One of the core beliefs in Buddhism is that one’s “self” is constantly changing, even if you feel like you’ve been the same person all your life.
It looks like science is now backing up that theory. A new research paper published in the academic journal CellPress found that the brain and body are, in fact, always changing.
“Buddhists argue that nothing is constant, everything changes through time, you have a constantly changing stream of consciousness,” Evan Thompson, a philosophy of mind professor at the University of British Columbia, told Quartz. “And from a neuroscience perspective, the brain and body is constantly in flux. There’s nothing that corresponds to the sense that there’s an unchanging self.”
The research found that people change as their brain physically changes, since the ability to change your ‘self’ isn’t limited to one part of the brain, according to Quartz. So as parts of your brain grow and change, so do you.
“Self-processing in the brain is not instantiated in a particular region or network, but rather extends to a broad range of fluctuating neural processes that do not appear to be self specific,” the study’s authors wrote.
It’s not surprising that science has proved an aspect of Buddhism. David Barash of Scientific American made the case that Buddhism is a science-friendly religion, since the Buddha never described himself as a god, and much of the Buddhist teachings are based off of writings about improving quality of life, rather than ways to embrace and live through a god or diety.
“[A]mong the key aspects of Buddhism, we find insistence that knowledge must be gained through personal experience rather than reliance on the authority of sacred texts or the teachings of avowed masters; because its orientation is empirical rather then theoretical; and because it rejects any conception of absolutes,” Barash wrote.
Barash highlighted a quote from Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama, in which the religious leader spoke about how Buddhists should embrace scientific discoveries, regardless of whether or not they relate to a Buddhist principle.
“Suppose that something is definitely proven through scientific investigation, that a certain hypothesis is verified or a certain fact emerges as a result of scientific investigation,” Gyatso said. “And suppose, furthermore, that that fact is incompatible with Buddhist theory. There is no doubt that we must accept the result of the scientific research.”
One of these scientific findings came in 2013, when a study found that people still experience a level of consciousness during deep meditation, something that Buddhists have long believed. In fact, Buddhists believe in nine levels of consciousness that are accessible through deep meditation.
But not everything between science and Buddhism matches up. For example, Buddhism touts the idea that the self and soul can exist without the human body, where as scientists don’t think that’s possible, Quartz reported.
Similarly, Buddhism promotes heavy amounts of meditation, which can have varying results for different people, according to John Horgan, the director for the Center for Science Writings at Stevens Institute of Technology.
In his 2003 Slate piece, and reaffirmed again in a 2011 blog post for Scientific American, Horgan made the case that meditation has proven to be no more helpful for people’s stress and well-being than sitting, despite Buddhist claims that it is a “major vehicle for achieving enlightenment.”
Still, Thompson, who has previously written and researched about Buddhism, told Quartz that he believes some aspects of Buddhism, including the idea of the self, exist.
“In neuroscience, you’ll often come across people who say the self is an illusion created by the brain,” Thompson said. “My view is that the brain and the body work together in the context of our physical environment to create a sense of self. And it’s misguided to say that just because it’s a construction, it’s an illusion.”
Herb Scribner is a writer for Deseret News National. Send him an email at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @herbscribner.