The Seat of Self and Consciousness in the Brain: A Buddhist Perspective

The Seat of Self and Consciousness in the Brain: A Buddhist Perspective


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In recent decades there have been major advances in scientific understanding of the human brain. To a large extent these advances have been driven by new neuroimaging technologies that have provided neuroscientists with increasingly refined images or maps of the brain. One specific arm of neuroscientific research has made use of these neuroimaging techniques in order to try to identify the neurological seat of the self or consciousness. Today’s post briefly highlights some of the key findings of this research and discusses them in relation to core Buddhist principles concerning the manner in which the self is believed to exist.

Neuroimaging studies exploring how and where the brain processes information concerning the self have identified associations between certain self-related cognitive processes and the activation of specific areas in the brain. For example, self-referential memories (i.e., memories concerning the self) are associated with increased activation of the medial prefrontal cortex. A further example is the role played by the left cerebral hemisphere in the regulation of self-recognition (i.e., an individual’s ability to recognize itself in, for example, a reflection or visual image).

The ability to distinguish between self and other is a key aspect of adaptive psychosocial functioning and it therefore makes logical sense that there exist areas within the brain that play a role in processing information concerning the “self”. However, despite the fact that neuroimaging studies have provided some valuable data in terms of brain areas that correspond to self-referential processes, the activation of such brain areas does not equate to the location of consciousness or the nucleus of an inherently existing self. Rather, neuron activation in these brain areas simply demonstrates that most individuals have a pronounced sense of self.

According to the Buddhist teachings, there is an ocean of difference between individuals having a sense of self and there actually being a self that inherently exists. Buddhism accepts that a sense of self is essential if society is to function effectively. For example, most elucidations of the practices of loving-kindness and compassion – two core aspects of the Buddhist teachings – are based on the assumption that there is both a giver (i.e., self) and a receiver (i.e., other). If the historical Buddha didn’t have a sense of self that allowed him to identify that his level of spiritual insight was in some way different than most of his followers, then it is reasonable to assume that he would not have felt the need to expound a path to overcome suffering and ignorance.

However, although beings at the stage of enlightenment have a sense of self (and understand fully that this sense of self is necessary if they are to effectively function in the world), they are also fully aware that the “self” is an illusion. The reason why Buddhism teaches that the self is an illusion relates to the principle of emptiness which asserts that beings (and all phenomena) exist only as interdependent and mentally designated constructs. For example, a flower manifests in dependence upon the water and air in the atmosphere, heat of the sun, seed from which it grew, nutrients in the soil, insects and animals that died and decomposed in order to produce those nutrients, and so forth. Consequently, the flower does not exist in isolation of all other phenomena and it is empty of an independent and inherently existing self. Thus, as we discussed in our Zen-style post on Dream or Reality, phenomena certainly appear to be real but the manner in which they are perceived does not actually equate to the manner in which they truly exist.

Enlightened and unenlightened beings both have a sense of self, but a key difference between these two types of being is that the latter is caught up in the belief that they inherently exist. As we discussed in our post on Deconstructing the Self, due to a firmly-embedded (yet scientifically and logically implausible) belief that the self is an inherent and independently existing entity, Buddhism asserts that afflictive mental states arise as a result of the imputed “self” incessantly craving after objects it considers to be attractive or harbouring aversion towards objects it considers to be unattractive. As part of our academic work we have termed this condition ontological addiction and have defined it as “the unwillingness to relinquish an erroneous and deep-rooted belief in an inherently existing ‘self’ or ‘I’ as well as the ‘impaired functionality’ that arises from such a belief”.

The idea that at the ultimate level there is no such thing as a self that intrinsically exists may be a difficult notion to digest. However, scientific experiments have recently been conducted that appear to add credence to the validity of emptiness. For example, a study published in the journal Nature in 2010 demonstrated that a minute metal blade of semi-conductor material can be made to simultaneously vibrate in two different energy states. This is the kinetic equivalent of matter being in two different places at the same time and it demonstrates that at the sub-atomic level, particles (and any property of self that they might possess) can never be absolutely located in time and space (i.e., they exist nowhere and everywhere at the same time).

