Buddhism and Evolutionary Psychology

I wrote the previous post as an assignment for Buddhism and Modern Psychology, an online class taught by Robert Wright of Princeton University. Although Wright currently has an appointment at Princeton as a professor of religion, I first encountered him decades ago when I read his book The Moral Animal: Why We Are, the Way We Are: The New Science of Evolutionary Psychology. This is one of a handful of books that changed the way I look at the world.

Wright was struck by the similarities between evolutionary psychology–the idea that natural selection formed our minds as well as our bodies–and some elements of Eastern religion. Although Buddha wasn’t aware of genetics or evolution, his analysis of the human mind matches nicely with a modern Darwinian view. Wright developed these ideas into the course I took and into his latest book Why Buddhism is True: The Science and Philosophy of Meditation and Enlightenment.

As the title implies, Wright focuses on meditation as way to break free of the illusions that natural selection implanted in our minds. He doesn’t mention psychedelics, but the parallels seem pretty obvious to me. I immediately thought of evolutionary psych when I read The entropic brain: a theory of conscious states informed by neuroimaging research with psychedelic drugs.

This paper by the British neuroscientist Robin Carhart-Harris suggests that the human brain fluctuates between orderly (“low entropy”) and disorderly (“high entropy”) states. When the brain veers too far into low entropy, the result may be obsessive introspection and repetitive thought patterns. This condition can lead to depression, PTSD, and many other ills.

The Buddha’s diagnosis of human suffering sounds a lot like our understanding of the entropic brain. The mind craves the stability and control of a persistent ego, which doesn’t exist, with the result of constant frustration. The stronger the craving, the deeper we dig ourselves into a hole of illusions, repetitive thoughts, and destructive behaviors.

Psychedelics disrupt repetitive mental patterns and push the brain into a chaotic, high entropy state. When the drugs wear off, the brain resets into a fresh state ready for new programming. Meditation can do the same thing.

This line of inquiry seems very productive to me. I’d welcome your comments.

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Scientific Buddhism?

The Buddha’s unique and brilliant innovation was a model of the human mind that anticipated modern evolutionary psychology by 2,500 years. Although evolutionary psych is new enough to make us leery of drawing conclusions, I’d say it offers strong scientific evidence to support Buddha’s theory of the mind.

Buddhist psychology goes back to his second lecture, delivered shortly after he became enlightened, on “non-self.” Buddha challenged his followers to look within and find anything resembling a self. He didn’t say “examine your minds” because he understood that the mind isn’t one thing but a collection of “aggregates” including thought, emotion, and perception.

One modern theory is that the mind, like the brain, evolved in pieces “designed” to solve specific tasks. These functional “modules” might focus on jobs like attracting a mate or avoiding rotten food. Although the modules aren’t identical to Buddha’s aggregates, they share his diagnosis of insubstantiality.

The modules operate largely in the subconscious. They come and go as needed. The rotten food module might bob up to the surface and get me to refuse a plate of week-old leftovers, and I may assume it’s my choice, but the heavy lifting was done by then. As Buddha correctly noted, the sense of personal control is an illusion.

Along with control, Buddha called out our sense of continuity as the other hallmark of self. I assume I’m the same person that I was in grade school. But where does this sense come from and is it reliable?

Experimental psychology suggests that our memories are not a firm foundation for a sense of self. We naively assume that recalling a memory is like pulling a photograph out of a filing cabinet. In fact, memories are constructed anew by the brain each time they’re recalled, and they get fuzzier and less accurate every time.

Perception isn’t any more reliable. We stubbornly claim that “I know what I saw with my own eyes,” but sensory experience is biased and inconsistent. The brain doesn’t register visual or audio experience until it matches sensory data with pre-existing associations. The results are highly variable—an object may appear as a garden hose one day and a snake the next. Our belief in ourselves as consistent, objective witnesses is another illusion.

We live inside these illusions of persistence and control and take them for granted. If we’re to be honest, we should take the next step and admit that we’re addicted to them—we crave a self that isn’t there.

The Buddha identified craving as the root of human suffering. As with the doctrine of non-self, I’d say that modern psychology confirms a Buddhist interpretation of the human predicament.

All the machinery of the self—the mental modules and blurry memories and unreliable senses—evolved in our early human ancestors for purposes of survival and reproduction. They served us well back on the plains of ancient Africa and we can’t complain too much because we’re still here.

However, evolution moves very slowly while culture and technology can move very quickly. Long out of primal Africa, we have the minds of Stone Age hunter/gatherers even though we live in a high-tech, urban civilization. We spend our days staring into computer screens with nervous systems on constant alert for the next attack by a sabretooth tiger.

