While in grad school in the early 1990s, Chris Niebauer began to notice striking parallels between the latest discoveries in psychology, neuroscience, and the teachings of Buddhism, Taoism, and other schools of Eastern thought. When he presented his findings to a professor, his ideas were quickly dismissed as “pure coincidence, nothing more.”
Fast-forward 20 years later and Niebauer is a PhD and a tenured professor, and the Buddhist-neuroscience connection he found as a student is practically its own genre in the bookstore. But according to Niebauer, we are just beginning to understand the link between Eastern philosophy and the latest findings in psychology and neuroscience and what these assimilated ideas mean for the human experience.
In this groundbreaking book, Niebauer writes that the latest research in neuropsychology is now confirming a fundamental tenet of Buddhism, what is called Anatta, or the doctrine of “no self.” Niebauer writes that our sense of self, or what we commonly refer to as the ego, is an illusion created entirely by the left side of the brain. Niebauer is quick to point out that this doesn't mean that the self doesn't exist but rather that it does so in the same way that a mirage in the middle of the desert exists, as a thought rather than a thing. His conclusions have significant ramifications for much of modern psychological modalities, which he says are spending much of their time trying to fix something that isn’t there.
What makes this book unique is that Niebauer offers a series of exercises to allow the reader to experience this truth for him- or herself, as well as additional tools and practices to use after reading the book, all of which are designed to change the way we experience the worlda way that is based on being rather than thinking.
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About the Author
Visit him and learn more on his website: www.chrisniebauerphd.com
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Meet the Interpreter — An Accidental Discovery
The brain breathes mind like the lungs breathe air.
— Huston Smith
In the 1960s, Dr. Michael Gazzaniga was a part of a group that performed some of the most interesting and experimental brain surgeries in history. Not only did these experiments reveal how the left and right sides of the brain are responsible for different functions, they also inadvertently laid the groundwork for the idea that the self doesn't exist in the way that we think it does. Gazzaniga himself would be more blunt about the topic later, as he began his 1998 book The Left-Brain Interpreter, with a chapter titled "The Fictional Self."
His is a strong indictment of something we take for granted. Considering that the self might be fictional might feel like our distant ancestors first hearing that the Earth was not flat. Both claims seem to defy our very experience. But the idea that the self is fictional is not new — the Buddha said it over 2,500 years ago, and it can be found in the Tao Te Ching, the foundational text of Taoism, also written over two and a half millennia ago, as well as in the writings of certain schools of Hinduism, Advaita Vedanta being one of them.
Is it possible that neuroscience and psychology, through the work of Gazzaniga and others, have now unwittingly proven what these Eastern philosophical traditions stated centuries ago? As we endeavor to answer this question, I will provide you with exercises so that you can experience for yourself whether or not these findings are true. The good news is that — unlike for Gazzaniga's patients — no brain surgery will be required.
Before we move on, it is important to have a basic understanding of how the brain works and the revolutionary findings of Gazzaniga.
To begin, the most interesting aspect of the brain is also one of the most obvious: the brain has two mirror halves connected by a large set of fibers called the corpus callosum. In the 1960s, in research undertaken to try to mitigate severe epilepsy, these 800 million nerve fibers were severed, the central thesis being that seizure activity crossed from one side of the brain to the other over the corpus callosum, increasing the severity of seizures. Doctors Roger Sperry and Michael Gazzaniga believed that by cutting this bridge between the two sides of the brain, seizures would be easier to control. They were correct, and Sperry would win the Nobel Prize in 1981 for this work.
While each side of the brain specializes in certain types of tasks, both sides are usually in continuous communication. When this connection was disrupted, however, it became possible to study the job of each side of the brain in isolation. For example, until this connection was disrupted, scientists relied on either brain damage or indirect methods to test for differences between the left and right brain. However, with the sides disconnected in these epileptic patients, scientists could test each on its own and gain insight into the functional differences between the left and right sides of the brain. These patients were referred to as "split-brain" patients.
To understand this research, it is also important to know that the body is cross-wired: that is, all the input and output from the right half of the body crosses over and is processed by the left brain, and vice versa. This crossover is also true for vision, so that the left half of what we see goes to the right side of the brain, and vice versa. Again, this only became obvious in the split-brain patients. Research with these subjects led to one of the most important discoveries about the left side of the brain — one that has yet to be fully appreciated by modern psychology or the general public.
Gazzaniga determined that the left side of the brain created explanations and reasons to help make sense of what was going on. The left brain acted as an "interpreter" for reality. Furthermore, Gazzaniga found that this interpreter was often completely and totally wrong. This finding should have rocked the world, but most people haven't even heard of it. To gain a better understanding of how this split brain works, let's look at some of these studies and their findings in more detail.
The Classic Studies
In one of Gazzaniga's early studies, a split-brain patient had a picture of a chicken's foot presented to the left brain only, and a picture of a snow scene was shown to his right brain only. Then, the patient had several pictures shown to both sides of the brain simultaneously and was asked to pick which one was the most related to the original images they were shown. Each side of the brain performed perfectly; the right brain (using the left hand) pointed to a picture of a snow shovel, whereas the left brain (using the right hand) pointed to a picture of a chicken. Then things got more interesting.
