Critical Dharma for Thinking Minds
While one sense of self—self-grasping ignorance—is a troublemaker, stable and realistic self-confidence is necessary to accomplish the path.
– The Dalai Lama and Thubten Chodron, “The Self-Confidence of a Bodhisattva”
In the course of doing research on Cotard syndrome, a depersonalization disorder, I discovered an amazing fact: the “self” is neurologically hardwired into the brain. Cotard syndrome is a rare form of psychosis in which the person believes that they have no self, that they do not exist, that parts of their bodies are missing— e.g. that they do to have a brain or have no internal organs—in extremis, that they are dead. Cotard sufferers say that they have no thoughts, no mental images, no emotions. In addition to extreme depersonalization, Cotard sufferers can also suffer derealization, i.e. the view their world as unreal, “like a dream,” that nothing exists. They may not recognize family members as having any relationship to them. PET scans of Cotard patients show that:
The condition is associated with an hypo-metabolism [low energy] in the regions which seem to be responsible for the feeling of oneself, in particular in key parts of the so-called “default- mode networks” which is active when the subject is in a resting state (Buckner et al., 2008; Northoff and Panksepp, 2008). Charland-Verville et al. (2013) conclude that their data suggest Cotard’s delusion involves “a profound disturbance in brain regions responsible for “core consciousness” and our abiding sense of self.
Similarly, in the latest version of his account, Ramachandran (2012, 223) not only claims, in line with the classical accounts, that in the Cotard syndrome “all or most sensory pathways to the amygdala [memory, emotion] are totally severed.” He now adds that the syndrome also involves “a derangement of reciprocal connections between the mirror neurons and the frontal lobe system resulting in a loss of the sense of self”. He argues independently that mirror neurons are essential to the sense of the self. (Alexandre Billon, 2014, “Making sense of the Cotard syndrome: Insights from the study of depersonalisation.”)
Persons with Cotard syndrome lack any emotional response to themselves, to other people or the world around them, showing deficits in “neurophysiological mechanisms that involve in particular the limbic system [instinct, mood, emotions], and whose functioning can normally be witnessed by responses of the autonomic system.” (Alexandre Billon, 2014, “Making sense of the Cotard syndrome: Insights from the study of depersonalisation.”).
Cotard sufferers lack the capacity for subjectivity, a personal, subjective experience of themselves and the world:
The attenuation of subjectivity can also explain the dementalisation experiences. When the subjectivity recedes from some of their thoughts, the patients might feel as if there are “thoughts running through their brain [which] seem somehow foreign (Simeon and Abugel, 2006, 26)”. If the subjectivity recedes from their emotions, they might feel as if they had no emotions at all. When subjectivity recedes from all their mental states, the patients might feel as though they had no phenomenally conscious states at all. They might feel like mentally or phenomenally dead, and readily compare themselves to automatons (Janet, 1908, 515), machines or mechanical things (Sierra, 2009, 29), robot-like things (Simeon and Abugel, 2006, 24), zombies (Sierra, 2009, 51) or walking dead (Simeon and Abugel, 2006, 26).
In “Self is a Network Phenomenon”, neuro-psychologist Rick Hanson presents studies that show that “selfness” is indeed neurologically wired into the brain. Subjectivity, i.e. the localization of experience within a particular body-mind, is supported by brain functioning. “Self-related circuitry” is widely distributed all over the brain. It is a network phenomenon in which the brain indexes representations of “self” iacross multiple circuits and multiple loci of subjectivity to construct a coherent “self”. Self-related circuity lights up at different times, under different stimuli, and is highly dependent on many environmental and cultural factors. The theory is that “self” as a brain function evolved as a strategy for survival, especially in forming relationships with others.
So the contention by traditional Buddhism that “there is no self” is not scientifically accurate. “Selfness” is neurologically hardwired into the brain. It was probably an evolutionary feature that proved to be adaptive to human primates who live in social groups, and is probably responsible for our advanced forms of communication. It is in fact our mirror neurons that not only help create a self, but allow us to relate to other human beings and to feel empathy for ourselves and others. Linked as it is to core consciousness, “selfness” is connected to our capacity for conscious thought.
So there you have it, and I’m sure this is not the only evidence; there is probably tons more to be found in studies of neuroscience, developmental and abnormal psychology. As the Dalai Lama has so often said, where science contradicts buddhist dharma, we go with science.
