Robert Wright’s latest book brings together two big ideas: 1) Evolutionary psychology and 2) Theravada Buddhism. It’s pretty wonderful as I’m very familiar with both and yet the connection hadn’t occurred to me.
When I read Wright’s The Moral Animal a decade ago I was reassured that people can both accept evolution in its full force and not worry about falling wholesale into immorality. There is plenty of evidence for cooperation and reciprocal altruism in nature – this is a theme I’ve explored in this blog years ago and one that he extended with his second book NonZero. Now he’s written Why Buddhism Is True binding evolution, psychology, and the Thai-Forest Buddhist philosophy/practice. Buddhism, he summarizes “has been studying how the human mind is programmed to react to its environment… Now, with Darwin’s theory we understood what had done the programming.” (p 224)
There are many kinds of Buddhism (“Zen is for poets, Tibetan is for artists, and Vipassana is for psychologists” ) and some carry supernatural beliefs like reincarnation which Wright and I reject.
Vipassana meditation, from Theravada Buddhism, is sometimes called “mindfulness” meditation and has a great deal of support in the books I read. I meditated regularly for most of a decade and intend to return; I’ve never doubted the value of sitting quietly and watching the mind.
First, a little background, the basics of evolutionary psychology. Our brains were groomed over 3.5b years to compel us toward things that increase the probability of passing on genes and steer us away from threats. Of course that was a very different environment than we have now. Things that worked well enough were hardwired and things that didn’t were combed away. There was no premium on accuracy so we are beset with delusions, illusions, and impulses, all nicely patched up with convenient rationalizations.
This hardwiring becomes a problem when the environment changes faster than the genes do. Simple example: once storing enough calories was a pretty big problem so craving fat and sugar was selected for. When fat was scarce, that helped. We still have the craving but now we put on dangerous weight. Offense triggers aggression? That worked for us once, now we get stupid road rage. Impulses are not always the best guide.
And while we get pleasure from satisfying our impulses it doesn’t last very long. Why should it? There’s no traction in satisfaction -- we have to reset quickly to be ready for the next impulse. Studies have shown that even after winning the lottery people soon go back to feeling a “normal” amount of happiness again.
Thoughts can inform emotions, that’s what cognitive behavioral psychology has shown us. But emotions, Wright says, are the real drivers of action and the prefrontal cortex, our "thinking" and most recent part of the brain, then rationalizes the action. This is not intuitiv. We feel as if “we” simply make decisions and act on them. Brain scan studies show the brain signals movement before the person herself know she's going to move her arm. On seeing a stranger the amygdala announces within 0.2 seconds “attractive=friend” or “stranger=danger” before our prefrontal cortex -- and our awareness -- registers “thing.” In a world of snakes, cougars, and warring tribes this reactive module was useful so evolution locked it in.
Wright then pointed out the next logical thing, and I was surprised that it hadn’t occurred to me: Emotions can be true or false. This goes against popular psychology but if the feeling of desire (groomed by evolution) says “eating this bag of chips is good for me” -- and it’s really not -- your desire is lying.
Now a little background in Buddhism, there are three truths to existence 1. Anicca, 2. Dukka, and 3. Anatta. Nothing is permanent, there is suffering, and there is no self. The last one probably requires a little explaining.
What are the fundamental qualities of self? Buddha started with the proposition that to be “self” it must have some consistency through time and it must be something that we control. Both of these concepts are implicit in the sentence “I did that.”
The Buddha said there are five aspects to our existence. 1. the physical body and its organs, 2. our basic feelings, 3. perceptions of things, likes vison and hearing, 4. mental formations like thoughts, habits, etc, and 5. consciousness which is the awareness of the other four. That’s a real simple summary but the question becomes which of these is something that is persistent through time and under our control -- the answer of course is none of them. Meditation helps you see that one by one.
Hence, no self.
So why do we have a “sense of self?” It’s good for the organism to look after its body, the discrete package that carries its genes. In fact the body is probably the most important thing, you want to wrap it up with a protective sense of self. If you don’t feel that there is something real special about what’s inside your skin you won’t have a reason to protect it. Good thing, too, if we’re going to live, right?
Of course that's impossible for a human to easily accept, but to get a taste of no-self try this. Meditate and focus on something that you'd normally consider part of you -- a thought, a desire, a pain ... When it becomes the object of your attention it seems to become something other than you.
The brain encourages use to recognize a special "self" which we fiercely protect. That makes evolutionary sense. Wright wonders whether self should be so discreetly bounded. In meditation he noticed that a pain in his foot sent a signal to his brain – “inside = me.” A bird chirping sends a signal to his brain – “outside = not me.” But, he wondered, in what sense is the cramp different from the song? They both are signals, both are processed and interpreted by the brain. Both can affect our outlook.
The Modular Theory of the Mind is pretty compelling, I thought. It goes something like this. The mind contains competing modules, each of which stimulates the organism toward taking some sort of action. The strongest module wins. Plenty of studies show how we can easily fabricate reasons for doing something when we actually had no reason whatsoever.
A quote shows a good example of how this can work: “A long-term module may generate a sense of guilt when you reach for that chocolate bar. It may also give you a feeling of pride when you resist the allure of chocolate. On the other side of the contest is the chocolate lust generated by the short-term module. But the short-term module may have subtler tactics as well. Is it, perhaps, the module that dredged up the memory of that article about the long-term benefits of antioxidants? It just thought the long-term module might find that article interesting?” (p 129)
This has a practical implication. Instead of trying to overcome a habit – say, smoking – by strengthening self-discipline, maybe try instead to weaken the module that has taken control. How do you do that? Simply by looking at it carefully, and that’s where mindful meditation comes in. Looking closely at the desire can turn it into an object of interest rather than a transparent impulse. Mindful observation, he says, keeps the module from getting its reward.
Wright uses the example of a rat which pushes a lever to get a reward. Keep the rat away from the lever and the rat will still associate the lever with reward; when you look away he'll push it again. On the other hand if you disconnect the lever from the reward, the rat will lose interest in the lever. In the mind, you need only to bring the lever into your awareness to disassociate the two. From my experience, this can work.
Wright also explores the “essence” of things. These are the adjectives we assign to objects -- that house is a “modest” house, or that person is a “nice” person. Everything meaningful in our awareness is an association we have assigned to it, he says, and again, this has evolved for practical reasons. Once you categorize something you don’t have to continually reassess it. Attaching essence to things is something we do all day. It's a shortcut we aren't even aware of.
We also have an “essence preservation mechanism.” If a friend does a bad thing we consider it unusual, just as when a “bad” person does a good thing. Still good. Still bad. Wright suggests that not seeing “essence” consists mainly of not feeling intensely toward things. “Dampening of feelings leads to clarity of vision,” he says (p 165) “… not making judgments’ ultimately means not letting your feelings make judgments for you.” (223)
The way to see this for yourself is through meditation, he says. It’s the practice of “fighting your creator: natural selection.”