The experimenter asked the patient a simple question: "Why is your left hand pointing to a snow shovel?" Keep in mind, when the experimenter was talking to the split-brain patient, he was talking only to the patient's left brain, since the left brain controls speech. The left brain should have said, "I haven't talked to the right brain in a long time, I don't know why it does what it does with that left hand," but it didn't. Without hesitation, the left brain said, "Oh, that's simple: the chicken foot goes with the chicken and you need a shovel to clean out the chicken coop." The patient stated this with absolute confidence. Here is what's most important about this: the talking left side of the brain easily came up with a plausible and coherent, but completely incorrect explanation based on the evidence it had available.
In another example, researchers presented the word walk to a patient's right brain only. The patient immediately responded to the request and stood up and started to leave the van in which the testing was taking place. When the patient's left brain (language side) was asked why he got up to walk, again the interpreter came up with a plausible but completely incorrect explanation: "I'm going into the house to get a Coke." In another exercise, the word laugh was presented to the right brain and the patient complied. When asked why she was laughing, her left brain responded by cracking a joke: "You guys come up and test us each month. What a way to make a living!" Remember, the correct answer here would have been, "I laughed because you asked me to."
Think about the significance of this for a moment. The left brain was simply making up interpretations, or stories, for events that were happening in a way that made sense to that side of the brain (a shovel is needed for a chicken coop) or as if it had directed the action (I got up because I needed a drink, or I laughed at my own joke). Neither of these explanations was true, but that was unimportant to the interpretive mind, which was convinced that its explanations were the correct ones.
Dr. V. S. Ramachandran, one of the most innovative neuroscientists of the twentieth century, shared a theory of the left brain that is very similar to Gazzaniga's. After conducting his own experiments, Ramachandran found that the left brain's role is one of beliefs and interpretation and that it had little regard for reality in making up its interpretations.
For instance, Ramachandran's experiments included subjects whose right brain was severely damaged — leaving the left side of the body paralyzed. With this level of damage to the right brain, the left brain is effectively running the show. When Ramachandran asked one affected subject if she could move her paralyzed left hand, she replied, "Yes. It's not paralyzed." Another one of Ramachandran's subjects claimed that her paralyzed left arm was actually stronger than her right and that she could lift a large table an inch and a half off the ground with it. Others used rationalization as an explanation for the paralysis. They would say things like "I don't want to move my arm, it hurts," or, "The medical students have been prodding me all day and I don't want to move it right now." As in the studies of Gazzaniga, the left brain was simply making up a story about reality without any regard for the truth.
Over the last forty years, several additional studies have shown that the left side of the brain excels at creating an explanation for what's going on, even if it isn't correct. The truth is that your left brain has been interpreting reality for you your whole life, and if you are like most people, you have never understood the full implications of this.
For example, in another classic study, people who think, perceive, and behave in ways considered normal were given a choice of a number of similar items and were asked which they liked the best. Most people are unaware that we have a right-side preference; that is, if you have a number of similar items in front of you, you will have a tendency to prefer the thing on the right. In this study, the researchers noted this tendency. However, when asked, "Why do you like that item?" no one said it was because of a preference for where it was placed. Again, the left brain created a fictitious but plausible theory, and the subjects would say things like, "I just like the color," or, "I just like the texture of that one."
Beyond that, when confronted with the reality — that a right-side preference is natural in most normal human brains — virtually all subjects denied it and disbelieved it. Some even implied that the experimenter was a "madman." Their brain could not handle the idea that they had chosen something not because of what their inner pilot self actually preferred, but due to an arbitrary criterion. This broke through the ego addiction's fog, and for most people this can be a jarring and uncomfortable experience.
A few more classic studies implicitly suggest that the self is not what it appears to be. Misattributed arousal is the idea that when our nervous system is stimulated or excited — when our blood pressure goes up and our heart beats faster — the left-brain interpreter will make up a story about the origin of this arousal, and often that story is completely wrong. In exactly the same way that the left brain of a split-brain subject creates a theory to explain reality ("you need a shovel for the chicken coop"), these studies have demonstrated that even people who still have intact communication between the two hemispheres create erroneous stories when it comes to unexplained arousal. That is to say that arousal and passion — among other intense emotions — can quickly overcome our ability to reason, leaving our left-brain interpreter free to make up a story that it believes is a solid fit.
In a now famous study, men were instructed to cross over a safe bridge or a scary one. The latter bridge was only 5 feet wide, 450 feet long, and it would sway and wobble in the wind over a steep drop to rocks and shallow rapids. As you can imagine, this second bridge was designed to cause rapid heartbeat and shortness of breath — namely, to simulate arousal. After the male subjects crossed the respective bridges, a female assistant asked them to fill out a questionnaire and make up a short story about a picture they were shown. Finally, the men then had an opportunity to ask the assistant for her phone number in order to call at a future time to "learn more about the experiment." Nine out of eighteen males who crossed the scary bridge called her back, compared to only two out of sixteen males on the less arousing, safer bridge. Their brains had told a story that connected their increased arousal to the female assistant.
