I was recently dialoguing with a neuroscientist about the possible merits of biofeedback versus direct modulation for bringing people to no self experiences. Here are the main points that I made.
Let’s start by making a few assumptions in order to simplify the discussion.
- Assumption 1. One or more “ego switches” actually exist in the brain–understanding that a “switch” might involve more than one location and might even involve a complex temporal relationship between locations.
- Assumption 2. The switch(es) are in fact dimmers that can be turned down but also completely turned off.
- Assumption 3. Our ultimate goal is to bring the student to the point where they can let the switch to be on or totally turn it off at will any time in daily life. In terms of traditional Theravada, this would be equivalent to being able to access “fruition states” at will.
- Assumption 4. A quick, easy process that reliably leads to balanced, integrated liberation would trigger an exponential propagation of enlightenment within a few generations (and, thus, dramatically change the course of human history for the better).
- Assumption 5. Our process would involve three components:
- A. Conceptual Content. People would learn cultural, philosophical, and scientific perspectives on the no-self experience as well as ethical and behavioral guidelines, possible challenges around integrating no self into daily functioning, etc.
- B. Formal Focus Techniques. Probably pretty similar to those we currently use in mindfulness practice.
- C. Techno-boosts. Technological intervention that allows us to turn off the ego switch(es).
We already have components A and B. The role of the techno-boost would be to dramatically accelerate their impact. In other words, I don’t see the techno-boost as a replacement for mindfulness practice but rather as an effective accelerant to what we do already. (Think a one-year class at any community college during which a sequence of techno-boosts are implemented and integrated through lecture and discussion).
If assumptions 1-3 are in fact correct, then the question becomes “What sort of techno-boost should be used?”.
- Should it be some form of biofeedback? (EEG, rtFMRI, or some other physiological parameter….)
- Should it be direct modulation from the outside? (TMS, focused ultrasound, deep brain stimulation….)
- Should it be a combination of modalities?
It’s reasonable to assume that biofeedback would be the way to go because it involves a learning process and our ultimate goal is that the student should gain insight and regulatory control. On the other hand, I wouldn’t completely rule out the possibility that direct modulation might prove more effective than biofeedback.
In my way of thinking, there are three desiderata for any techno-boost to no self:
- It should be dramatic.
- It should be reliable.
- It should be universal.
By dramatic I mean it leads to a strong and impactful experience of no self. By reliable I mean it’s able to induce that in a given individual consistently, and by universal I mean it works more or less equally well for most people.
It’s possible that direct modulation could induce states of no self more dramatically, reliably, and universally than biofeedback. However that still leaves open the question of how much the student would learn from those experiences.
The most dramatic example of (a kind of) no self produced through a completely physical means that I’m aware of is “athymhormic syndrome.” This condition apparently obliterates the ability to auto-boot egoic existence (although its victims can be booted temporarily by someone talking to them).
Based on the limited information I’ve been able to gather on this syndrome, it seems that at least for some of its victims, their default state is a complete disidentification with mind and body (which is my definition of arhatship). This is brought about by tiny lacunar infarcts that apparently obliterate key pathways involved in autoactivation of self.
When I first heard about this condition, I did the following thought experiment:
What if I took a beginning meditator and temporarily induced that state through “reversible lesions” while having them listen to a guided meditation CD (to keep a “meditating self” booted). And what if I kept this procedure going for, say, ten hours straight. Would this allow a beginning meditator to have the experience of an arhat doing an all-day “strong determination” sit? If so, might it not profoundly and permanently rewire them in that direction?
Of course, I recognize that there are a gazillion possible problems with this scenario. For one thing, we don’t really know if our first three hypotheses are correct. Secondly, all of the external direct modulatory technologies are problematic. TMS probably cannot be focused tightly enough or deeply enough, DBS is massively invasive, and ultrasonic neuromodulation is pre-clinical. But, if it turns out that ultrasonic neuromodulation is both safe and effective, then it might be just what we’re looking for because it can be focused to millimeter precision at any depth within the brain.