One conclusion of evolutionary psych is that the human mind evolved largely for deception, both of others and ourselves. We’re more likely to run if we believe that a noise in the dark is a predator. We’re more likely to get a mate if we believe that we are attractive.

Our condition is not just endless dissatisfaction and unease, but entrapment in a cage of mental errors. Desperate for meaning, we interpret random events as conspiracies perpetrated by villains in the shadows. It seems so real because our minds are programmed to perceive it that way.

Religious Buddhism contains a cosmic deceiver in the form of Mara, the demon who tempted Buddha under the Bo tree. The Christian tradition has one in the person of Satan. In our sophisticated age, the devil may seem like a quaint superstition, but doesn’t natural selection play the same role? Since our minds deceive us at every turn, aren’t we doing everything that a real Satan would do?

When Buddha asked his followers to search within for a self, he challenged their common sense along with deep-rooted Indian religious doctrine. From our perspective thousands of years later, we see that he was rebelling against more than doctrine and common sense. He was rebelling against evolution by natural selection; that is, rebelling against nature itself.

That is still our task. Our desperate need for the control and persistence of an imaginary self can never be satisfied until the fires of illusion are extinguished in nirvana.

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Hopkins recruiting for study on psilocybin therapy for anorexia

Did you know that, of all the psychological disorders, anorexia is the one that’s most often fatal? It’s also the next frontier in psychedelic research. From the website of the Johns Hopkins Center for Psychedelic and Consciousness Research:

Researchers at Johns Hopkins University are seeking individuals ages 18 – 65 with anorexia nervosa to participate in a research study looking at the effects of psilocybin, a naturally occurring psychoactive substance found in certain species of mushrooms. The study will investigate psychological effects of psilocybin, including whether or not it can help with anorexia.

Phone: 410–550–2253 or
Email: HopkinsAnorexiaStudy@jhmi.edu

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International Forum on Consciousness

The theme of this year’s International Forum on Consciousness is “Psychedelic Therapy in Society: Exploring the Mechanisms of Action and Delivery of Care.”

“The latest research in psychedelic therapy suggests the potential for a transformation in how we approach treatment of depression, anxiety and certain forms of mental anguish. Early results show that a single dose in combination with preparation and follow-up could have an impact long after the substance has left the body. As research is taken into broader clinical trials, questions remain around what exactly happens that facilitates such a transformation. And, if it’s really this impactful, how will a treatment of this nature scale to meet the dramatic need in our world?”

The list of speakers includes Robin Carhart-Harris, the psychedelic researcher who pioneered the use of neuroimaging technology to study the brains of people tripping on psilocybin and LSD. His work significantly deepens our understanding of the psychedelic experience and human consciousness.

This conference will be one of the main events of the year for the psychedelic community. Tickets are available on the conference website.

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How to Change Your Mind

If you’re at all interested in psychedelics, you need to read Michael Pollan’s new book How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence.  This is a landmark book that will enlighten a lot of people and hasten the acceptance of psychedelic therapy in our culture.

It’s all here: the history, politics, science, and Pollan’s own psychedelic journeys. He’s an excellent writer with a gift for explaining difficult topics and finding the connections between hard science and everyday life.

There are tons of reviews out there. The New York Times has a good one. I also highly recommend Pollan’s interview on Fresh Air.

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Open letter

An open letter to people starting psychedelic therapy after legalization

by Geoff Gilpin

Hello and welcome. You made a difficult decision to embark on psychedelic therapy and I admire your courage. Most of the people who go through psychedelic therapy say that it’s one of the most important experiences in their lives. I’ve done it myself and I think you’ll be as happy as I was to discover the positive changes in your life.

You’re about to leave on an amazing journey. It’s so exciting to imagine the discoveries you’ll make. The best advice I can give you is to expect the unexpected. Every psychedelic trip has its own surprises, insights, and challenges. Be open to the experiences, let everything happen, and you’ll come through just fine.

It’s possible that you may have some difficulties on your way. Your guides will be there with you the whole time to make sure that you’re safe. Many people find that the difficult challenges are valuable because they help us become strong and flexible and resilient.

If you’re nervous about facing the unknown, you’re definitely not the first. Even veterans can feel the same way. For myself, I discovered that the things I feared most aren’t anywhere near as big as I thought they were. As a result, I feel more at home in the world and less afraid. If I did it, you can do it too.

I wish you a peaceful and loving journey. I’m looking forward to seeing you on the other side and hearing about your adventures. Thank you so much for joining us.

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