You might ask how we know they were actually attracted to the female assistant. We know this because when the researchers analyzed the stories the men had written about the pictures, the scary bridge group's had more sexual themes. This suggests that the interpreter can be rather whimsical in its interpretations and is easily distracted.
Other researchers have explored this same phenomenon by having a female research assistant tell male subjects that they were going to have their balance tested. They were blindfolded and put in a dental chair that would lean back. A loud noise aligned with an "accidental" backward tilt of the chair likely stimulated the nervous systems in the subjects. After the tilting, and compared to control tests, male subjects found the female research assistant more attractive.
In a second study, the female research assistant was replaced with a male. After the arousing incident, male subjects disliked the male assistant more than in the control tests. These studies indicate that both attraction and dislike can be just another interpretation of the left brain, and the faster our hearts are beating and the more we are sweating, the more intense that interpretation.
A different pair of researchers asked people to rate the attractiveness of an individual by showing them a photograph — but they were only shown this photograph either before or after they rode a roller coaster. Attractiveness ratings were higher after the subject rode the roller coaster because the interpreter mistook the arousal of the ride as the arousal of attraction. This research has also helped reveal the intelligence and sophistication of the left-brain interpreter. The arousal effect was not present for those riding with a romantic partner! In other words, if you — or rather your left brain — is already in a relationship, no degree of caffeine or amusement park rides will result in finding a stranger more attractive.
In one of Gazzaniga's original studies of the split-brain patients, the experimenters presented the right brain with a video of a person being thrown into a fire. This very likely aroused the patient's nervous system and stimulated fear in the right brain, but the subject's left brain was clueless as to why and left searching for an explanation. She said, "I don't know why, but I feel kind of scared. I feel jumpy. I don't like this room, or maybe you are making me nervous." Later, to another researcher, her left brain said, "I know I like Dr. Gazzaniga, but right now I'm scared of him for some reason."
These studies strongly suggest that we live our lives under the direction of the interpreter, and for most of us the mind is a master we are not even aware of. We may become angry, offended, sexually aroused, happy, or fearful, and we do not question the authenticity of these thoughts and experiences. While it is clear that these experiences are happening to us, we somehow retain the idea that we are still in charge of it all.
Now I would invite you to think about the interpretive mechanism of your own mind in light of what I've just told you about these experiments. For instance, if something noticeable happens, say a person cuts you off in traffic, someone gets up and suddenly runs out of a room, or an attractive person looks at you a second longer than normal, you hear a voice in your head that creates an explanation of the event: "He is a jerk," "They must have forgotten something," or "He or she is interested in me." Notice that those are all interpretations; they may be true or they may not be. However, because many people are not conscious of the left-brain interpreter, they can't even consider that their thoughts are interpretations, but rather feel secure they are seeing things "as they really are."
I'm sure you can remember a time when you interpreted a situation — or even made a problem out of it — only to realize later you'd gotten it wrong. Think about the time you thought a friend was mad at you but found out later they weren't, or you were confident you were going to get that new job but no one ever called. Most of these instances are fairly insignificant and we quickly attribute them to "I made an assumption," but this explanation fails on two counts.
The first is that the interpretive mind is constantly making interpretations without a full account of the facts and it believes these interpretations to be true, much of the time without doubting its conclusion. When an interpretation is later revealed to be not true, the interpretive mind sometimes labels it a mistake, but based on the findings of these early experiments, it's safe to say that many of these interpreted mistakes go unrealized and we never know it. As with the split-brain patient who thought a snow shovel was to clean out a chicken coop or got up to get something to drink, these studies indicate that when actions or facts arise from someplace to which the left brain does not have access, the interpretive portion of our mind will simply explain them. Again, this explanation may have nothing to do with reality.
The second thing that is overlooked in the explanation "I made an assumption" is the presumption of "I." In these experiments, the "I" that makes an assumption is really just the interpretive portion of the mind. We have already seen that this "I" can be wrong about so many things in the "outside" world, so is it possible then that the "I" is even wrong about the interpretation of itself? This is what Gazzaniga is getting at when he talks about "Our Fictional Self."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "No Self No Problem"
Copyright © 2019 Chris Niebauer.
Excerpted by permission of Hierophant Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Chapter 1 Meet the Interpreter-An Accidental Discovery 1
Chapter 2 Language and Categories - The Tools of the Interpreting Mind 19
Chapter 3 Pattern Perception and the Missing Self 43
Chapter 4 The Basics of Right-Brain Consciousness 65
Chapter 5 Meaning and Understanding 87
Chapter 6 Right-Brain Intelligence-Intuition, Emotions, and Creativity 103
Chapter 7 What Is Consciousness? 125
Chapter 8 Finding the Real You 137
Notes and References 149