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No Self, No Problem

How Neuropsychology is Catching Up to Buddhism

By Chris Niebauer
15-minute read
Audio available
No Self, No Problem: How Neuropsychology is Catching Up to Buddhism by Chris Niebauer

No Self, No Problem (2019) offers an array of neuroscientific evidence that supports an age-old Buddhist thesis: that there’s no such thing as a stable, continuous self. Recent research indicates that the self is an illusion, a nonexistent pattern created by the language center of the human brain. 

  • Scientifically minded spiritual seekers
  • Skeptics of meditation, yoga and tai chi
  • People who’ve been called “left-brained”

Chris Niebauer is a professor at Slippery Rock University in Pennsylvania. Specializing in neuropsychology, he offers classes on the differences between the left and right brain, as well as on mindfulness and consciousness. His previous books include The Neurotic’s Guide to Avoiding Enlightenment and Catching up with the Buddha.

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No Self, No Problem

How Neuropsychology is Catching Up to Buddhism

By Chris Niebauer
  • Read in 15 minutes
  • Audio & text available
  • Contains 9 key ideas
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No Self, No Problem: How Neuropsychology is Catching Up to Buddhism by Chris Niebauer
Synopsis

No Self, No Problem (2019) offers an array of neuroscientific evidence that supports an age-old Buddhist thesis: that there’s no such thing as a stable, continuous self. Recent research indicates that the self is an illusion, a nonexistent pattern created by the language center of the human brain. 

Key idea 1 of 9

Contemporary neuroscience and Buddhist teachings agree: the self is an illusion.

When you use the word “I,” to what, exactly, are you referring?

If you’re like most Westerners, this question probably seems bizarre in the extreme; when you say “I,” you mean you – the thinking consciousness that controls your body and seems to be located in your head, just behind your eyes. This conscious “pilot” is the implied referent of the word “I.” It’s the thing we’re talking about when we talk about our “self.”

If you live in the West, you probably take this self for granted, vaguely imagining it to be physically situated somewhere in your brain, like a pilot in a plane. But here’s the thing: when you look for the self in the brain, it’s simply not there.

Neuroscience has succeeded in mapping almost every function of the mind onto the brain. It’s located the physical centers for language, for compassion, for face processing, and for many other mental processes, and yet it hasn’t found a center for the self.

A Buddhist wouldn’t be surprised to hear this. For millennia, Buddhism and Taoism alike have taught that there isn’t a cohesive, continuous self. In fact, both teach that selfhood is an illusion.

That’s not to say that this illusion isn’t very convincing. You’re surely experiencing it right now, thinking thoughts such as “interesting” or “I’m not fully convinced yet,” and feeling confident that these thoughts are being generated by you, by that piloting “I” inside your head.

So what’s the big deal? What’s the practical harm in believing in your extremely convincing, but probably illusory, self?

Well, the short answer is that believing in the self causes us mental suffering. Before we get into that, however, and before we take a close look at exactly how this illusion of selfhood is created, let’s take a moment to review how the brain works. 

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