The Mind & Life Institute: Celebrating 35 Years
Insights Journey into the heart of contemplative science
Journey into the heart of contemplative science

The Nature of Self Perspectives from Buddhism and cognitive science. A conversation with Anne Klein and Anil Seth

Illustration from Sirin Thada depicts four figures in a composite form, suggesting a more interconnected view of our sense of self.

Four human figures hold hands, composed of many cut out circles that blend into more circles, symbolizing the interconnected nature of self. We invite readers to explore your own interpretation. Artist: Sirin Thada

One of the most fundamental ways that we can be changed by contemplative practice relates to our sense of self. Both the Buddhist tradition and modern cognitive science have converged on core ideas suggesting that our everyday sense of existing separately from the world around us, and consistently over time, is mistaken. And realizing the interconnected, dynamic, and context-dependent nature of the self is a key insight to reduce suffering.

Mind & Life’s Science Director, Wendy Hasenkamp, spoke with experts from these two traditions to learn more about how they approach this important concept, and implications for expanding our view of self. Rather than summarize their points, we wanted to share their conversation directly with readers, in the spirit of dialogue across traditions that’s been core to Mind & Life since the beginning. (Note: This conversation has been edited for clarity, with the approval of all participants.)

Wendy Hasenkamp: Let’s start from the Buddhist side. Anne, from your perspective and the lineage that you’ve studied, can you speak to the normal, everyday experience of self, and why we experience it that way? And, as I imagine we’ll also get into, why our everyday sense of self is mistaken?

Anne C. Klein: Sure. And I should say, to start, there’s no such thing as “Buddhism.” It’s Buddhist traditions, plural. I am coming mainly from the Indian and Tibetan traditions, which are closely related. So, what does the self look like from these Buddhist traditions? What it looks like, and what it feels like is something sustained, something continuing.

I think there are actually two things going on. There’s, “I’ll see you tomorrow.” And if we look behind that, there’s a sense that I’m going to be here tomorrow, and it’s going to be the same me and it’s going to be the same you, and the same room, and all of that. So there’s definitely an abundance (an overabundance from the Buddhist perspective) of an idea of continuity and permanence. Certainly, we’re aware of change, but it’s accompanied by a sense that the same self is experiencing different things, which is quite different from the self itself, as it were, being continually renewed, reconstructed, and so forth. So, there are palpitations of permanence, which Buddhism immediately points out as “wrong view.” It’s mistaken. The sense of solidity, and that the self is somehow a unitary thing, is wrong.

And it’s also a pretty stable impression, until one looks into it. The mind that analyzes will pretty quickly discover that it can’t really lay a hand, so to speak, on the self. And that is the perspective that the Buddhist traditions encourage. The kind of analysis that neuroscience is doing—looking very granularly at things, brain activity, et cetera, the various neurological and bodily events that give rise to a sense of self—that’s an explanation that is useful on all sides, east and west. But what Buddhist traditions are interested in is how that sense of self is mistaken.

So we have assumptions, the generally untended, unconscious assumptions that we make about me. “I am.” What the Buddhist traditions are interested in is identifying very carefully what we think and what we feel, because both help us identify the mistake that we’re making. To understand really what we are, we first have to unmask what we think we are. And then we have to look into that more closely to discover what we really are, because what we think we are doesn’t actually serve us. We don’t recognize the totally interdependent nature of ourselves.

To some degree, we can and do realize interdependence, and science certainly does. One thing that strikes me is that science seems to be looking at things and pulling them apart, and noting the constructed nature of experience in a way that’s very much in alignment with Buddhism. But I can’t quite tell—I’ll just put this out there for you, Anil—how much scientists are taking this in the direction of the contemplative. Which is to say, developing techniques so that we can experience the self in the actual, constructed, interdependent way it actually exists.

And why do we think that way about the self? Well, the Buddhists say we think that way because that’s how things look to us. And the senses are actually set up for failure, as far as a direct perception goes, about a lot of things. There is a very important category in the Buddhist traditions of valid perception, correct perception. It does exist, particularly in the sutra systems—inference, inferential cognition based on reasoning, that’s a valid perception. There’s smoke, which means there’s fire, et cetera. It’s a valid perception.

For Buddhists, direct perception is valid because it reflects the precise details of everything that appears to it. Sensory perception is very important. It doesn’t have the mistake of conceptual thought, which is always mistaken—even if it’s right! It’s always mistaken because in the inner world of the thinker, the thing that you’re thinking about, the image you have, at some level seems to be the real thing. You don’t feel that a tree is in your head exactly… you feel like you’re really thinking about a real tree. And for the early Buddhist systems, that’s wrong. Thought is wrong in that respect, direct perception is not.

In the Mahayana, or Great Way traditions, direct perception is mistaken in a way, too. It’s mistaken because it always looks like there’s something “over there.” The here and there problem. The self and other, the in and out, the me and you problem. These are problems that Buddhism is very interested in solving. From the Buddhist perspective, this issue is the root of desire and hatred, which is the root of all suffering—the failure to recognize the wholeness of our experience, which includes the world that seems to be external.

Wendy Hasenkamp: Thank you so much, Anne. Anil, I’m sure you have lots of thoughts from the cognitive science perspective.

Anil Seth: I do. That was a wonderful introduction and summary, and there’s definitely a lot to talk about there. My own disclaimer is I’m not here to represent a single universal consensus view from cognitive science—there’s a lot of disagreement and I am ignorant of a lot of things that are said in these fields about the self. So, I’m only speaking from what I know.

Now, if I’m thinking about this same overall question of what does the self look like, and why do we think about the self this way… From the perspective of cognitive science and neuroscience and a more Western analytic, philosophy of mind perspective, there has been a lot of development.

A good place to start (a bit of a straw man) is of course, with Descartes. “I think, therefore I am.” Implicit in that statement is that the self is associated with a disembodied, rational mind. That was a view that had become very much part of the architecture of how we think about modern cognitive science—the Cartesian divide—where rationality is associated with being human, it’s associated with being conscious. And we’re left with this view of the self as intimately bound up with rationality, with thoughts, with cognitive processes of some sort, with the idea that the self is this thing, this essence, this identity that is the recipient of perceptions, that does the perceiving, that then figures out what to do next. That, in your example of “I’ll see you tomorrow,” is that center of rational mind that is present from one day to the next, that will see you tomorrow. I like the way you put it, that it’s the same self experiencing different things—this idea of continuity, which becomes reified into essence. But fortunately, partly through its interaction with some of the more spiritual Eastern traditions, this view of the self has been challenged, I think in very helpful ways.

Another line in which self has been challenged is in the work of neurologists and psychiatrists, showing that the self cannot be this unitary essence of a person, because it can disintegrate in various ways that are difficult to explain in terms of the Cartesian self or soul. You see people who lose certain aspects of (what seem to be definitional of) self, while others remain. So people can lose their memories of what’s happened to them, they can lose the ability to lay down new memories, yet in many ways seem to be the same person and still have the experiences of being embodied, of volition, of free will, of agency—all these things can be intact. Other people can lose those aspects of self, for instance people with a condition called akinetic mutism, where they lose the ability to make any voluntary actions. Colloquially, one might say they’ve lost their free will, but other aspects of self remain. So, all of these individual cases speak against this unitary essence of self. Oliver Sacks and others have written beautifully about this, collecting and describing a menagerie of examples.

And then there’s just been this general shift, which I’ve been particularly attracted to over the years, from the self as something relatively disembodied and abstract, to something that is fully and fundamentally about the body. This is a shift that we see more generally in cognitive science, too. Cognitive science was dominated, and still is to a considerable degree, by this computational metaphor of the mind—that the way to understand what the mind does, and its relation to the brain and the body, is as a software program relates to the computer that runs it. This, I think, is not a helpful way to think about the relations between self, mind, brain, body, and world.

There’s been this general shift… from the self as something relatively disembodied and abstract, to something that is fully and fundamentally about the body.

And of course, this is not a new insight; it’s been there actually from the very origins of cognitive science in the mid 20th century. People working within a tradition that was then called cybernetics were fully aware that in many ways, the brain is fundamentally a control system. It’s trying to control the body in an environment; it’s not detached from the body or the brain. But as this computational metaphor of mind gained strength (and it did so because it was very productive—people could build computational models, they could get computers to play chess, to solve these tasks that were thought to be foundational to human rationality), there was just less emphasis on the hardware that was underlying these abilities and on what that hardware was doing. And the body became just this vehicle that would move the brain from meeting to meeting. That was its purpose.

