This is a book summary of No Self, No Problem: How Neuropsychology Is Catching Up to Buddhism by Chris Niebauer Ph.D. (Amazon):
As a bonus, I also read (and have included additional notes from) The No Self, No Problem Workbook: Exercises & Practices from Neuropsychology and Buddhism to Help You Lose Your Mind (Amazon):
Premium members have access to the more comprehensive and more organized companion post: 🔒 How to bridge Science & Spirituality with “No Self, No Problem” by Chris Niebauer (+ Infographic)
- All content in “quotation marks” is from the author (otherwise it’s minimally paraphrased).
- All content is organized into my own themes (not necessarily the author’s chapters).
- Emphasis has been added in bold for readability/skimmability.
Book Summary Contents:
- About the Book (& Workbook)
- Left Brain & Right Brain
- Language, Categorization, & Memory
- Illusory Self & Suffering
- Mindfulness & Moving Forward
Neuropsychology & Buddhism: No Self, No Problem by Chris Niebauer (Book Summary)
About the Book (& Workbook)
Chris Niebauer received his Ph.D. in cognitive neuropsychology in 1996 and says: “My interest in psychology and the inner workings of the mind began after the death of my father when I was twenty years old. The impact of this event was profound, and the deep suffering I experienced led me to study the mechanics of mind with the goal of helping myself and others. I believed that if there were a way into this mess, there had to be some way out, and I was set on finding it.”
- “This book will explore strong evidence suggesting that the concept of the self is simply a construct of the mind, rather than a physical thing located somewhere within the brain itself. Put another way, it is the process of thinking that creates the self, rather than there being a self having any independent existence separate from thought. The self is more like a verb than a noun. To take it a step further, the implication is that without thought, the self does not, in fact, exist. It’s as if contemporary neuroscience and psychology are just now catching up with what Buddhist, Taoist, and Advaita Vedanta Hinduism have been teaching for over 2,500 years.”
- “This book aims to unpack and explore the thinking mind and move toward our ultimate goal, which is to integrate everything we are (brain, body, emotions, and more) and live in the mystery and wonder of clear consciousness.”
- “Our goal here is to test the following truth: You are not the story in your head, but something much greater (even if you don’t know exactly what that is).”
- “My goal for this workbook is that it will serve as a tool to help you go beyond the veil of thought and reconnect you with the experience of what I like to call clear consciousness, or those moments when you are living entirely in the present moment, neither controlled by nor obsessed with the voice in your head.”
Left Brain & Right Brain
“While each side of the brain specializes in certain types of tasks, both sides are usually in continuous communication. When this connection was disrupted, however, it became possible to study the job of each side of the brain in isolation. For example, until this connection was disrupted, scientists relied on either brain damage or indirect methods to test for differences between the left and right brain. However, with the sides disconnected in these epileptic patients, scientists could test each on its own and gain insight into the functional differences between the left and right sides of the brain. These patients were referred to as ‘split-brain’ patients.”
Spotlight attention, language center, interpretation/stories, labels/categories, sequential/patterns, nonliving/mechanical.
- Spotlight attention: attention is focused and narrow; focuses on the local elements; narrow focus will shine a spotlight on the flaws and lose sight of the big picture; maintains a kind of spotlight of focus on one thing at a time, intense and narrow.
- Language: language is the pen with which the left brain draws maps of reality; includes the inner speech we use when we talk to ourselves.
- Interpretation/stories: constantly interprets the world and tells stories to explain it; endeavors to solve the problems it believes arise out of the stories it has created (most of the time, it uses language to create these stories); creates explanations/reasons to help make sense of what is going on.
- Often wrong: when actions or facts arise from someplace to which the left brain does not have access, the interpretive portion of our mind will simply explain them (this explanation may have nothing to do with reality); constantly making interpretations without a full account of the facts and it believes these interpretations to be true, much of the time without doubting its conclusion.
- Labels/categories: focuses on parts/objects in space, labels them, categorizes them, and tries to make sense out of them; dividing things into categories and making judgments that separate the world.
- Sequential/patterns: senses the world in series (one thing at a time); separating time into ‘before that’ or ‘after this’; thinks in terms of cause and effect; pattern recognition.
- Nonliving/mechanical: processes nonliving, mechanical things (e.g. cars, concrete, homes, dishes).
Global attention, big picture, present, spatial center, emotions/meaning, parallel, organic/living.
- Global attention: attention is broad and vigilant; gives attention to the whole scene and processes the world as a continuum; takes a more global approach to what it perceives.
- Big picture: keeps the big picture in focus and attends to a wider array of input; processes the global form that the elements create; ability to see and understand big-picture ideas; the whole.
- Present: focused on the immediacy of the present moment (doing and being in a way that is beyond thinking and language).
- Spatial: spatial center/processing.
- Emotions/meaning: experiencing emotions; finding meaning.
- Parallel: senses the world in parallel (all at once).
- Organic/living: processes the organic, living objects and aspects of our reality (e.g. plants, animals, faces, earth, ocean, sky, etc.).
