Self, religion and homeostasis: A neurotheoretical exploration of early Buddhism

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This article presents a vertical integration of the cognitive neurosciences with classical studies of Buddhism. The purpose is to take advantage of the data which the ancient history of Buddhism provides for the assessment of recent findings that hint at a neuro-structural relationship between self, religion and homeostasis.

Growing research outcomes in the field of the cognitive neurosciences point to the functional and structural impact of cultural and value-driven behaviour on the brain (Gaser and Schlaug 2003a,b; Mechelli, Crinion, Noppeney, O’Doherty, Ashburner, Frackowiak and Price 2004; Wexler 2006; Daganski, Gaser, Kempermann, Kuhn, Winkler, Büchel and May 2006; Maguire, Nannery en Spiers 2006; Seligman and Kirmayer 2008; Corradi-Dell’Acqua, Ueno, Ogawa, Cheng, Rumiati en Iriki 2008; Iriki and Sakura 2008; Chiao and Blizinsky 2010; Iriki and Taoka 2012; Immordino-Yang, Yang and Damasio 2014; Bruner and Iriki 2016; Mesquita, Boiger and De Leersnyder 2016). Ramachandran therefore argues that sudden and qualitative transitional phases in humankind’s history are driven by culture rather than genetic mutations (2011:13). One such transitional phase seems to have taken place during the so-called Axial Age, a period during which intellectual traditions arose that, according to a substantial number of scientists, marked a significant revolution in the consciousness and self-awareness of humankind (Jaspers 1953; Schwartz 1975; Eisenstadt 1986; Armstrong 2006, 2009; Thomassen 2010; Bellah and Joas 2012).

Given the highly malleable relationship between the brain and its environment (Corradi-Dell’Acqua et al., 2008; Iriki and Sakura 2008; Iriki and Taoka 2012; Bruner and Iriki 2016), it is significant that these intellectual traditions originated in societies subjected to momentous social, political and economic changes (Armstrong 2006:xiii; Thomassen 2010). Although these traditions differed in many respects, Armstrong argues that they nevertheless all shared the conviction that human well-being depends on the ability to transcend the self and its interests.

The central role that this hypothesis accords to the self in both the well-being of humans and their religious behaviour is supported by the structural link researchers found between religious brain states and a sense of self (McNamara 2009:xi). It is also supported by the finding that neural processes that affect the sense of self play a key role in the emotional homeostasis of human beings (Dahl et al., 2015:515). Because the ultimate test for natural selection is to select for functions that will enable homeostasis (Damasio 2010), both these findings point to the possibility that McNamara (2009) is right to assume that evolution selected for religion because it somehow contributes to the maintenance or restoration of emotional homeostasis.

Over the past few decades research within the cognitive neurosciences has revealed a biological link between emotional and physical homeostasis. Social behaviour seems to be underpinned by the same motivational instincts as physical behaviour, namely to enhance chances of survival by maximising rewards and minimising threats (Foxall 2008; Holland en Gallagher 2004; Izuma, Saito en Sadato 2008). While the survival of the physical body is threatened by predators or a shortage of food and water, the survival of the self is threatened by societal realities. Research among both humans and other primate species demonstrates that the amygdala complex ‒ the brain's centre of anxiety and phobia ‒ responds to social rewards and threats in the same way as it would to physical rewards and threats (Baumeister and Leary 1995; Rock 2008; Griskevicius and Kenrick 2013). Rock (2008) identified five aspects of group life that play a pivotal role in social rewards and threats, namely status, certainty, autonomy, relatedness and fairness.

Because the satisfying of these needs has important implications for human health, quality of life and life expectancy (Sapolsky 2004, 2005), changes that affect it have serious consequences for emotional and thus biological homeostasis. Damasio and Damasio (2016) argue that the function of socio-cultural systems is to safeguard the homeostasis of a group by managing the social needs of its individual members. The emotional turmoil that ensued in the wake of the major socio-political changes that marked the Axial Age societies suggests, however, that humankind’s remarkable ability to change its environment at times overreaches the ability of existing systems to succeed in this task.