More recently, there’s been a fundamental shift, recognizing that the reason we have brains is not to solve abstract problems, to be this disembodied seat of Cartesian rationality. Instead, it is to keep the body alive. And this is true not just for humans; it’s true for all species. Thought of in this way, the experience of self plays out on many different levels for humans. Indeed it plays out at “higher,” more abstract levels. We are capable of stringing memories together over time, having this sense of continuity of identity, this narrative self. We’re also, as I think you, Anne, pointed out beautifully in your podcast interview with Wendy, this intrinsic interdependence. We are made by, partly constituted by, our relations with the world and with others. Our sense of self is refracted through the minds of our social networks.

But then there are all these other aspects of self, too. There’s the sense of seeing the world from a particular perspective, a first-person point of view. That seems to be a fundamental aspect of what the experience of selfhood is like. Then there’s the experience of being the author of our thoughts, the instigator of our actions—an aspect of self we might often call free will.

Then even below that, we have the more deeply embodied aspects of self. And these begin with emotions and moods. Experiences of emotions and moods are fundamental parts of what it is to be a self. And emotions, when you probe them by reflecting on their experiential nature, are deeply embodied. We feel emotion in our bodies. And in fact, it’s when we stop allowing ourselves to feel emotions in our bodies that we can get into trouble, and start ruminating, and our emotions can lead us astray. And it’s by relocating our emotional experience within our bodies that I think we’re able to build emotions more productively into our lives.

Even more fundamentally, beneath moods and emotions, there seems to be this basic, shapeless, formless experience of just being alive. I suggest that the fundamental roots of selfhood lie in this experience of being a living organism, which makes us fundamentally different from computers or robots. In the human body, brain, biological organism, there’s no sharp divide between the mindware and the wetware, as there is between the software and the hardware in a computer.

These days, we talk about enactive cognitive science, embodied cognitive science, extended cognitive science—each emphasizing in different ways how brain, bodies, and environments are intimately coupled. These are very important developments, because they invert how we think about the self. Instead of starting with a disembodied rational mind, we realize that a rational mind is never completely separate from the body. Antonio Damasio pointed this out long ago in Descartes Error—without input from the body, without an appreciation of the bodily context, we make poor decisions.

There’s one other thing that I wanted to comment on that you said, which I thought was really a very rich area of resonance, which is this idea of ‘direct’ or ‘correct’ perception. Again, there are a number of views in cognitive science about this, the extent to which direct perception—this immediate access to the world ‘as it is’, or the body ‘as it is’—happens, or is possible. I tend to favor a more indirect view that everything that we experience is constructed to some extent, but of course, it’s not constructed arbitrarily. I tend to think of ‘useful’ perception rather than correct or incorrect perception. As the saying goes, we perceive the world not as it is, but as we are.

In this podcast episode, Anil further discusses the role of the body in perception,
the self as a construction, and more.

So yes—we smell smoke, we see flames, there is a fire there. But the way in which the smell of the smoke and the visual experience of seeing the fire appears in our experience is not actually what’s there. Still, it’s a very useful experience. In my language, it’s a very useful brain-based prediction about the causes of sensory inputs that themselves don’t have any smell or color, but they do reflect what’s happening in the world. There is something objective actually happening in the world, something that has biological relevance, and something that we perceive as such, in our experience of seeing flames and smelling smoke.

There are many ways in which we can consider what it means to say that something really exists. This question gets very deep, and answers will depend on whether you ask a religious scholar, or a theoretical physicist, or a cognitive scientist. I’ve come to think of the self as existing in a somewhat similar way to, let’s say, how the color red exists (or any color). Colors don’t exist objectively in the world as mind-independent properties, but it’s nonetheless extremely useful for our visual systems to construct experiences of color. Colors reveal that an object or surface is the same object or surface, even as lighting conditions change. And this is useful in many ways. You can tell any number of stories about why it’s useful that our visual systems create colors from a continuous colorless electromagnetic spectrum.

The same line of thinking usefully illuminates the way we think about the self. There is no actual objective mind-independent essence of selfhood, but it’s still a very useful aspect of our experience for the brain to construct. And it’s also very useful for it to be constructed as being continuous over time.

Why is this? Why do we experience ourselves as being relatively unchanging over time? Well, to some extent, it is because we are relatively unchanging over time. If I walk from this room to the next room, it’s the same body that goes with me, it’s pretty much the same bodily self, even though the room is no longer the same room. So indeed, there is a continuity to the experienced self that is perhaps stronger than the rest of our experiences. But I think we probably experience the self as even more continuous than the objective continuity of that which underpins these experiences of self warrants. I think that may be because it’s almost as if the self is bringing itself into being through predicting itself to be continuous over time.

