The Buddhist understanding of the illusory nature of a constant, unchanging sense of self, first posited thousands of years ago, has been validated by recent neuro-scientific research. And while neuroscience cannot yet offer a definitive answer as to exactly how consciousness relates to the brain, some cognitive scientists have begun to reference Buddhist thought in their research.
Evan Thompson, a professor of philosophy at the University of British Columbia, writes about cognitive science, phenomenology, the philosophy of mind, and cross-cultural philosophy—especially Buddhist philosophy in dialogue with Western philosophy of mind and cognitive science. “Buddhists argue that nothing is constant, everything changes through time, you have a constantly changing stream of consciousness,” said Thompson. “And from a neuroscience perspective, the brain and body is constantly in flux. There’s nothing that corresponds to the sense that there’s an unchanging self.” (Quartz)
Evan Thompson. From ubc.ca
According to a paper published in July—“Reconstructing and deconstructing the self: cognitive mechanisms in meditation practice” by Cortland J. Dahl, Antoine Lutz, and Richard J. Davidson—there is scientific evidence that “self-processing in the brain is not instantiated in a particular region or network, but rather extends to a broad range of fluctuating neural processes that do not appear to be self specific.” (Cell Press)
The authors define cognitive reification as “the experience of thoughts, emotions, and perceptions as being accurate depictions of reality and, in particular, the implicit belief that the self and objects of consciousness are inherently enduring, unitary, and independent of their surrounding conditions and circumstances. In the Buddhist tradition, cognitive reification is a primary target in deconstructive styles of meditation.” (Cell Press)
According to Thompson, this is not the only convergence of neuroscience and Buddhism. Some neuroscientists now theorize that cognitive faculties can be trained through meditation, and that there may be scientific credence to the Buddhist belief that consciousness extends into deep sleep.
“The standard neuroscience view is that deep sleep is a blackout state where consciousness disappears,” said Thompson. “In Indian philosophy we see some theorists argue that there’s a subtle awareness that continues to be present in dreamless sleep, there’s just a lack of ability to consolidate that in a moment-to-moment way in memory.” (Quartz)
Thompson even supports the Buddhist view of the intrinsic existence of the self (on a relative level), although he disagrees with the idea that an aspect of consciousness exists independent of the physical body. “In neuroscience, you’ll often come across people who say the self is an illusion created by the brain. My view is that the brain and the body work together in the context of our physical environment to create a sense of self. And it’s misguided to say that just because it’s a construction, it’s an illusion.” (Quartz)
Neuroscience backs up the Buddhist belief that “the self” isn’t constant, but ever-changing (Quartz)
Reconstructing and deconstructing the self: cognitive mechanisms in meditation practice (Cell Press)