mostly concealed by Guru Padmasambhava and Yeshe Tsogyal.
Dilgo Kyentse Rinpoche (2008, 141) describes:
Mind treasures arise in the following way: In many instances, after bestowing an empowerment or giving a teaching, Padmasambhava made the prayer, “In the future, may this treasure arise in the mind of such and such tertön.” While doing so, he would focus his prayers and blessings on the tertön, usually an incarnation of one of his disciples. When, due to Guru Rinpoche’s blessings, the times comes, both the words and the meaning of the treasure arise clearly in the tertön’s mind. The tertön can then write these down without having to think.
Some of these gong ter are rather long and complex texts, which have become a core part of Buddhist literature and include the Seven Treasuries of Longchenpa, Mingyur Dorje’s Namchö, and Jigme Lingpa’s Longchen Nyingtik.
Mind termas are perfect examples of mind-to-mind transmissions accepted by Buddhist scholars and practitioners, although this concept has been pretty much inconceivable in Western science or by anyone else, at least until very recently. Phenomena such as mind-to-mind communication can, in small ways, be encountered in everyday life Driven by empathy and care for other sentient beings, we can easily share feelings and emotions when words are not spoken. This is more often referred to as heart-to-heart communication. It happens even between species, for instance between humans and animals, especially domesticated.
But because this type of communication cannot be objectively seen or measured, it has been regarded by some “hard” scientists as intractable at best. Nonetheless, scientific research around such phenomena, especially in psychology and medical literature, has been ongoing and was first documented as early as two centuries ago: the British Medical Journal was among the first scientific outlets that started publishing articles on the subject as early as 1888.*
Recent findings, thanks to the aid of more advanced technologies, are beginning to add interesting scientific perspectives to some of the possible biological mechanisms behind these phenomena.
Extrasensory perceptions (ESPs) relate to information perceived outside of the five senses. “An extrasensory experience is one in which it appears that the experiment’s mind has acquired information directly, that is seemingly without the mediation of the recognized human senses or the processes of logical inference.” (Irwin 1999, 5)
Known examples of ESPs are telepathy, clairvoyance, and precognition, all of which have been the object of scientific interest—mostly by psychologists who produced a rather vast a body of knowledge on the subject with the aim of identifying the mechanisms in the brain that transmit and receive information without the use of spoken word or other explicit signals, and various other intangible phenomena.
Research demonstrates that, to some extent, it is possible for humans to “read” other people’s minds, thanks to mechanisms not yet completely understood.
One of these is mechanisms is related to mirror neurons, a set of visuospatial brain cells active in human social interaction, responding to actions that we observe in others, and that are responsible for sophisticated human behaviors and thought processes.** Recent studies have also documented occurrences of brain-to-brain communication that can occur at a distance. One such study was conducted in 2014 by psychiatrist Charles Grau.***
This kind of research, however, has yet to have any widespread impact or application in practice, despite some interesting results, in part because it opens up a range of complex issues that may rewrite the book of science as we know it, and in part because results can be a bid fudgy and difficult to replicate.
Technologies are starting to play a role in experiments with mind-to-mind transmissions, take for example brain-computer interfaces (BCI), which enable the explicit codification and potential control of brain signals.****
Equally interesting are neuroimaging techniques, such as MRI, fMRI, and P, that can visually show the effects of controlled thought techniques such as meditation on the brain’s structure and function. Neuroimaging, for instance, has shown correlations between meditation and specific brain modifications. When scanning expert meditators, the researchers found structural brain modifications and increased activation in areas associated with attention, which demonstrates functional and metabolic changes after meditation training.***** Meditation has even been shown to increase cortical thickness in the brain.******
Since different sensory inputs result in different patterns of neurons firing. Neuroscientists are now exploring the possibility of reverse engineering these pathways by stimulating neurons capable of reproducing these patterns to generate corresponding emotions and behaviours.*******
Is this starting to sound scary?