From a scientific standpoint, the way to interpret the Buddhist concept of non-self is to understand that “self” is composed of integrated parts: from the neural networks of the core consciousness of the brain, the frontal lobes, consciousness, the amygdala, the limbic system, instinct, memory and feeling. “Selfness” or the construction and maintenance of a self, is a learned behaviour that is socially conditioned and varies from culture to culture. It is generated by the individual and conditioned by interactions with intimate others and social groups. Thus, a Buddhist account of the self that is scientifically accurate is that it consists in parts which are conditioned and constructed as interdependent experience with other human beings and the social environment.
Furthermore, contrary to Buddhist teaching, it appears doubtful that one can use meditation to disrupt or eliminate a sense of “self”, because it is in fact in the resting state of the brain that the neurological activity that constructs “self” is most active.
The interesting thing about Cotard syndrome is that Cotard sufferers are otherwise rational about other aspects of their experience. In other words, they are not delusional about everything, only about their sense of “no self” and “no real world.” Secondly, Cotard sufferers do experience the world through their senses, but they do not attribute those experiences to a “self”. It is not “I” or “me” that is experiencing this tree, that cup of coffee.
The study of Cotard syndrome shows that may not be an automatic connection between sensory experience and “self.” Between the sensory input though the five senses (eyes, ears, etc.) there is apparently an additional mental process that the brain must undergo in order to connect that sensory experience to the core consciousness of the “self”. It is possibly pre-conscious, an intermediate gap that must be bridged.
I think it’s interesting that Buddha, in his meditations, may have identified that gap and learned how to prolong that gap, to disrupt that connection of sensory perception to the “self”. This may be the nirvana of cessation that he was referring to. He often taught, “do not say ‘I, me, mine'”; that is, use negation of projection and possession (not negation of a “self”) to interrupt and prolong that gap between sensory input and the “self”. In my practice with this phenomenon, whenever I feel something that is uncomfortable or disturbing, I say to myself, “not I, not me, not mine” and the discomfort temporarily ceases.
The study of Cotard syndrome raises some serious questions for me as a Buddhist. There are some fascinating parallels between the extreme depersonalized states of Cotard suffers and the experiences of the Buddha. Here are some examples from Billion’s study:
As Cotard (1891, 345) put it, “Among some patients the negation is universal, nothing exists and they are not anything anymore” (cf. also Camuset’s patient quoted earlier who says that he isn’t anything anymore).
A patient of Janet’s, Lætitia, for example explains that she is dead and that she has disappeared even though her body is there, functioning: “When I reﬂect on my situation I cannot understand it at all. Either I am alive or I am not alive, but I cannot be dead as my heart beats, but I am not alive as my person has disappeared . . . I feel like not being someone and nevertheless I talk, am I stupid? I am a body without a soul. . . (Janet, 1928, 43)
In july 1874, I suddenly felt a change in the way of seeing things, everything seemed funny, strange, even though the shapes and colours were unchanged. Five years later, I felt that the disorder started to concern myself as well, I felt myself diminishing, disappearing: the only thing that remained of me was an empty body. Since then my personality has completely disappeared . . . not only do I fail to know what I am but I cannot become aware of what is called existence, reality (Ball (1882).
This leads to wonder whether if the Buddha was actually suffering from, prior to awakening, some form of Cotard syndrome, or some extreme form of depersonalization. Is it possible that he suffered from an extreme state of depersonalization that was induced by the extreme ascetic practices that he undertook as a sanyasa? Are some forms of religious experience actually self-induced states of depersonalization?
Could it have been induced by the Buddha’s extreme fasting practice? One of the interesting aspects of Cotard syndrome is that sufferers often do not eat. Having no sense that they are real, alive, or that they exist, or believing that they are missing internal organs, some sufferers do not see any point to eating and have actually starved themselves to death.
Perhaps what the Buddha “woke up” from was a delusional disorder. Perhaps some sort of depersonalization disorder was already manifesting in his decision to leave his family and undertake the extreme ascetic practices of the sanyasa at an atypically young age. Or perhaps it was a delusional disorder induced by the extreme ascetic practices of a sannyasa. Perhaps, nearly dead from extreme fasting, then having eaten, Buddha “woke up” and realized that these extreme ascetic practices did not liberate him from his delusions, and thereby devised “the middle way” between self-indulgence and extreme asceticism.
Perhaps what Buddha woke up from was his own madness. And the “Mara” that visited him throughout his life was not an evil spirit or temptor, but the spectre of his own madness that continued to haunt him, and which he had to resolutely refute any time that it appeared. Perhaps he had to resolutely refute any sort of extreme views that would trigger the depersonalization syndrome.
