BG 150: Self is a Network Phenomenon

Episode Description:

We’re joined again by Neuropsychologist and Theravada teacher, Rick Hanson. This time we explore the Buddhist proposition of anatta, or selflessness, from the point of view of neuroscience and the brain. Rick explores whether a self actually exists using the following 4 core attributes of how a self is often defined:

  1. It is unified & coherent
  2. It is stable & enduring
  3. It is independent
  4. It is the whole of experience

Looking at current research on how the self manifests in the brain, as what Hanson calls a “network phenomenon”, he deconstructs each of these four attributes, arguing that “self is not special inside the brain.”

This is part 2 of a three-part series. Listen to part 1, A Crash Course in Applied Neurodharma and part 3, Eddies in the Stream.

Episode Links:


Vince: Another topic that you’re really interested in, really geeky about, if you will, is the Buddhist notion of selflessness, or anatta as it’s called in the Pali as it relates to what we know about the brain, or what you’re calling the “black box.” And I was wondering if you could say a little bit about what we do know now about the brain, and how the notion of selflessness, or no-self is related to that?

Rick: Yes, so, I’ve often felt that the presentation of the discussion of self/not-self has been needlessly murky, and for me at least, maybe because I’m dumb or something, I just couldn’t get it. People would say, “There is no self.” I’m a psychologist, right? And I also did a lot of stuff, crazy stuff sometimes in the human potential movement. [laughs]

You know, there’s a saying in medicine that good judgment comes from experience, and experience comes from bad judgment, so I try to appreciate my bad judgment and have some compassion for it. It’s not to indulge in bad judgment past the point of understanding, but, in any case, I had a fair amount of bad judgment, which led to experiences. [laughs]

Anyway, so, what do you mean there’s not a self? I mean, I can think about Rick Hanson over time. I’m sure Vince Horn can think about Vince Horn over time, right? What do we mean? So, couple of key points here. First of all, as I read the Dharma, and especially I read the Pali Canon, let’s kind of start there, which is amazingly clearly written, and particularly if you’ve got a good translation.

A little shout out — I particularly love Bhikkhu Bodhi’s translations. I think if I was stuck on a tropical island for the rest of my life, I sometimes think, “What drug would I want with me above all others?” It would be Ibuprofen. But, anyway, or what kind of cuisine would I want? Maybe Thai, but what Buddhist book? If you could have one Buddhist book for the rest of your life, what would it be? I would have to say, I think it would be, “What the Buddhist Said,” Bhikkhu Bodhi’s greatest hits of the Buddha anthology arranged with great commentary, so a little plug there.

In any case, first, the Buddha taught in two kinds of ways. He offered propositions about the way things are, and he suggested skillful means, and sometimes it’s important to understand that he offered propositions about the way things are as skillful means, primarily, and only secondarily as arguable propositions about reality, existence, philosophy, and so forth.

So, there’s two ways to use what he taught about the way things are as some kind of subject that’s open for debate or as a provisional proposition that you can just kind of take on board, because it facilitates pragmatically and skillfully progress on the path of awakening. And that distinction actually I found very useful.

So, in that light, anatta means, “not Atman.” So, that’s the narrow meaning. We have to imbed the Buddha in his own causes and conditions. He was a Hindu yogi. He was a Brahman imbedded in that philosophical background. He was deeply trained. He had the equivalent, clearly, of a Ph.D in Hindu philosophy, and he was arguing against the existence of an absolute self-arising, independently existing soul that migrates from body to body to body eternally. That’s the narrow meaning of anatta.

Additionally what you find in the Dharma is a ton of deconstruction of a psychological self, distinct from the soul. And an analysis that deconstructs that persistent sense of “I,” which I’ll get to in a moment, as the independent and coherent and stable owner of experiences and agent of actions. So, there’s a distinction here between what he’s saying about the non-existence of that absolutely self-arising soul and his very pragmatic analysis of the conventional sense of being a self and “I” and ego, which then drives suffering and also becomes an object of attachment.

Self is one of the four great objects of attachment. The others are views, rights and rituals, and sense pleasure, or the avoidance of sense pain, right? So, pragmatically, trying to help people suffer less, seeing that selfing, which I’ll get to in a minute, as a verb, not so much a noun, in other words, that selfing causes suffering, the Buddha was trying to really work on people’s heads to get them to deconstruct. The Buddha was a pre-modern, post-modernist. He was so deconstructive in his approach — endlessly, relentlessly, fiercely, across all these settings for 30, 40 years of teaching. So, let’s make that distinction.