Using neuroimaging techniques in order to explore where and how we regulate self-referential processes is important for advancing scientific understanding about the human brain. However, from the Buddhist perspective, consciousness and self are absent of intrinsic existence and they abide just as much within the brain as they do outside of it. Therefore, according to Buddhist theory, attempts by some scientists to identify the specific location of self or consciousness in the brain might be considered a somewhat futile endeavour.


Ven Edo Shonin & Ven William Van Gordon

Further Reading

Kelley, W.T., Macrae, C.N., Wyland, C., Caglar, S., Inati, S., & Heatherton, T.F. (2002). Finding the self? An event-related fMRI study. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 14, 785-794.

Heatherton, T. F., Macrae, C. N., & Kelley, W. M. (2004). What the social brain sciences can tell us about the self. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 13, 190-103.

O’Connell, A.D., Hofheinz, M., Ansmann, M., Bialczak, R.C., Lenander, M., Lucero, E. …. & Cleland, A.N. (2010). Quantum ground state and single-phonon control of a mechanical resonator. Nature, 464, 697-703.

Shonin, E., & Van Gordon, W. (2014). Dream or reality? Philosophy Now, 104, 54.

Shonin, E., & Van Gordon, W. (2014). Searching for the Present Moment. Mindfulness, 5, 105-107

Turk, D. J., Heatherton, T.F., Kelley, W.M., Funnell, M.G., Gazzaniga, M.S., & Macrae, C. N. (2002). Mike or me? Self-recognition in a split-brain patient. Nature Neuroscience, 5, 841–842.

Shonin, E., & Van Gordon, W. (2015). The lineage of mindfulness. Mindfulness, 6, 141-145.

Shonin, E., Van Gordon, W., & Griffiths, M. D. (2013). Meditation as medication: Are attitudes changing? British Journal of General Practice, 63, 654.

Van Gordon, W., Shonin, E., & Griffiths, M. (2015). Towards a second-generation of mindfulness-based interventions. Australia and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry, 49, 591-591.

Shonin, E., Van Gordon, W., Compare, A., Zangeneh, M., & Griffiths, M. D. (2015). Buddhist-derived loving-kindness and compassion meditation for the treatment of psychopathology: A systematic review. Mindfulness, 6, 1161-1180.

Shonin, E., & Van Gordon, W. (2013). Searching for the present moment, Mindfulness, 5, 105-107

La sede del Sé e della coscienza nel cervello: una prospettiva buddista


Negli ultimi decenni ci sono stati grandi progressi nella comprensione scientifica del cervello umano. Per la maggior parte questi progressi sono stati guidati dalle nuove tecnologie di neuroimaging che hanno fornito ai neuroscienziati immagini o mappe sempre più raffinate del cervello. Un ramo specifico della ricerca neuroscientifica ha fatto uso di queste tecniche di neuroimaging per cercare di identificare la sede neurologico del sé o della coscienza. Il post di oggi, in breve, mette in evidenza alcuni dei principali risultati di questa ricerca e li discute in relazione ai principi buddisti fondamentali, riguardante il modo in cui si crede che il sé esista.

Gli studi di neuroimaging, esplorando dove e come il cervello elabora le informazioni riguardanti il sé, hanno identificato associazioni tra determinati processi cognitivi sé-correlati e l’attivazione di specifiche aree del cervello. Ad esempio, le memorie autoreferenziali (cioè, i ricordi riguardanti il sé) sono associati a una maggiore attivazione della corteccia prefrontale mediale. Un altro esempio è il ruolo svolto dall’emisfero cerebrale sinistro nella regolazione dell’auto-riconoscimento (cioè, la capacità dell’individuo di riconoscersi, ad esempio, in una riflessione o immagine visiva).

