Science of Meditation Week 3 - Split Brain Experiments and the Idea of Self

My notes from a Coursera course on meditation, Buddhism, and modern psychology - Week 3.


  • No-self doctrine could not really be understood by intellectualizing it but really only experientially. But this lectures tries anyway.
  • If there was a self it would be have to do with: form (body), feelings, perception, mental formations(emotions, opinions), consciousness.
  • However there is impermanence in form/body and feelings for example. And also there is lack of control over form and feelings.
  • If there was a self, it would persist over time and it would be able to assert control. Therefore there is no self. A proof by contradiction :)
  • The above is the mainstream interpretation of Budda's second sermon.

So why does it matter if there is no self? How is that helpful?

  • "This is not mine. This I am not. This is not my self" for each of the 5 aggregates.
  • Another interpretation of the teaching is that it's not that there is no self but that the 5 aggregates (form, feeling, perception, mental formations, consciousness) are not self.
  • Or at least it is useful to think of it this way, it's a tool. Because then you become disenchanted by your feelings, opinions, etc. and you are less likely to cling to them. And the not clinging is good for ending suffering and unsatisfactoriness.
  • "It is not a thing to be talked about but to be done..." refering to non-self teaching. So experience it with meditation instead of thinking or talking about it.
  • Meditators report 'thoughts without a thinker', 'deeds without a doer'

What does modern psychology have to say about self?

  • What does a model of the mind look like without self?
  • Famous split brain patient experiments, where the corpus callosum (nerve fiber bundle that connects left and right side of the brain) was cut.
  • Learnings from the experiment is that information can enter our brain without 'us' being conscience of it and that information can cause us to act without our control. Moreover when asked what we're going or why, we make up and believe plausible stories that are not true.
  • Example: flashing the word 'walk' in the left visual field, the patient gets up and starts walking, when asked 'where are you going?', the left hemisphere (which is where language resides, but this side has not seen the word 'walk') says 'oh I am going to get some water'.
  • Right brain is about details, strictly physical truth. Left brain is about the gist, tells stories and even embellishments and buys into fabrications if they fit the narrative.
  • The experiments discussed in this lecture where super intriguing - did not write everything down.
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