Now, at this point, I’m going to talk about the psychological self. I’m going to zero in on that and the conventional Western psychological and also Western philosophical notion that you can really boil it down that the conventional notion of the self is that it has four core attributes. One, it is unified. It is coherent. There is one. There is an I. There are not lots of I’s, okay? Two, it is stable. It is enduring. It doesn’t change in it’s fundamental nature. In other words, the I, I am today, at my core is the same I, I was in my earliest memory in childhood. The third attribute, is that the I is independent. In other words, things happen to it, to be sure, and it has experiences, but it itself, independently, exists. It’s not dependently originating. And, the fourth and final core attribute of I, is that it’s the essential whole of the person. In other words, I encompass my experiences, rather than my experiences encompass my I. Well, is that really true?

All right. Now, I want to make a key distinction, here, between self and person. Without a doubt, there is a person. In other words, there’s a body-mind that has continuity over time. I don’t subscribe to the only-mind theory, that it’s all made up. I think Shirley McLaine’s wrong. You know, I think that wing of Buddhism is just implausible. I think you can’t prove it either way, but of the two possibilities, basically, either, that there is material existence that consciousness is independent of, or, the mind is just inventing all of this in some strange and marvelous way. I think, of those two, the first is far and away the most plausible one. And that’s the frame I’m operating in here, which is also the Western science frame, obviously.

So, as a person, yeah, there’s Vince over there, there’s Rick over here. Vince is a different person. Persons do have continuity, they do deserve good treatment, and they are morally responsible. I mean, obviously, it’s a really interesting question in Buddhist ethics. If there is no I, how can I be put in jail for anything, because I didn’t do it. You know what I mean? Well, not so fast, you know. So this distinction between self and person, I think, is actually a very useful one. Okay. So, that said, let’s look at those four attributes.

First, if you look at them in your own experience. If you just play around on retreat or you just walk across a room, is there really just one I? Or is it actually compounded of many parts? I’ve got a lot of sub-personalities. It’s a zoo in here. You know? Walt Whitman said, “I am multitudes.” In our own experience, there are a lot of selves, a lot of sub-personalities. There’s the little kid inside us. And then there’s the internalized nurturing figures who encourage us and soothe us. And then there’s the internalized critical voices and pushy voices that tell us to get up off our butt and do our homework faster, more. And we have lots of parts to us. There’s the part that sets the alarm early in the morning to exercise. And the part that says, U-h-h-h, set the alarm. kkckkkk. Right?

Second, in our own experience, is I the same always? Heck, no. It’s endlessly transient. Third, is I the whole of the self. No. It’s just part of the whole person. Third, is it independent? No. All kinds of things affect our experience of who we are, and affect which parts of the I show up. And then, fourth. Is it the whole of the person? No. Not in our experience. It’s just part of the person. Right? We’re surrounded by all kinds of other things.

Well, very interestingly, those four contradictions that you can see directly, through mindfulness, in your own experience, which violate the four conventional attributes of I, or self, are also found in the brain. In other words, researchers have found that, if you have people do many kinds of self-related tasks, like recalling a personal memory, or recognizing themselves distinct from others in a photograph of multiple people, or making a difficult choice, or reflecting on whether certain trait adjectives apply to them, like joyful or sorrowful, things like that, that you light up neural circuitry all over the freaking head. I mean, it’s just all over the place.

A and B, sidebar, those regions also do, you know, a hundred other things. In other words, self is not special inside the brain. There’s no place in the brain, not the pineal gland, not nothing, where the little homunculus sits, looking out through the eyes. It’s just not the case. It’s widely distributed. It’s a network phenomenon. Self is a network phenomenon inside the brain, self-related activities, first.

Second, in the brain, self-related circuitry is lighting up and then deactivating in an incredibly transient way. I think of it a little bit like a light show, where those lights are going up on the control board of some stereos as the music is playing in a different frequencies. That’s the nature of selfing in the brain altogether. So it’s transient. It’s impermanent. And then, third, it’s not independent. Self-related functions, self-related representations in the brain, and even the experience of subjectivity, which I’ll get to in a minute, which is the, kind of, core origin of our fundamental sense of being a subject, a being looking out through the eyes, if you will, or listening through the ears. All those activations of selfing, or representations, or even subjectivity are highly dependent. They’re not independent in the brain. They’re highly dependent in the brain on all kinds of factors, different events occurring in the environment that are translated inside the brain, different learning inside the brain, and also the nature of self-related circuitry in the brain that’s dependent on evolutionary time.