Interestingly, again, one aspect of Cotard syndrome is that sufferers do not view the sensory world as real (derealization) and do not connect sensory experiences with a self. Billion relates examples from his study:
[It is like] seeing life as if it were played like a film in a movie. But in that case where am I? Who is watching the film? (Simeon and Abugel, 2006, 15)
Every psychic manifestation, whether perception, bodily sensation, memory, idea, thought or feeling carries this particular aspect of ‘being mine’ of having an ‘I’ quality, of ‘personally belonging’, of it being one’s own doing. This has been termed personalisation. If these psychic manifestations occur with the awareness of not being mine . . . we term them phenomena of depersonalisation.
Billion discusses derealization as the inability to interpret the world as a subjective experience, as an inability to connect one’s physical and sensory experiences to a really-existing world, and therefore, as meaningful to oneself. This non-subjective experience of the world thus becomes unreal. “like a dream.”
I hypothesise that in the same way that the subjective character of the depersonalised patients’ experience is impaired, the present character and the actual character of their experiences might be impaired, giving rise to derealisation experiences.31 A substantial attenuation of the actual character of their experience could for example deprive the subjects of the impression that the world in which this experience occurs is actual and (hence) real. A substantial attenuation of the present character of their experience could similarly prevent them from feeling the moment at which this experience occurs as present. This last form of attenuation, it should be noted, could not only explain some aspect of the patients’ derealisation experience. It could also explain what we have called their detemporalisation experience. (Alexandre Billon, 2014, “Making sense of the Cotard syndrome: Insights from the study of depersonalisation.”).
So perhaps the Buddha’s mindfulness practice was actually a cure for his own depersonalization disorder—to connect his sensory experiences to the sense of being-in-the-world, to experiencing a world that is meaningful. What Buddha might have discovered in mindfulness was a method to cure, treat, or manage his own suffering from extreme depersonalization. From the Suttas: “when I walk, I notice that I am walking; when I eat, I notice that I am eating; when I breath, I notice that I am breathing, etc.” He found that by practicing mindfulness, focusing intently on each and every bodily and sensory experience in the present, he was able to reconnect his physical and sensory experiences to a meaningful experience of the world, even if that world was not at always experienced as mine.
A Buddhist practitioner who suffers from schizoaffective disorder also describes symptoms of extreme depersonalization, and describes how meditation practice helps him manage his symptoms:
In these moments I feel as though I’m viewing a movie that has me playing a role. I talk but I don’t feel like the words are my own but just a computer program that is simulating a conservation. It happens often when I’m in a new environment or with people that I feel uncomfortable around. I have also found that I don’t feel physical pain as much when I’m depersonalizing.
I liken it to an escape hatch when the symptoms of my disorder get to be too much to handle, when the hallucinations, delusions or paranoia get too strong. As well as when my anxiety and stress reach a certain level. Part of my condition is that I am almost always in a state of anxiety and stress so that from the outside it looks like it doesn’t take much to set me off but in reality its just one final trigger for my brain to handle so I slip out of my body and go on autopilot.
When I find myself outside looking in and feel it really interfering with my day or lasting longer than usual I have watered the seeds of good habit energy enough to feel some doer inside that body move for me to get on the meditation cushion. So when I start breathing and concentrate upon that I feel my body and mind return together in union. The breathing is like a gentle guide helping me return to the reality of oneness much like someone helping a person with dementia return to a place of security and peace. (James Ure, http://thebuddhistblog.blogspot.ca/2008/10/buddhism-sanity-and-depersonalization.html)
Perhaps what we have to “wake up” to is the reality of a constructed self in a tenuously existing world that often feels like a burden to this “self.” As a countermove to the extremes of depersonalization and derealization, i.e the total loss of self or an the experience of a meaningful world, Buddhist practice requires that the practitioner focus intently on each and every bodily and sensory experience, aka “mindfulness”, while also maintaining the gap in the connection of the experience with “me” or “mine.”
I can say one thing with certainty: we should be very careful how we teach others the dharma of ‘self/no self’ and “emptiness” and how we teach people to relate to the world around them. We should be careful that we are not teaching people to self-induce states of depersonalization and derealization through religious practices. We should consider that meditation practice is self-selective, that people with depersonalization traits are naturally attracted to Buddhism, and be aware that certain kinds of Buddhist teachings and practice could actually make their conditions worse and increase their suffering. We should adapt Buddhist dharma teaching and practice to help people overcome tendencies toward depersonalization. Instead, we should use mindfulness practice to help connect them to a richly meaningful world with meaningful relationships to other people.
Perhaps what we each have to “wake up” to is our own particular madness. For myself, my particular form of madness is the insanity of addiction and obsessive-compulsive disorder. I have learned to treat my addictive disorder with the 12 Steps, Buddhist meditation and mindfulness practices.