Language, Categorization, & Memory
“Two of the primary tools the left-brain interpreter uses: language and categorization. Taking a closer look at these two favorite mechanisms of the left brain, we can see how these very tools turned inward are instrumental in the creation of a sense of self.”
“Given that language is controlled by the left brain, it’s no coincidence that it is the interpreter’s main form of expression.”
- “The root of the problem is that many of us do not see language as a representation of reality, but confuse it with reality itself.”
- “The left brain mistakes the map for the territory … The left brain becomes so dependent on language that it mistakes the map of reality for reality itself.”
- “When the mind mistakes the map for reality, the result is that we carry on blindly in a world of language-based stories created by the left-brain interpreter. Keeping in mind that the left brain creates stories it believes completely—often without regard to the truth—one could compare this to following an inaccurate map.”
- “Our association of our true self with the constant voice in our head is an instance of mistaking the map (the voice) for the territory (who we really are). This error is one of the biggest reasons the illusion of self is so difficult to see.”
- “The part of the brain that engages when we talk to others is the same part that activates when we talk to our-selves. This is a small part of the left brain called Broca’s area.”
“Another characteristic of the left brain is its constant propensity to create categories. In fact, almost everything the left brain does, from language to its perception of objects in space, is categorical in nature.”
- “Categories are just another type of map of reality. They are mental representations that don’t exist ‘out there’ in the world, but rather they are only in the human mind.”
- “When we first started to think is also the moment we began to trade reality for a thought about reality, a mental representation or abstraction of reality. Without abstraction, we wouldn’t be able to categorize.”
- “While the benefits of using categories are clear, in many ways these categories have worked so well that we’ve forgotten they are mental fictions. The categories have become our reality.”
- “Categories are created by taking something continuous and drawing the proverbial line in the sand to separate one into two. The placement of this line requires a judgment. Without judgment, categories could not exist. In fact, one could go so far as to say the next closest word for interpreter would be judge (but without the moral aspect of judgment). To interpret is to judge things, and there is no way around this.”
- “The left-brain interpreter also creates and sustains a collection of categorical thoughts based on judgments and groups them together as likes and dislikes, ideas of right and wrong, and mental models of how things are supposed to be. We collectively call these judgments our belief system.”
“Scientists have not been able to locate thoughts and memories in the brain. But they have discovered that different types of memories are processed in different areas in the brain.”
- “Your memory is only a story of a story of a story. In fact, none of your memories ever happened. The mind only stores what it thinks happened … We only store a highly modified and distorted version of reality—not reality.”
- “Whenever we recall a memory, we reconstruct it. When we remember or recollect, we are putting together a story of what we think happened, not witnessing or replaying what happened. So, none of our memories ever really happened in the first place.”
- “Our memories have been demonstrated to change and shift dramatically over time. The truth is that memories are really just more thoughts.”
- “Memory forms one of the most fundamental aspects of the creation of the fictitious self. Memory allows us to create a chain of events in our mind that are central to establishing the idea that ‘all of this happened to me.’ We can then replay these memories over and over and apply them to any situation. This serves us well in many ways—our existence would be unrecognizable without memory—but it also comes with some problematic consequences.”
- “The idea of a self depends on these types of memories, called autobiographical memories. They are about your story. When someone asks, ‘Who are you?’ the first thing we do is rely on these special types of thoughts. We call up all kinds of categories that make up ‘us.’ I am my name, my gender, my job, my age, my personality. These are all thoughts of what we think happened in the past and they define what we think of as a stable sense of identity of self.”
Illusory Self & Suffering
“The truth is that your left brain has been interpreting reality for you your whole life, and if you are like most people, you have never understood the full implications of this … We live our lives under the direction of the interpreter, and for most of us the mind is a master we are not even aware of. We may become angry, offended, sexually aroused, happy, or fearful, and we do not question the authenticity of these thoughts and experiences. While it is clear that these experiences are happening to us, we somehow retain the idea that we are still in charge of it all.”
“The great success story of neuroscience has been in mapping the brain. We can point to the language center, the face processing center, and the center for understanding the emotions of others. Practically every function of the mind has been mapped to the brain with one important exception: the self. While various neuroscientists have made the claim that the self resides in this or that neural location, there is no real agreement among the scientific community about where to find it—not even whether it might be in the left or the right side of the brain. Perhaps the reason we can’t find the self in the brain is because it isn’t there.”
- “The brain-powered individual, which is variously called the self, the ego, the mind, or ‘me,’ lies at the center of Western thought. In the worldview of the West, we herald the greatest thinkers as world-changers. But who is this? Let’s take a closer look at the thinker, or the ‘me,’ we all take for granted. This definition will be essential throughout our discussion. This ‘I’ is for most of us the first thing that pops into our minds when we think about who we are. The ‘I’ represents the idea of our individual self, the one that sits between the ears and behind the eyes and is ‘piloting’ the body.”
- “‘I’ is simply a useful, categorical fiction, expressed through language.”