We evolved as self to perform survival-based functions, particularly in the relationship with others. That’s mostly where selfing is found. Walk across the room in a retreat, let’s say, with very, very little sense of self, and then for some reason, raise your gaze and catch the eyes of another person there. Whoosh. Within seconds, you can watch self just blossom up like a great big bubble. Usually. Not always, but very, very often. So, not independent, dependent in the brain.

And then last, selfing, self, is just part of the massive circuitry of the brain. Self-related activations of different circuits are just a tiny percentage of the total circuitry in the brain as a whole. So self is part of the person. The person is not part of the self.

So, you see, therefore, this disconfirmation right there. You see anatta broadly defined, not just not soul, but I mean here not-self in the conventional Western sense, and I mean lower case “s” self, not capital “S,” Self. It’s just not the case in the brain. And it’s also true that this experience of being a subject is not supported in the brain. In other words, what is supported in the brain is subjectivity, an inherent localization of experiencing within a particular perspective that’s grounded in a particular body-mind.

That does seem to be an inherent attribute of experiencing, at least in conventional experience. I think it’s very interesting to contemplate what is actually happening in the brain really of someone moving through, let’s say, the jhanas, and then the four formless jhanas, where there really is very, very, little signaling, if you will. There’s very little information moving through the nervous system. And at that point, it’s interesting to wonder if there is indeed an inherent subjectivity in awareness itself when the mind, and therefore the brain, is extraordinary quiet and still. I don’t know. Or, I’d rather I say, “I’m not sure.” But, in conventional experience, there’s an inherent subjectivity. No way around it.

But here’s what the brain does. Just like a movie creates the illusion of a horse running across a field with 22 frames per second, 22 snapshots per second, the brain indexes across multiple moments of subjectivity to find apparent, enduring, and coherent subject. But, in fact, there isn’t one. It just makes it up. It makes it up because it’s useful, right?

Organisms that feel like a subject and identify that subject with their body and identify that subject with their loved ones they care about, they’re going to bust tush, right, to take good care and do those things that pass on gene copies. But the actual reality is, there are just moments of subjectivity in the brain that then get indexed to posit or presume a subject. So, at the end of the day, what we have in the brain to wrap up here, are gazoodles of representations of self. So, in that sense, self is real. In other words, there are real representations of self in the brain. It is real in that sense.

Vince: That’s just useful, too, to have a representation of the self.

Rick: Yeah.

Vince: How could you walk around and function?

Rick: That’s right. Absolutely. People have dissociative experiences or schizophrenia who don’t have a sense of self, or who with dementia, as the circuitry of self begins to actually physically erode in the brain. It’s tragic. It’s very disorienting, and very troubling for people. That all said, the representations of self in the brain point to something that, as I’ve tried to show, is non-existent.

And that’s where for me the distinction between a horse and a unicorn, I use in the book, and it’s kind of playful, but it’s useful for me. There are real representations of a horse in the brain, and what they represent is real. I think horses are real, ok? I don’t think we just made it come up in our minds. I think horses really have objective existence, all right? On the other hand, there are also lots of representations in the brain of a unicorn. Those representations are real, but that which they point to, that which they represent has no material existence. I mean, I’m sorry all you unicorn fans, but at least not in this parallel dimension, or something like that, no unicorns here, at least so far that anyone’s spotted, really.

So, self is like a unicorn. It’s a useful fiction. It has its place. When we use it skillfully… it’s interesting how often the Buddha used the word, “I,” and, “You,” in the Pali Canon. You know, he used it in a very conventional and easy way. But to the extent that we identify with that fiction, or that we seek to possess things from that fiction, or we seek to glorify that fiction, that’s when we create suffering for ourselves and other beings.


Rick Hanson

Rick Hanson, Ph.D., is a neuropsychologist, Senior Fellow of the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley, and New York Times best-selling author. His books include Hardwiring Happiness, Buddha’s Brain, Just One Thing, and Mother Nurture. Founder of the Wellspring Institute for Neuroscience and Contemplative Wisdom, he’s been an invited speaker at Oxford, Stanford, and Harvard, and taught in meditation centers worldwide. He has several audio programs, his free Just One Thing newsletter has over 100,000 subscribers, and his yearlong program on positive neuroplasticity – the Foundations of Well-Being – is now available as an eCourse. Website: