Neuroscience has long been interested in Buddhism since the late 1980s, when the Mind and Life Institute was created by HH Dalai Lama and a team of scientists.
Those studies showed what monks have known for thousands of years – if you train the mind, you can change the brain.
Now in a new research study, Evan Thompson of the University of British Columbia has verified the Buddhist belief of anatta, or not-self.
What does anatta mean?
Anatta is the teaching that there is no consistent self. It is a delusion to believe that we are the same moment to moment. According to Buddhist scripture, “there is in humans no permanent, underlying substance that can be called the soul.” This is one of the three characteristics of all existence, together with dukkha (suffering, unsatisfactoriness) and anicca (impermanence).
In a recent study, Thompson also found that the “the brain and body is constantly in flux. There is nothing that corresponds to the sense that there’s an unchanging self.”
What does this mean practically for us?
This is an incredibly liberating concept to embrace. If we are constantly changing, constantly evolving, then you don’ have to take everything so personally. Your thoughts don’t define you. You don’t have to have a set idea of who you are.
Through this concept, we can grow and change with the help of neuroplasticity. If you have bad habits, or something about your “self” you don’t like, you’re not stuck with them. Self-limiting beliefs aren’t real and can change.
Neuroscience and Buddhism: A match made in heaven?
Perhaps there will more eastern thoughts that are backed up by science in the future. But as the Dalai Lama says “Suppose that something is definitely proven through scientific investigation. … Suppose that that fact is incompatible with Buddhist theory. There is no doubt that we must accept the result of the scientific research.”
Hearing a pro-science stance from a religious leader is a relief to many. It seems Buddhism and neuroscience may have similar goals: To understand the mind better so that we can be less miserable and more happy. Now that’s a goal I think we can all get behind!