- “Buddhism, Taoism, the Advaita Vedanta school of Hinduism, and other schools of Eastern thought have quite a different take on the self, the ego, or ‘me.’ They say that this idea of ‘me’ is a fiction, although a very convincing one. Buddhism has a word for this concept—anatta, which is often translated as ‘no self’—which is one of the most fundamental tenets of Buddhism, if not the most important.”
- “The self is more like a verb than a noun. It only exists when we think it does, because the process of thinking creates it.”
- “Like the fish that doesn’t perceive the water it’s swimming in, we are so deep within the mind that most of us never notice it.”
“By studying split brains, researchers have demonstrated the brain’s ability and inclination to make up a story that makes sense based on the available information. There’s no reason to think that the stories of the self, and the self’s preoccupation with sorrows, worries, and problems, are any more than plausible fictions based on incomplete information. Herein lies a powerful opportunity to change our relationship to this fictional self, and work with it to alleviate our suffering and lead happier, more fulfilling lives.”
- “All these (spiritual) traditions agree that when the self is revealed to be an illusion, it also shows how the problems the self created are illusions too. Put another way, much of our mental suffering is a fabrication, created and perpetuated by our thinking minds.”
- “I often wonder if our overidentification with the mind as reality is the main culprit here. Identify with the thinking mind and you are subject to all its mechanisms and preferences for the abstract over reality.”
- “While the thinking mind began as a useful tool in our evolutionary survival, it now acts as an obstacle, as nearly all of us live our lives confusing who we truly are with the interpreting voice in our heads. Furthermore, I believe that this misidentification causes virtually all the unhappiness, depression, and anxiety we ever experience.”
- “Mistaking the voice in our head for a thing and labeling it ‘me’ brings us into conflict with the neuropsychological evidence that shows there is no such thing. This mistake—this illusory sense of self—is the primary cause of our mental suffering. What’s more, I contend that it blocks access to the eternal, expansive thread of universal consciousness that is always available to us.”
- “Many of our problems result from an overactive mind, one where the left side of the brain is constantly perceiving and categorizing things into buckets of ‘good’ and ‘bad,’ ‘desirable’ and ‘dangerous.’ Because of this, the thinking mind will constantly seek out ways to make comparisons (the building block of categorization), and find problems as a result. Again, let’s resist the urge to label this process ‘bad’ in a left-brain way. This is just what the left brain does, which is only a problem when we are so identified with the left brain that we think it’s us. Then the problems the mind creates become ‘our problems,’ and a whole world of suffering and avoidance comes into being.”
Mindfulness & Moving Forward
“In order to understand and go beyond the thinking mind, we cannot use the thinking mind—at least not solely. At the same time, we can’t stop thinking, as much as we might like to. We can, however, open the door to a different kind of knowing, one that is far more experiential and grounded in the present moment.”
“You’ve probably heard of mindfulness, as it’s become quite popular, though in some ways it is a bit of a misnomer (a better word might be mindlessness).”
- “Let me be clear that one definition of mind is the left-brain thinking, processing system that I’ve been talking about, which is the one we want to see beyond. The other state is more aligned with the right brain, which I’ve called clear consciousness. This is the state that others often refer to as mindfulness.”
- “The mind believes that more mind is the answer to the problem of mind. Of course, the only problem with this is that the thinking mind is the problem.”
- “We have a thinking problem we are trying to think our way out of. This doesn’t work. The only way we can work on this ‘problem’ is by becoming aware of the thinking mind and becoming less identified with it.”
- “Consciousness isn’t a mystery to be solved but an experience to be had.”
- “We cannot think about consciousness. We cannot think about who we truly are.”
“Awareness, something that is integrally connected to the present moment, and therefore the right brain. Awareness can be described as the experience of the witness or the observer of what is happening now.”
- “You can become the observer of your attention, and notice how your attention is pushed in this direction and pulled in another. When you are the conscious witness to attention, you are no longer caught up in the mechanics of mind.”
- “Do not expect the mind to change simply because you are identifying less with it. You are not trying to change your mind! That’s not possible. You can, however, change your relationship to the thinking mind, and this is great news.”
- “Even though the left-brain interpreter is always on and cannot be turned off, once it is recognized—or that is to say, once we become aware of its constant interpretations—a new awareness of ourselves and the world begins. Instead of being so identified with the ‘me’ in our heads, we find ourselves noticing things like ‘that’s my left-brain interpreter telling stories.’ When the stories it creates don’t evoke as strong a mental or emotional reaction, our suffering lessens as a result.”
- “According to the teachings in Buddhism, Taoism, and certain schools of Hindu philosophy, our true essence lies far beyond the limitations of the thinking mind. Recent findings in neuroscience have finally caught up to these ancient ideas.”
- “Perhaps the next step in our evolutionary journey is to change our relationship with our own thinking mind for the better. We won’t shut the left-brained programming off, but we will learn to integrate it into the understanding of the right brain. By integrating the two, we return home to clear consciousness.”
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