Evan Thompson: Buddhism and the brain

Here is an interview with Thompson on Buddhism and the Brain. It starts with defining consciousness as awareness, its changing contents and how both then identify as a self in changing contexts. “Consciousness is something we live, not something we have.”

I also like using the metaphor of dance for the process of self. Both are in the enaction of the process, not a thing apart from that process.

He also goes into how mindfulness in our culture has turned into McMindfulness, how we might learn to pay attention non-judgmentally but then fail to  judge how the work we do might be harming others and the environment. It’s taken out of context with the entire Buddhist ethical framework.

There’s more in the interview with an embedded link to the full interview.

14 thoughts on “Evan Thompson: Buddhism and the brain

  1. I appreciate his insight about the inextricable link between consciousness and the body, “When you look for consciousness it never shows up apart from some context of the body. At the same time, the body always shows up in our field of awareness.”

    His following statement resonates, “Mindfulness is always an ethical notion.” He goes on to say “I’m very concerned with what I would call a decontextualized — or maybe the proper word would be recontextualized — consumerist notion of mindfulness, where mindfulness is about paying attention non-judgmentally in the present moment. That gets framed in terms of paying attention non-judgmentally in your little office cubicle so that you can take a mindfulness pause and get back to work for a corporation that is maybe contributing to global warming.” This implies being aware of conscience as part of the practice of mindfulness and using the practice to develop empathy beyond oneself. One would expect actions (personal life changes) to spring forth from mindfulness of human interdependence with the environment, animals as sentient beings rather than commodities, oppressed factions of human society, etc.

    A question I have regarding buddhist mindfulness, are practitioners encouraged to incorporate inquiry and challenge currently held beliefs as part of their practice?

    1. Traditionally they engage in vigorous debates between the different schools and factions, challenging each other and themselves. Having engaged in those debates I’ve found that more often than not everyone ends up defending their own dogma. But occasionally a few rare individuals break through. That’s one reason I like Thompson, being part of that tradition but also taking it to new heights using science and other domains. Stephen Batchelor is another one, although not so much from a scientific standpoint.

  2. One of my favorite Buddhist practitioner/scholars is Sonam Thakchoe. See his Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entries for the theory of two truths in Tibet and the theory of two truths in India. He has also written a book called The Two Truths Debate, available at b-ok.org. If you download it from that site, use the pdf download on the search page. Do not click on the title or it will re-direct you to another site. As always, scan any download before opening.


    1. This article clearly highlights a lively debate across philosophical schools of thought. The article also brings up numerous questions for me. Below are a few.

      In his Clearing Dhamchoe’s Doubts (Dam chos dogs sel), Mipham says that: “Reality as it is (de bzhin nyid) is established as ultimately real (bden par grub pa). Conventional entities are actually established as unreal, they are subject to deception. Being devoid of such characteristics ultimate is characterized as real, not unreal and not non-deceptive. If this [reality] does not exist,” in Mipham’s view, “than it would be impossible even for the noble beings (ārya / phags pa) to perceive reality. They would, instead, perceive objects that are unreal and deceptive. If that is the case, everyone would be ordinary beings. There would be no one who will attain liberation.”

      1) Who or are the noble beings? Do any exist present day? Referenced as exalted beings in other parts of the article.

      2) Who or what authoritative body determines one is or has transitioned into a noble being?

      3) How can one demonstrate that they are, in fact, a noble being? Are there predefined tests?

      4) Attain liberation from what? (life, the human condition, the duality of existence, physical death, emotions, injustices in life, hardship, sickness, lack of control over those that dominate without remorse).

      Mipham Rinpoche also is committed to the representationalist argument to ascend to nonduality: “In the end,” he says, “there are no external objects. It is evident that they appear due to the force of mental impressions … All texts that supposedly demonstrate the existence of external objects are provisional [descriptions of] their appearances.”(Mipham 1977: 159–60ff) Consequently whatever appears to exist externally, according to Nyingma, “is like a horse or an elephant appearing in a dream. When it is subjected to logical analysis, it finally boils down to the interdependent inner predispositions. And this is at the heart of Buddhist philosophy.” (Mipham 1977: 159–60ff )

      1) If I was walking on a narrow hiking path and a small rock fell and hit me in the head I would certainly question “there are no external objects” as the lump on my head began to swell. I’m sure many struggle with this philosophical theory when one’s five senses and cognitive perception strongly suggest otherwise.

      2) “there are no external objects. It is evident that they appear due to the force of mental impressions.” Mental impressions from whom or what? When and how do the mental impressions become physically manifest?