La capacità di distinguere tra sé e l’altro è un aspetto fondamentale del funzionamento psicosociale adattivo e ha quindi senso logico che esistano aree all’interno del cervello che svolgono un ruolo nell’elaborazione delle informazioni concernenti il “sé”. Tuttavia, nonostante il fatto che gli studi di neuroimaging abbiano fornito alcuni dati importanti in termini di aree cerebrali che corrispondono a processi auto-referenziali, l’attivazione di tali aree cerebrali non equivale alla posizione di coscienza o al nucleo di un sé inerentemente esistente. Piuttosto, l’attivazione dei neuroni in queste aree del cervello dimostra semplicemente che la maggior parte degli individui ha un pronunciato senso di sé.

Secondo gli insegnamenti buddisti, c’è un oceano di differenza tra individui che hanno un senso di sé e il concetto di un sé inerentemente esistente. Il buddismo accetta che un senso del sé è essenziale se la società deve funzionare efficacemente. Ad esempio, la maggior parte delle delucidazioni delle pratiche di amorevole gentilezza e compassione – due aspetti fondamentali degli insegnamenti buddisti – si basano sul presupposto che c’è sia un donatore (cioè, il sé) sia un ricevitore (cioè, l’altro). Se il Buddha storico non avesse avuto un senso di sé che gli avesse permesso di identificare che il suo livello di intuizione spirituale era in qualche modo diverso dalla maggior parte dei suoi seguaci, è ragionevole supporre che non avrebbe sentito la necessità di esporre un percorso per superare la sofferenza e l’ignoranza.

Tuttavia, anche se gli esseri nella fase di illuminazione hanno un senso di sé (e comprendono appieno che questo senso di sé è necessario per poter funzionare efficacemente nel mondo), sono anche pienamente consapevoli che il “sé” è un’illusione. La ragione perché il buddismo insegna che il sé è un’illusione riguarda il principio del vuoto, che afferma che gli esseri (e tutti i fenomeni) esistono soltanto come costrutti che sono interdipendenti e mentalmente designati. Ad esempio, un fiore si manifesta nella dipendenza da acqua e aria, dall’atmosfera, dal calore del sole, dal seme da cui è cresciuto, dalle sostanze nutrienti nel terreno, dagli insetti e gli animali che morirono e si decomposero al fine di produrre tali sostanze nutritive e così via. Di conseguenza, il fiore non esiste isolato da tutti gli altri fenomeni, ed è privo di un sé indipendente e intrinsecamente esistente. Così, come abbiamo discusso nel nostro post di stile Zen il Sogno o la Realtà, I fenomeni certamente sembrano essere reali, ma il modo in cui sono percepiti in realtà non equivale al modo in cui esistono veramente.

Sia gli esseri illuminati sia quelli non illuminati hanno un senso del sé, ma una differenza fondamentale tra questi due tipi di essere è che questi ultimi sono presi dalla convinzione che essi esistono intrinsecamente. Come abbiamo discusso nel nostro post sulla decostruzione del sé, a causa di una convinzione saldamente incorporata (ma scientificamente e logicamente non plausibile) che il sé è un’entità inerente e indipendentemente esistente, il Buddismo afferma che gli stati mentali affliggenti nascono come conseguenza dell ‘”io” figurative, desiderando incessantemente degli oggetti che ritiene di essere attraenti o provando avversione verso gli oggetti che ritiene  essere poco attraenti. Nel nostro lavoro accademico abbiamo defenito questa condizione dipendenza ontologico, per precisare è “la mancanza di volontà di rinunciare a una credenza erronea e radicata in un ‘sé’ inerentemente esistente o ‘io’ e la ‘funzionalità ridotta’ che nasce da questa convinzione “.