To come back to a leitmotif of our conversation, this idea about how things appear to us being how things actually are… A guiding principle for me is to take that as always an open question, and as a challenge. And to assume that how things seem is probably not how they actually are, ever. This does not mean that how things seem is wrong, or has no value. It just means we shouldn’t reify how things seem as how they actually are—whether it’s a particular way of experiencing the self, a way of experiencing color, a way of experiencing free will, or any other thing that appears in the flow of our experience.

Wendy Hasenkamp: I think it’s really interesting, the difference between these perspectives on the role of perception, and the accuracy of direct perception (or not). It sounds like, Anil, from the cognitive science side, you’re suggesting that as the perceptual information comes in, it’s already constructed and filtered through the patterns we’ve developed from our past experience. From the Buddhist side, I have a sense that there’s a distinction between the original raw perception, and then the conceptual layering that comes after. I’m wondering if that might be something that’s going on here between your perspectives.

Anne C. Klein: That’s so interesting. And what a wonderful narrative, Anil. I’ve been trying to track a path to juxtapose analogs or parallel processes that are similar in Buddhism and yet different. And one of them was this concept of prediction that you’ve talked about so elegantly, Anil, and that I think you also were just pointing to, Wendy.

For a Buddhist, it usually gets translated as imputation. We’re imputing, where we see a bunch of dots, let’s say. At first it’s not clear. And then I draw a few more dots [drawing two slanted lines meeting at the top] and maybe it’s a ball rising and falling. And then, as you watch your mind, very slowly, watch what happens. There’s a moment where your perception changes… [drawing a series of dots connecting the other two lines] and all of a sudden, “Oh, it’s the letter A!” So you can ask, what exactly happened? You can feel it, if you’re attuned to it.

Anil Seth: That’s a good example of exactly what I was talking about, when I was talking about prediction.

Anne C. Klein: Right. And what’s similar in Buddhism is the Sanskrit term arthakriya, this idea of the ability to perform a function. What these things that we’re describing do, that are called conventional phenomena, is that they perform functions. It’s true that I make up the idea of a pen far beyond what exists here, but it’s also true that I recognize that this is something I can write with. And I can; I cannot write with a cup. These are conventionally valid distinctions. So I think that’s important and it’s definitely a resonance.

One of the most important distinctions made in Buddhist theories of mind and awareness is between conceptual thought and direct perception—thought is abstract, it will not get to the real experience. Not only is wisdom famously inexpressible, but as we used to say in grad school, the taste of an orange is also inexpressible. You can’t really go there with thought and with words.

So, if I say ‘the ocean’—we’re not looking at the ocean right now, alas. So we all know what the ocean is, but there’s no direct experience of it in this moment… It’s just a mental image and it may not even be a representational mental image, but just something that allows me to know what ‘ocean’ is. It might just be the letters of the word that appear in my mind. But even if I imagine the ocean, it’s an abstraction compared to the real thing. My image is not going to be responsive to granular changes, shifts in light and wind, and all of that, the way direct perception is. And to bring in the body, as you were mentioning—Buddhists have very sensitive understandings of the body, and a lot of similar ideas about emotions being in the body—in thinking about perception, the body is also most easily, in a way that’s different from other things, accessible to direct experience.

Anil Seth: Absolutely. To me, one of the big challenges, but also interesting differences when it comes to perceptions of the body compared to perceptions of the world (whether it’s an ocean or whatever else), may be that there is a sense of enhanced directness for body-related experience, simply because the brain is more directly connected to the body than it is to the outside world. The brain is connected to the interior of the body, through sensory channels. We call these interoceptive channels. There’s the vagus nerve, and many other bundles of nerves, that signal things like how the heart is beating, what the gastric tension is like. And of course, we’ve got a nervous system in our gut as well. And there’s also circulating hormones. There are all sorts of ways in which the brain and body are in more direct contact than the brain and the world beyond the body.

So there are differences between our perceptions of the world and of the body, but I think that there are also similarities. In both cases, the signals that are impinging on the brain from the body (and the brain itself is part of the body), never reveal their causes transparently. The brain always still has to do some work of interpretation. And we notice this in our lived experience, too. Let’s say my heart is racing. What does that mean? Am I afraid or am I excited? That interpretation is not just given by perception of an accelerated heart rate; it depends on the larger contextual interpretation of what the body is doing—as the psychologists William James and Karl Lange pointed out long ago.