      3) Suggesting that whatever appears to exist externally, according to Nyingma, “is like a horse or an elephant appearing in a dream” implies that the cosmos is a veritable trickster toying with human perception. Why? What would be the point? The primary personality type that engages in similar perception management and deception is a psychopath.

      4) The dream comment above seems to suggest that life, existence is an illusion and only the noble beings are able to perceive this cosmological sleight of hand through “the perspective of the cognitive process that is thoroughly analytical (shing tu legs par dpyad pa) or meditative equipoise.” What is gained or achieved by perceiving this purported cosmological sleight of hand? Is that nirvana? Upon achieving nirvana one can relax into the fundamental realization of the cosmological magic trick? Which then suggests the magic trick is what is responsible for a host of human pathology including anxiety because non-noble beings are unable to see through the sleight of hand?

      5) “The cognitive process by means of which ultimate truth is realized must therefore be free from all cognitive limitations (sgribs pa), for it is disclosed to the awakened beings (sangs rgyas) in whose exalted cognitive processes appear the objects as they really are without being altered.” (Longchen, 1983: 204f) If these purported noble beings have this developed perceptual capability can they also bring into manifest their own force of mental impressions in real time? For example, a steering wheel was, first, someone’s thought (mental impression), then it was designed, engineered, and manufactured. If the noble beings understand this from the most elementary first step can they use their exalted cognitive processes to speed up the entire process or are they limited to perception only?

      I can’t help but entertain the notion that nirvana is a different packaging of the christian concept of heaven. Rather than waiting until physical death the strategy seems to be: focus on constructing a mental (psychological) heaven now. This thought prompted me to begin looking at the correlation between the effects of psychedelics and meditation. It didn’t take long to uncover TedX talks and articles that indicate both have strikingly similar effects on the brain. One article, below, describes an anecdotal story of Ram Dass giving his guru a massive dose of LSD which had little effect on the guru which suggests the gurus brain had already been conditioned through meditation to the similar effects of LSD.
      This conjures up some questions:
      1) are the meditative experiences perceived as cosmological insights actually hallucinations
      2) are the hallucinations from meditation and psychedelics actually cosmological insights
      3) how can either be tested and proven
      4) if #1 above is true how does it impact the buddhist philosophy of the two truths?


      The articles prompted a lot of thought and questions. Thanks for sharing.

      1. Great questions. For now I’ll only answer briefly that I agree with you on most of these points. And they mostly seemed directed at the Nyingma school (via Mipham), which is more in agreement with Gorampa’s side in the debate with Tsongkhapa. I have long argued on Tsongkhapa’s side against Gorampa and his ilk. Not that I agree with all of it, but it isn’t as likely to fall prey to the valid criticisms you figured out for Nyingma. We can talk more about it in person.

        PS: Thompson also strongly favors Tsongkhapa in this debate. He discusses this briefly in the linked video below, a talk he gave at CA Institute of Integral studies 5/1/14. The whole talk is about his book Waking, Being, Dreaming and it’s almost 2 hours long. Well worth the time if you have the interest. At 59:50 he talks of the difference between how Yogacara views the self versus the Madhyamaka view. Around 1:07:00 he says his view is more how Tsongkhapa interprets Chandrakirti. Granted all the referenced Tibetan schools identify as (Prasangika) Madhyamaka, but most of them are heavily influenced by Yogacara except for Tsongkhapa’s Gelug school. All very technical and convoluted.


        1. Excellent video. The self as a process resonates. Self being a process aligns well with consciousness being a process and awakening being a process. Summarizing one slide in the video, the enactive theory takes into account the self process enacting through social cognition, language, rooted in the life of the body and immersed in the environment. Enactivism takes into account the complexities influencing the process of self. Ignoring the complexities and reducing self down to the brain creates an illusion of self is a curious notion (neuroreductionism). It makes me wonder about the difference in peoples life experiences, home and social environments in the developmental years, personality type, values, and world views to have such radically different perspectives.

        2. The video below is Evan Thompson challenging an article in Scientific American that reduces mindfulness down to regions in the brain. He argues from the perspective of embodied cognitive science. During the Q&A someone asks what the Scientific American author’s response was when Evan questioned their article. Evidently Scientific American pressured them to present the data in a particular way.

          1. Wrong link above. The one above is George Lakoff on embodied cognition and language. The correct one is below.

          2. Weird. I pasted the link to a new tab and it was correct. I paste it to a comment and it is the George Lakoff link. Not sure how to remedy this one.

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