L’idea che al livello ultimo non esiste una cosa come un sé che esiste intrinsecamente può essere un concetto difficile da digerire. Tuttavia, di recente sono stati condotti esperimenti scientifici che sembrano aggiungere credibilità alla validità del concetto del vuoto. Ad esempio, uno studio pubblicato sulla rivista Nature nel 2010 ha dimostrato che una lama di metallo molto piccola di materiale semi-conduttore può essere fatta vibrare contemporaneamente in due differenti stati di energia. Questo è l’equivalente cinetico della materia simultaneamente esistente in due posti diversi e dimostra che a livello sub-atomico, le particelle (e qualsiasi proprietà di sé che essi potrebbero possedere) non possono mai essere localizzato nello spazio o nel tempo (cioè, esistono da nessuna parte e ovunque nello stesso momento).

Utilizzare le tecniche di neuroimaging per esplorare dove e come si regolano processi autoreferenziali è importante per far progredire la comprensione scientifica del cervello umano. Tuttavia, dal punto di vista buddista, la coscienza e il sé sono assenti di esistenza intrinseca ed è altrettanto corretto affermare che risiedono sia all’interno del cervello che fuori del cervello. Pertanto, secondo la teoria buddista, i tentativi da parte di alcuni scienziati di identificare la posizione specifica di sé o della coscienza nel cervello potrebbe essere considerato un tentativo un po’ inutile.


Ven Edo Shonin & Ven William Van Gordon

Ulteriore lettura

Kelley, W.T., Macrae, C.N., Wyland, C., Caglar, S., Inati, S., & Heatherton, T.F. (2002). Finding the self? An event-related fMRI study. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 14, 785-794.

Heatherton, T. F., Macrae, C. N., & Kelley, W. M. (2004). What the social brain sciences can tell us about the self. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 13, 190-103.

O’Connell, A.D., Hofheinz, M., Ansmann, M., Bialczak, R.C., Lenander, M., Lucero, E. …. & Cleland, A.N. (2010). Quantum ground state and single-phonon control of a mechanical resonator. Nature, 464, 697-703.

Shonin, E., & Van Gordon, W. (2014). Dream or reality? Philosophy Now, 104, 54.

Shonin, E., & Van Gordon, W. (2014). Searching for the Present Moment. Mindfulness, 5, 105-107

Turk, D. J., Heatherton, T.F., Kelley, W.M., Funnell, M.G., Gazzaniga, M.S., & Macrae, C. N. (2002). Mike or me? Self-recognition in a split-brain patient. Nature Neuroscience, 5, 841–842.

Can a Buddha become Angry?

Can a Buddha become Angry?


      Given that Buddhahood is frequently described as a state of limitless compassion that is completely free of negative and afflictive emotions, it might seem strange that we have decided to write a post addressing the question of whether it is possible for a Buddha to become angry. However, believe it or not, the answer to this question is not a straightforward ‘no’. In today’s post, we begin by exploring some Buddhist and psychological perspectives on anger and then provide our view on the above question.

Within Buddhism, in addition to attachment and ignorance, anger is known as one of the three root poisons (Sanskrit: trivisa). Anger can be thought of as a form of aversion towards another person, situation, or even ourselves. Because we see, hear, smell, taste, or touch something that we don’t like or that we perceive as a threat to our wellbeing or sense of self, we quickly want to remove or destroy it so that things return to normal. Basically, anger manifests because we are trying to keep things orderly and under control – people or situations that threaten to disturb or interfere with the world that we have created for ourselves make us feel angry and afraid.

Although in the Buddhist teachings anger is often described as a form of aversion, it can actually also be thought of as a form of attachment. Indeed, the reason we have aversion towards a particular situation is because we have allowed ourselves to become attached to what we deem to represent the ‘opposite’ of that situation. For example, imagine that for some time everything was cushy at work and things were going really well with the career. But then along comes a work colleague who makes us angry and who starts to create problems – it seems that they deliberately go out of their way to cause us trouble. However, if we stop and think about it, the anger and aversion that we experience arises because we have become attached to the idea of everything being cushy and comfortable at work – the perfect environment where we will always be recognised and rewarded for our efforts and where we can swiftly move up the career ladder.