And then the idea of this separation between abstract conceptualization and direct perception—this idea certainly has resonances in cognitive science, too. In this context, we talk about the concept of cognitive penetration. To what extent are our perceptual experiences affected by—penetrated by—our cognitive framing?

Classical cognitive science would impose a fairly sharp distinction—here we have perception, and here we have cognition. They interact, but they don’t interpenetrate. From my perspective, this view is now giving way to a more continuous view of how different levels of abstraction interact so that our expectations, our cognitive framing, can indeed influence (in some cases down to low levels of granularity) what our perceptual experience is like.

Recognizing this offers opportunities for change as well, because if we learn to frame things in different ways, then we may be able to change our experiences. This is perhaps getting back to a question you raised, Anne—what is the scientific view of the self delivering, in terms of methods for changing our experience? I think probably not a lot that wasn’t already there in the Buddhist traditions of learning to pay attention to our experiences…

Anne C. Klein: Perhaps. There is also the interesting question of, what is the purpose of this change? Why shift our understanding of self? Francis Bacon said, the purpose of science is to relieve the human condition, and Buddhism says the purpose of practice is to leave the human condition. In Buddhist traditions, the purpose of practice is to deliver us from the samsaric world. So that’s a little different. But what you’re saying is very important; again a kind of analog in the Buddhist traditions is the emphasis on many different practices related with the body.

And earlier as you were offering this wonderful narrative of the development in the west of certain ideas of the self… There is a similar development in Buddhism, with a tremendous emphasis on the body—mindfulness of the breath, mindfulness of the body. From the perspective of wanting to cultivate attention, presence to the body is important because the body is always in the present. Whereas our minds, according to most Buddhist ways of describing this, are actually very rarely in direct experience of the present. We wander the halls of our own minds into the past and future, or in fabrications about the present. We are not anchored in present experience.

From the perspective of wanting to cultivate attention, presence to the body is important because the body is always present.

There may be a moment of a kind of mental direct perception. There’s some debate about this, but in some Buddhist traditions, there’s this idea that it’s only the first moment of cognition that is valid. And it’s an interesting position, because I think humanly, we know that the first moment, first meeting, first impressions… there’s something about a first moment. It’s fresher. You don’t yet have an overarching structure and idea of what you subsequently impute and then take to be real and consistent—“Oh, you’re the same person you were here half an hour ago, still here.”

Then practices that involve changing the body into ‘light’—these are very common, particularly in the Tibetan traditions, and also perhaps more common in the early South Asian traditions than we have recognized until recently. And that is a very interesting kinesthetic experience to feel that ‘light’ is moving through your body. Light, Energy, Prana, it’s lung in Tibetan, translated as wind. Actually, what it is, is movement. And I think there’s no denying there’s movement all around in the body, movement of a sort between cells in the brain, so this idea of energy is not a New Age idea. This is a very well constructed idea in many Asian traditions, medically, cosmologically, that there’s movement in the body. There are flows, that’s undeniable. And these relate to the physiology of the body.

So it’s not all about the mind in meditation. This has been a distortion in the west with mindfulness (although if you do it, you pretty quickly discover that of course it’s not just the mind). The mind looking at the breath, changes the whole feel of the body. And feeling that your body is light or could be imagined as light, it just means that there’s an invitation to experience at a more subtle level the movements in the body, perhaps.

Listen as Anne elaborates on Eastern conceptions of the subtle/energy body, the construction of the self and other,
and how the body can help us break out of rigid self concepts.

Wendy Hasenkamp: You’ve both named the body as a key to helping us shift to a more correct understanding of self. And Anne, you’ve shared ideas from a few different contemplative approaches. Anil, you said maybe science doesn’t really reach much farther than what contemplative traditions or practices have already allowed. Did either of you want to say anything more on that?

Anil Seth: Maybe I will—I think I was probably being a little unkind to the science on this. I think there are a lot of implications within the scientific tradition that follow from understanding the constructed nature of experience, and the constructed nature of the experience of self. There are many implications for how we think about mental illness, how we think about fractures within society, all these sorts of things. These are not out of alignment (as far as I understand) with what a Buddhist perspective would offer, but they don’t necessarily rely on that perspective to have some impact. The scientific view of perception as prediction, and of selfhood as a variety—or collection—of perceptions is already becoming helpful in clinical practice and therapeutic contexts. These advances all turn on cultivating an awareness that how things appear in experience need not be reified into how they are. And that applies to the self, too.