If and when brain-computer interfaces and related technologies become more established, the boundaries of what we consider to be at the core of a human being—the seat of consciousness of the individual that is used as a unit of analysis and reference for much legislation, human rights, science, and philosophy—could become blurred.
Dharma practitioners have always been aware that they are part of a greater whole, of the potential of thoughts, which are considered immaterial, to reverberate in the material world, and of some level of possible interconnectedness between mental activity and phenomena external to the brains. With such awareness, it becomes important to adhere to a strict mental discipline to ensure the dynamics of the mind remain pristine and not guided solely by emotions and defilements
Mind reading, known in Buddhism to spontaneously manifest as the fruit of spiritual practice and selfless aspirations, could start to be mechanically and artificially reproduced, more or less invasively. Invasive in the sense of unwanted mental interference, and potentially as surgically invasive, if metal plates and microchips have to be implanted in the brain. These developments may have far-reaching implications that need to be considered by researchers and technology developers.
The issue of ethics
Technologists in brain-computer interface research face new key issues around ethics and privacy. If what goes on in the mind can become known to all, if the deepest secrets of the soul may become accessible, either accidentally, via meditation or through the use of systematic and advanced technologies, suitable new rules of engagement may have to be devised.
A relatively new branch of research called neuroethics is studying this convergence between neuroscience and ethics, and some approaches are drawing inspiration and guidance from Buddhism.********
Yet there is scope for more exploration
Heart-to-heart communication can happen naturally, for instance in guru-disciple and parent-child relationships, and particularly close couples or friends. It does not require any specific effort; it is the result of mindful observance and should always be conducted with the clear intention of benefiting, not harming, oneself and others.
This is a very interesting time for Dharma practitioners who are juggling the revelations of termas on one hand and brain computer research on the other. Technology may help us to confirm and even explain some of the experiences that otherwise may sound unbelievable outside of advanced spiritual practices, and mind training as taught by the Buddha may provide some guidance to help engineers and scientists develop ethical practices in their quest for enlightened technologies.
* Author Unknown. 1893. “A New Use for Telepathy.” Hospital. 13(330): 262.
** Acharya, S. & Shukla, S. 2012. “Mirror neurons: Enigma of the metaphysical modular brain.” Journal of Natural Science, Biology and Medicine. 3(2): 118–124.
*** Grau, C. et al. 2014. “Conscious Brain-to-Brain Communication in Humans Using Non-Invasive Technologies.” PLoS ONE 9(8): e105225.
**** Choi, I., Rhiu, I., Lee, Y., Yun, M.H., Nam, C.S. 2017. “A systematic review of hybrid brain-computer interfaces: Taxonomy and usability perspectives.” PLoS ONE 12(4): e0176674.
***** Boccia, M. et al. 2015. “The Meditative Mind: A Comprehensive Meta-Analysis of MRI Studies.” BioMed research international. 2015 (2015): 419808.
****** Lazar, S. et al. 2006. “Meditation experience is associated with increased cortical thickness.” Neuroreport.16(17): 1893–1897.
******** See for instance: Fenton, A. 2008.” Buddhism and neuroethics: The ethics of pharmaceutical cognitive enhancement.” Developing World Bioethics. 9(2): 47–56.
Dilgo Khyentse. 2008. Brilliant Moon. Boston and London: Shambhala Publications.
Irwin, H.J. 1999. An Introduction to Parapsychology (3rd ed.). Jefferson, NC: McFarland.
Irvine, A.A. 2008. Infinite Possibility: Frameworks for Understanding Extraordinary Human Experience. Bloomington: AuthorHouse
Simpson, E. A., & Ferrari, P. F. 2013. “Mirror neurons are central for a second-person neuroscience: insights from developmental studies.” The Behavioral and brain sciences, 36(4), 438.
Ehrenwald, J. 1956. “Telepathy: Concepts, criteria and consequences,” The Psychiatric Quarterly. 30(1-4): 425-445.
Ullman, M., Krippner, S. &Vaughan, A. 2003. Dream Telepathy: Experiments in Nocturnal Extrasensory Perception. Newburyport: Hampton Roads Publishing Company.
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