If we didn’t harbour attachments or have unrealistic ideas in the first place, then we wouldn’t become so angry when our plans and ideas are disrupted. Buddhism asserts that a person’s propensity for anger is closely associated with how much attachment they harbour. A person that becomes very attached to their possessions – which in some people’s minds can also include family members, partners, and friends – is likely to be quick to anger. In a paper that we recently published in the American Psychological Association journal Psychology of Religion and Spirituality, we defined the Buddhist notion of attachment as “the over-allocation of cognitive and emotional resources towards a particular object, construct, or idea to the extent that the object is assigned an attractive quality that is unrealistic and that exceeds its intrinsic worth”. As demonstrated by our definition, attachment takes on a very different meaning in Buddhism compared to its use in Western psychology where attachment (e.g., in the context of relationships) is generally considered to exert a protective influence over mental health problems.

In the same way that the Buddhist root poisons of attachment and anger (or aversion) are closely related to each other, they are also both closely related to the other root poison that we mentioned – ignorance. Ignorance is described as one of the three root poisons, but it is actually the primary cause of each of the other poisons and of suffering more generally. Ignorance in the context that we are discussing it here refers to the extent to which a person views themselves as an independently or inherently-existing entity. The more a person is caught up in themselves and thinks that they possess a definite self, the more ignorant they become – and the larger their ego inflates itself. Thus, aversion or anger is a direct result of attachment, and attachment is a direct result of ignorance or ego.

When a person becomes angry, it basically means that the ego-monkey that we talked about in our last post has decided to raise its head. Although ego underpins all of our emotions and behaviours, this is particularly the case when anger is ravaging the mind. In fact, you only have to look at an angry person and it is as though their ego is trying to burst through their skin. We touched on this in our post on the Top Five Beauty Tips for Men and Women where we made reference to research demonstrating that anger is associated with physiological responses such as contraction of the brow muscles, facial flushing (i.e., turning red), flared nostrils, clenched jaws, increased perspiration, increased heart rate, and general tension in the skeletal musculature of the facial and neck regions.

Anger has a tendency to overrun the mind and body and it is generally accepted by Western psychologists that anger can distort a person’s perspective of a situation and reduce their ability to make wise decisions. As we discussed in a paper that we published in the psychology journal Aggression and Violent Behaviour, in addition to causing people to say and do unpleasant things, anger can also cause people to behave irrationally. For example, a few years ago we were guiding a meditation retreat in the Snowdonia Mountains of North Wales where one of the participants was a middle-aged lady who was very angry because she couldn’t get her mind to relax. Part way through one of the meditations, it became apparent that one of the male participants in the group was a ‘breather’. ‘Breathers’ are those people that breathe really deeply and loudly during meditation so that everybody else can hear them and so that everybody knows they are ‘serious’ about their practice. Anyway, about half way through this particular meditation session, it just became too much for the lady who broke her silence and in an angry voice suddenly shouted out ‘stop breathing’!

The point we have been trying to make above is that anger is a major obstacle to happiness and spiritual development. It is a sign that a person’s ego is very much in tact – which from the point of view of the meditation or spiritual practitioner – means that there is still a tremendous amount of work to do. As a general rule, the smaller the degree to which a spiritual practitioner’s thoughts, words, or actions are influenced by ego (and therefore anger), the closer they are to attaining Buddhahood. However, whilst this general rule applies for practically all stages of the spiritual practitioner’s journey, it no longer applies when they have awoken to full Buddhahood.

For a fully enlightened Buddha, the moment a thought or feeling arises in their mind, it is immediately liberated. The Buddhas perceive clearly that all phenomena – including those of a psychological nature – are absent of an intrinsically—existing self. They see that everything that manifests has no more substance than a mental projection or a dream. As it says in the heart sutra, the Buddhas understand that form (i.e., phenomena) is emptiness and emptiness is form. The Buddhas are not bound by concepts such as self and other, past and future (i.e., time), or here and there (i.e., space). Consequently, their mind is unlimited – it is free of any form of attachment or aversion.

