Posted on April 30th, 2023

Dr Channa Ratnatunga

I pen this article for those who seek the possible basis of Anatta from a scientific point of view. I’m leaving out ‘of the equation’, the ‘Soul theory’ of an unchanging entity of theistic religions, as it is not pertinent in the ‘dhamma of the Buddha, which refutes it.

Anatta is at the core of the dhamma, preached by the Buddha 2500 years ago. The belief in a ‘self’ is our everyday experience in life. One goes to sleep and gets up in the morning, as the same person with the same memories, within the same body. It needs some sound explanation, if we are expected to believe there is ‘no-self ’. I will try to prove in this short article, that the concept of ‘no-self’ i.e. anatta, is true.

Evolution of the Human Brain

How Your Reptilian Brain Controls YouThe self is a protective product of the brain. The problem with the belief in a ‘self ‘is that it tries to protect itself’.

Man is built biologically to survive and procreate. Hence such reflexes for survival are automatic to his brain’s inherent structure and psyche. It is reflected in the chronological stages of evolution of brains, of animal life-forms in nature. The evolutionary features of which (both structural and functional), we also carry in our brains.

Figure, of the human Brain cut sagittally in the middle

They are (as seen in the Figure of the human brain above), in chronological sequence, the Reptilian brain, the Paleo-mammalian brain (Limbic brain) encompassing it, and lastly, the latest, the neo-mammalian cortex of the brain. The former two are involved with instinctual reflex and emotional behaviour for survival, respectively, much like that found in evolutionary lowly animals and birds. The emotional brain, is evolved when birth begins to be from a womb rather than from an egg.  Because this entails living within a herd, it becomes a must, to ensure security of the mother, who has to be protected at all times to care for the progeny and ensure the survival of the genus (species-herd). The rules of the herd cause auto-regulation of the emotional brain by the neo-cortex. Much later, education or the fear of religious pronouncements like the five precepts will help mitigating the reflex emotional responses, of the emotional brain.

 The human brain carries within it, all three evolutionary brains with their inherent functions.

Neuroplasticity  and Creation of a ‘Self’.

The brain was once believed to be an unchanging entity. This myth was debunked several decades ago. The brain keeps adapting to the needs of the environment and the circumstance in which it is placed, to help the ‘being’, to   tenaciously survive. This takes place from about the age of 3-5 years, as a child. The ‘self’ is built over the growing years, i.e. the personality, it becomes unique to the ‘being’ based on its experience and education i.e. nurture. This process occurring in the brain is neuro-biologically termed neuroplasticity, and is goes on all the time in the network circuits of the brain. They are encoded into the very networks of the brain at a tissue level (i.e. neuronal network).

Brain networks

There are so far 8 networks that have been imaged based on their activity, by neuroscientists as up to now. Two dominant networks concerned with the mind, are the Default mode network (DMN) and the Central Executive Network (CEN).  The DMN deals with self-referenced thinking. Thinking of the past, events etc. and worrying about the future. In contrast CEN is used when thoughts are of the present, are task oriented and positive. Human beings are considered to be in the DMN, most of the time (in Rumination). Training to live in the present moment, by intense Mindful-meditation, helps to encourage the gradual withering away of neuro-plastic change that has occurred in the DM Network (placed in many interconnected foci in the brain) by disuse (synaptic pruning). Since DMN which enhanced ‘self- referenced thoughts’ its attrition is salutary. Persisting with Mindful meditation, secures by neuro-plasticity changes in the CEN, the task positive state and this then progresses to a trait, which permits the meditator to enter into the CEN the brain at will.

 Self; comes on only at 3-5 years, develops throughout life,  being located at multiple foci of the DMN,  its attrition by Mindful meditation and  its impermanence with its dissolution as brain tissue at death, are four valid arguments that there is no locus for a ‘Self’ in the brain and its lack of permanence. These  highlights the truth of Anatta. Then one can ask, what goes across with rebirth, it is Kammic energy, said the Buddha.

Anatta is a core concept in the dhamma and is backed by current neuroscience.

Buddha Dhamma and Neuroscience

The Buddha, in deep meditation, had it revealed unto himself the natural laws that apply to forces dealing with life-forms i.e. that of Kammic energy. That this Kamma is  a link in the law of causality (paticca sammuppada), whichleads to rebirth and a Sansaric existence.  The latter in turn leads to Dukkha.

 Atta or ‘self’, when provoked, responds   emotionally as it always underlies the mindset of an untrained being, with its predilection for thoughts, words and deeds on self-preservation and procreation. This is due to the human brain harbouring both the Reptilian and Emotional components. Thereby leading to instinctual responses of a ‘survival nature’, like clinging to self, i.e. Bava Tanha, it leads to other  Kammic acts such as anger, hatred, envy, jealousy and greed ( even altruistic acts are  motivated,  as seeking privilege and priority in the herd) with their kammic consequences.

Hence the realization of Anatta as being truein reality, and that the ‘self’ is simply neuro-plastically determined ‘construct (fabrication)’ to withstand the environment and the circumstances, for survival becomes clear. As all formations are impermanent (Anicca), in which this neuro-plastically developed construct       ( i.e. the ‘being’) too is placed in, is not a permanent, but an ephemeral entity in true reality.The Buddha dharma states that it’s only one’s acquired  Kammic energy seeks ‘vipaka’ and this results in the next lives.

 Awareness of the truth of Anatta,   mitigates Kammic acts and de-links paticca samuppada i.e. Sansaric progression, and dukkha  that follows. This is the Buddha legacy to humankind.

A more detailed exposition, will be presented in a book, ‘Buddhist Philosophy and Neuroscience’, I hope to publish in the very near future.

Dr Channa Ratnatunga

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