i spent the day at “Craving, Suffering, and Choice: Spiritual and Scientific Explorations of Human Experience”, a panel discussion between buddhists and neuroscientists comparing notes on their respective insights into human consciousness. the morning panel dealt with craving and the afternoon session was about suffering. in advance, let me say that these are just my impressions of the day, i sort of scribbled notes on the program and have been up since 5 AM, so these are more like exhausted broad brushstrokes than reporting. (if you were there or watched the webcast please add to or correct me in the comments).
howard fields represented the reductionist viewpoint of the neuroscientists: the neural system as a cost-benefit analysis and decision making network, and dopamine neurons as the motivation network. neurons fire and you do stuff. the conscious mind is solely a function of the brain. (john searle, who tought me philosophy of mind and consciousness at berkeley, would disagree. well, so would a lot of people, but i thought i’d put in a plug).
In neurobiology, craving is the subjective correlate of strong motivation for any goal. The goal could be something needed to maintain a state that is necessary for individual survival, including food, drink, warmth, or rest….In addition to motivation to achieve these instinctive goals, individuals can develop motivation for actions that are clearly unhealthy: overeating rich foods, drinking alcohol or using tobacco or addicting drugs. Whatever the goal, the neurobiological view is that cravings arise from chemical changes in the brain that lead to activity in neurons that are in pathways that receive input from sense organs and that are required for behavioral actions. (howard fields)
there was a brief discussion about the genuineness of a sensation that is artificially created: to simulate a pressure on a patient’s hand, doctors trigger an electrode in the brain and the person believes the experience is real. this is descartes’ old brain in the vat problem. i don’t remember that one really going anywhere.
then alan wallace offered this definition of craving:
Buddhists define craving as a kind of desire in which one falsely superimposes agreeable qualities upon an object, cognitively screens out its disagreeable qualities, and then desires the object as a true source of pleasure and wellbeing. Common objects of craving include wealth, sensual objects, praise, and the esteem of others. None of these objects are actual sources of genuine wellbeing, nor does the experience of such objects have an invariable correlation with the experience of pleasure of any kind. Genuine wellbeing, unlike the stimulus-driven pleasures that may arise as a result of contact with the above objects, has its source not in the objects of our senses or imagination, but in a healthy and balanced mind. So it is crucial to cultivate desires leading to genuine wellbeing for oneself and others and to attenuate craving that is based on misconception.
there was some talk about neuroscientists being able to block specific cravings. the dalai lama asked if it would be possible to block all cravings, to which the reply was, yes…but it would be a coma. the dalai lama said “that’s a disaster”.
what the morning boiled down to was a disagreement over semantics, sort of. neuroscientists equate craving with any desire, and they don’t make qualitative distinctions: the craving to breathe is the same mechanism as the craving to smoke a cigarette. buddhists practice meditation to have a metacognitive awareness of cravings, identifying false targets of happiness as they arise, and avoiding them. the point was made that, if it was possible to block someone’s cravings chemically, it would not be a complete therapy, because the patient would not recognize the cognitive process of falsification involved in craving. the buddhist position on this point is consistent, from what i know, with the most effective therapies in recovery. lots of people switch from one addictive behavior to another, booze to wine to beer to weed to food to cigarettes to coke to codependent relationships, to some perfect balanced blend of everything, to some perfect balanced blend of everything EXCEPT the stuff that gets them in the most trouble, before they address the fact they are consistently chasing and holding onto behaviors they tell themselves will make them happy but in fact make them MISERABLE.
with that, i am going to stop, and write about the afternoon session on SUFFERING in the next post, because i am suffering from exhaustion.
(thanks jee for inviting me!)