This ability of Buddhas to never become attached to physical or mental objects means that they are free to manifest whatever feelings might be most skilful and compassionate within a given situation. In effect, the Buddhas have uprooted the causes of negative emotions to such an extent, that they are now free to use so-called ‘negative emotions’ as they see fit. Ultimately, the Buddhas are 100% focussed on liberating other beings from suffering. They are overflowing with unconditional kindness, compassion, and patience, but if it is a blast of anger that is required to jolt a person to start truly practicing spiritual development, then it will be duly administered. This is very different than pretending to be angry (e.g., as a parent might do) in order to communicate feelings of disapproval towards another person. The type of anger that we are referring to here is very real – it is primordial anger but there is absolutely no ego mixed in with it. Due to the rawness of this anger and the fact that it is not tainted by ego, it enters deeply and directly into the recipient’s mind and gives them a clear choice in terms of embracing or rejecting the Dharma (truth/teachings).

There are quite a number of examples of enlightened beings using this primordial anger to benefit others. Probably the best known example amongst Westerners is that of Jesus Christ when he over-turned the tables and started throwing the traders out of the temple. Buddhist practitioners might have heard about the 11th century Tibetan spiritual adept Marpa who would even administer a physical beating where he felt it would be of some long-term benefit. Another reasonably well-known and much more recent example is Lama Yeshe who died in 1984 – there are reports that he once got hold of a pick-pocket (i.e., a thief) and gave them a right good shaking in order to make them see sense. There are also examples of Zen teachers becoming angry with their students and in some cases this actually prompted an intuitive leap or a sudden flash of realisation.

For the everyday meditation practitioner such as you and us, anger can make it almost impossible to stabilise the mind and it can significantly disrupt a persons’ spiritual progress. Consequently, every effort should be made to practice patience and kindness and to never act out of anger. However, for the fully enlightened Buddhas, although their very being overflows with joy, wisdom, and compassion, it does seem that they can and do use primordial anger as a very skilful and effective means of teaching. This is quite a dangerous subject to write about because some meditation practitioners or teachers could misinterpret what we are saying and start believing that it is acceptable to be angry. However, given that there are reports of Buddhas exhibiting anger, then it seems appropriate to offer an explanation as to why this might be. Another reason for writing this post is because in the event you are one of those handful of people fortunate enough to meet a fully-enlightened teacher – you’ll be less likely to become all haughty and self-righteous if they decide to give you verbal kick-up the backside!

Ven. Edo Shonin & Ven. William Van Gordon

Further Reading

Dalai Lama. (2001). Stages of Meditation: Training the Mind for Wisdom. London: Rider.

Day, A. (2009). Offender emotion and self-regulation: Implications for offender rehabilitation programming. Psychology, Crime and Law, 15, 119-130.

Huang Po. (1982). The Zen teaching of Huang Po: On the transmission of the mind. (Blofeld, J., Trans.) New York: Grove Press.

Novaco, R. W. (2007). Anger Dysregulation. In T. A. Cavell, & K. T. Malcolm (Eds.), Anger, Aggression, and Interventions for Interpersonal Violence (pp. 3-54). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

Shonin, E., Van Gordon W., & Griffiths, M. D. (2014). The emerging role of Buddhism in clinical psychology: Toward effective integration. Psychology of Religion and Spirituality, 6, 123-137.

Shonin, E., Van Gordon, W., & Griffiths, M. D. (2014). Mindfulness meditation in American correctional facilities: A ‘what-works’ approach to reducing reoffending.Corrections Today: Journal of the American Correctional Association, March/April, 48-51.

Shonin, E., Van Gordon W., Slade, K., & Griffiths, M. D. (2013). Mindfulness and other Buddhist-derived interventions in correctional settings: A systematic review. Aggression and Violent Behavior, 18, 365-372.

Wright, S., Day, A., & Howells, K. (2009). Mindfulness and the treatment of anger problems. Aggression and Violent Behaviour, 14, 396-401.