Early Buddhism ‒ one of the most influential intellectual traditions born from the Axial Age ‒ seems to be a proof in point. At the time of the Buddha a growing world trade had led to the rise of a new merchant class, the beginning of urbanisation, growing individualism and the inevitable demise of tribal life and cohesion. From a neuro-theoretical perspective it is reasonable to speculate that these changes jeopardised the traditional markers of status and autonomy and diluted the certainties and relatedness that tribal life warranted. New and aggressive trading practices displaced the practice of bartering based on a fairer exchange of goods. Because of its inbuilt rigidity the Vedic caste system failed to deal with the sudden fluidity of reality. Armstrong (2006) speculates that the by now well-established belief in the existence of an immortal, transmigrating self (atman) contributed to a growing conviction that life is not only wearisome, unjust and unbearable, but also trapped in an eternal cycle of birth and death (samsara).

The unbridled aggression and greed that characterised the times convinced many that the cause for all this suffering was action caused by the desires (tanha) of the selfThe dilemma, they realised, was that no society could exist "without desires and the actions that flow from these desires" (Armstrong 2002:37). Without a desire for the rewards society offers, the self will not be able to deal with the responsibilities group life requires from it; a particularly acute insight given the current insight into those instincts that drive social behaviour (Foxall 2008, Holland and Gallagher 2004, Izuma, Saito and Sadato 2008). In an effort to escape from this predicament many turned their backs on society in an ascetic quest for a way (dhamma) out of life’s quandaries (Armstrong 2006:232).

Their quest led to an intense debate on the true nature of the self and a host of doctrines on how to curb the desires that cause human suffering. Probably the most influential of these doctrines was that of Gotama the Buddha, whose unique contribution to the debate according to Nyanananda (1974) and Lamotte (1988) was his teaching on the dependent origination of the self. The self, the Buddha taught, is dependent on a "vortical interplay" between senses, sense objects, emotions and delusions. It is the "empty eye of a vortex" of emotions created by its insatiable desire for everything that may benefit it and its aversion to everything that may threaten it (Nyanananda 1974). The belief that “I am” exists provokes strong emotional experiences when this existence is at stake, so that its every fear and desire leads to a next round of rebirth and inevitable redeath. Thus the self – as the first of the Four Noble Truths states – is doomed to continuous "decay-and-death, sorrow ... suffering and despair". Nyanananda (1994) therefore argues that the Buddha did not limit samsara, the eternal circle of birth and death, to the beginning and the end of a life, but identified it as a characteristic of life as such.

Nirvana does not beget immortality, but an end to the agonising cycle of self-creation and -death by liberating the consciousness in this life from the “sickness” that is called the self (Ud3:10). It is not a space but a process that begins when someone “awakens” to the truth of the dependent origin of their self and it is realised once the mind is liberated from the desires, aversions and delusions that feed the illusion of the existence of this self (MN106; Nyanananda 2016a). And "(t)his, just this", the Buddha taught, "is the end of suffering" (Ud1:10)Success with realising it, though, requires the transcendence of the laws of nature; not in a supernatural way, but by reorganising the mind with right insight, right speech and right action (Nyanananda 2014) by following the Noble Eightfold Path and by practising yoga meditation.

The history of early Buddhism provides historical support for the structural relationship the cognitive neurosciences have identified between the self, religion and homeostasis. On their part cognitive neuroscientists have produced a host of findings that point to the benefits of the Buddhist-inspired techniques of meditation for emotional and physical homeostasis (Goleman and Davidson 2017). Integrated with one another, the classical studies of Buddhism and the neurosciences offer support for McNamara's (2009:53) speculation that religion plays a crucial role in emotional homeostasis. It also suggests that the homeostatic function of religion does not depend on ecstatic experiences, as McNamara argues, but more probably on the functional and structural impact of religious traditions' “actions, reactions, perceptions, postures, and positions” (Andreasen 2005:146) on a malleable brain.

However, similar assessments using other religious traditions are necessary to test the general validity of these inferences. In addition, the historical context of early Buddhism indicates that the homeostatic role of religion is ambiguous as it can seemingly both restore and threaten emotional homeostasis. Although this fact confirms rather than denies the probable connection between self, religion and homeostasis it also highlights the fact that current neuro-insights cannot yet satisfactorily explain this connection.

Keywords: behaviour; Buddhism; consciousness; homeostasis; mind; neuro-plasticity; religion; self; values; worldview

Lees die volledige artikel in Afrikaans: Self, religie en homeostase: ’n neuroteoretiese verkenning van die vroeë Boeddhisme

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