The scientific view of perception as prediction, and of selfhood as a variety—or collection—of perceptions is already becoming helpful in clinical practice and therapeutic settings.

Thinking this way can change how certain therapies are done—for example, how cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) might be articulated, perhaps focusing more on experiences as well as thoughts and behaviors. And this view may also shed some light on why CBT is effective—why framing things differently, thinking about things differently, may actually have benefits, for example by actually changing perceptual experience.

More generally, this way of thinking about perception and self is giving a new framework for a lot of practices that already have an evidence base for how they affect people. There’s now a deeper understanding of, for instance, what happens when we pay attention to what’s going on in our body, an understanding that may appeal to specific neural mechanisms. It’s worth saying that these mechanistic explanations need not be overly reductionist—for example by highlighting specific brain regions—but can instead emphasize a process, in this case the process of perceptual prediction and its role in bodily regulation. For my money, this kind of process-based explanation does a much better job of reconnecting the brain, mind, and body in ways that help make sense of therapies like CBT.

Wendy Hasenkamp: So we’ve talked a lot about why our everyday perception of self is wrong, and some ways to help shift that. I’d like to close with the question of, why does it matter that we develop a more correct understanding of self?

Anil Seth: I think that there’s enormous value in cultivating a wider appreciation that the way the world and the self appears to one person, is both dependent on others (we are socially interdependent creatures), but also different from others.

It’s because perceptual experience often has the character of seeming objectively real, that it’s sometimes so difficult to understand another’s perspective. When we experience something as ‘really existing’—be it something in the world, or an aspect of self—it’s incredibly hard to appreciate that someone else may be having a very different experience, even within a shared environment. There’s an important question lurking here: why do we experience things as being objectively real, when they are in fact constructions? A superficial answer is that it would be very inefficient for evolution to design our perceptual systems in a way so that we experienced things as generally being unreal. It makes biological and evolutionary sense that if color is a useful way to interpret a visual scene, then of course we’re going to be designed so that color appears to be really part of the world.

The subjective reality of our perceptual experiences is therefore a feature of our minds and brains, but it’s also a bug when it comes to resolving discrepancies, to understanding each other. And I think there’s broad social value in recognizing that even though the world seems objectively to be a particular way, and even though there is an objective reality (I’m certainly not saying that everything is up for grabs), that objective reality might nonetheless be experienced in a different way by a different person. We need to escape not only from the social media echo chambers of what we happen to believe and what news we listen to, but also from the perceptual echo chambers of how we experience the world around us. Because (again it’s my view) there’s never any actual direct perception, there’s only ‘less indirect’ perception. This potential for social recalibration is one reason why all this is important, and one way in which I think the two perspectives do align, but coming from different angles and bringing different things to the table.

Anne C. Klein: Absolutely. The constructivist nature, or as Buddhists will say, recognizing the dependently arisen nature—the imputed nature, the nominally constructed nature—is crucial to liberation, and from a practical perspective for the social, cultural reasons you name. And just because that’s how it is, and our understanding is clearly enhanced by knowing how things work.

I think what’s really difficult is pulling apart the idea that it’s just imputed from the fact that it still functions. Going back to our example, it’s only when you look at the dots that an A occurs; there is no intrinsic A, but it’s still functional. This is the hard thing to understand in Buddhism and I think it’s hard in terms of science also, and that’s why there’s this pushback. But this is why, for certain important Middle Way Buddhist philosophies, direct perception isn’t 100% correct… What would correct even mean?

Anil Seth: Exactly, exactly. That’s the thing. There’s this implicit idea that if only we saw things accurately, if only our perception was completely accurate… but what does that even mean? It doesn’t really make sense to think that perception could ever be 100% accurate. But it can be useful.

Anne C. Klein: It’s clearly useful. And what is it useful for? This would be a whole other conversation, but maybe just to throw it in, I mentioned that Francis Bacon said the purpose of science is to relieve suffering endemic to the human condition. Buddhism says the purpose of practice is not to relieve, but to leave the human condition and its suffering. Buddhist traditions are therefore keen to investigate the nature of knowing itself. That’s the ultimate challenge in contemplative practice. And it’s an ultimate challenge, as you so elegantly described, for the science of mind.

It’s wonderful to be able to be part of such a conversation. Thank you, Anil, and thanks to Mind & Life.

Anil Seth: Thank you very much too. There is so much that we can agree on.

Have something to share? Email us at
Support our work with a gift to Mind & Life.