I have heard Ajahn Brahm say in a talk, if I recall, that modern science or psychology has demonstrated anatta in some way.

It seems unnecessary to invoke science to validate any of Buddhism, but until one can see no self from direct experience, looking at science may be beneficial for the purpose of gaining an intellectual understanding.

Is there any useful research or writing is there that shows anatta from the perspective of modern psychology or neuroscience?

I'd think something like this would be produced by the Mind & Life Institute. All I could find is this blurb crediting Evan Thompson. It doesn't say much.

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    It doesn't say much The bigthing article you referenced seems to be based on a qz article whose main scientific reference (i.e. reference to a scientific paper) is to Reconstructing and deconstructing the self: cognitive mechanisms in meditation practice.
    – ChrisW
    Commented Apr 30, 2018 at 19:26
  • IMO this is off-topic and too broad: if the question were e.g., "Does Christianity teach anatta in some way?" that that would be pretty clearly off-topic, wouldn't it? IMO it's still off-topic if you substitute "modern science" or "psychology" or "neurology" or "philosophy". Also it's not clear what anatta means (I mean, maybe it's clear in the canon, but there have been more than 100 questions about it on his site). So asking, "is there anything in modern science comparable to the doctrine of anatta?" isn't good.
    – ChrisW
    Commented Apr 30, 2018 at 20:56
  • I think this is a good question because a good answer would use what is essentially experiments [science] for demonstrable basis in explaining one's subjective understanding of anatta. I don't think experimental data is comparable to christianity.
    – user8527
    Commented May 11, 2021 at 13:34
  • Latter is essentially a theory which may be falsified by experimental data. If one wants to learn anything here then one should subject theories to scrutiny based on experimental data & philosophical integrity. A policy which restricts this is actually just punishing those who are capable of doing it.
    – user8527
    Commented May 11, 2021 at 13:40
  • I do think that it's very niche and perhaps one should make the distinction between scientific theory and scientific data very clear. Then one could allow comparative questions if restricted to the factual experimental data and established truths.
    – user8527
    Commented May 11, 2021 at 13:56

4 Answers 4


It is not difficult for modern western scientific materialist/reductionists to understand the most coarse and obvious meaning of anatta: the lack of a permanent, unitary, and independent person.

In this culture, we are trained to look at the world from the default viewpoint of scientific materialist/reductionism. That people can be viewed as a composite of sub-atomic particles governed by the laws of chemistry and physics. We learn in elementary and middle school about caloric intake, cellular division (mitosis and meiosis), evolution, genetics and epigenetics which all make it trivial to ascertain that the person is thoroughly non-permanent, non-unitary, and dependent.

So if modern culture makes it so easy to arrive at the coarse meaning of anatta, then why aren't we all Arhats??

Because there is much more to realizing emptiness than just this very coarse and trivial understanding of anatta. For the wisdom realizing emptiness to have its soteriological effect the following must be true:

  1. It can not be trivial. If it were trivial, then it would not have any power whatsoever to cure our suffering or pull us out of this endless cyclic existence.
  2. It can not be mere word games or simply an intellectual philosophical exercise. If it were, then again it would not have any ability to end our suffering.
  3. It can not mean that nothing exists. If we come to the conclusion that nothing exists, then there can be no clearer guidepost saying “turn around!” as it is stated over and over in the Dharma that this is manifest evidence that the reasoning on emptiness has gone astray.
  4. Still, it must be something that can be inferred from reasoning. It is not a completely obscure phenomena.

Even a mere correct inferential understanding of emptiness or the object of negation should rock something deep inside of you. If it doesn't absolutely shake your deeply ingrained ignorance, then how could it ever have the power to uproot suffering?

Similarly, if you become convinced that some understanding of emptiness is leading you to believe that the world does not exist, or that karma does not exist, or rebirth does not exist, then you can be absolutely sure that there is some mistake in your understanding. The Virtuous Teachers warn again and again that the true meaning of emptiness does not equate to nihilism or the repudiation of the Four Noble Truths in any shape or form. In other words, keep looking.

So, looking to modern science - including psychology or neuroscience - to help arrive at coarse level of anatta is fine.

To arrive at the subtler levels will require more powerful tools. In terms of modern science, Relational QM is perhaps one of those tools. See an article by Carlo Rovelli here.

But looking towards modern scientific materialists/reductionists to provide even a glimpse of the subtlest meaning of anatta or emptiness is unfortunately futile. Which is evident by looking around to see how many modern scientists appear to be highly realized beings teaching the Dharma...

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    We don’t deny that persons exist on the conventional level! The Buddha did not deny this nor did Nagarjuna or any of the Virtuous Teachers. You and I exist! That should not be disputed. The question is how do we exist? Under ultimate analysis no person can be found. Not even the slightest bit. We are utterly void of inherent existence.
    – user13375
    Commented May 1, 2018 at 5:12
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    The Buddha did not deny this Did the Buddha affirm it? Which bit[s] of the canon are you thinking of when you said that? It's famously affirmed by Nagasena (in the parable of the chariot).
    – ChrisW
    Commented May 1, 2018 at 6:50
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    @avatarKorra one can still say that a self arises Yes there is a view (are probably several views) about self. And there are views of non-self (including materialist [wrong] views of "nothing but atoms") etc. So, there are many different views, different kinds of view, in the world. Only, IMO, Buddhism says that any of the various views-of-self result in confusion and suffering: so it's better to not hold to those views.
    – ChrisW
    Commented May 1, 2018 at 6:56
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    @avatarKorra Also, beware, I think that "I don't exist" is also described in the canon to be a type of "self-view", i.e. "a view about self", i.e. one of the many types of self-views that leads to confusion and dukkha.
    – ChrisW
    Commented May 1, 2018 at 7:21
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    @ChrisW I also found this where the Buddha is not disputing - even affirming! - the conventional notion of self: accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/sn/sn22/sn22.022.than.html, ""And which is the carrier of the burden? 'The person,' it should be said. This venerable one with such a name, such a clan-name. This is called the carrier of the burden."
    – user13375
    Commented May 1, 2018 at 14:32

Yes. Please see Quartz article dated February 9, 2018 by Ephrat Livni, entitled "Scientists studying psychoactive drugs accidentally proved the self is an illusion". Research papers are linked in it.

Also, please see the TED Talk by neuroscientist Anil Seth entitled "Your brain hallucinates your conscious reality" which was published on YouTube on July 18, 2017.


Yes, check out Consciousness Explained, a 1991 book by Daniel Dennett.

Dennett puts forward a "multiple drafts" model of consciousness, suggesting that there is no single central place (a "Cartesian Theater") where conscious experience occurs; instead there are "various events of content-fixation occurring in various places at various times in the brain". The brain consists of a "bundle of semi-independent agencies"; when "content-fixation" takes place in one of these, its effects may propagate so that it leads to the utterance of one of the sentences that make up the story in which the central character is one's "self".


As i understand it.

Behaviorism which ignores the underlying philosophical framework of behavior altogether whilst focusing on reward circuitry & conditioning of pattern recognition, shows that to an extent behavior is dictated by classical conditioning.

This is how one would train a dog with reward/punishment and more or less ignoring what he thinks.

Neuroscience developed in course of the development of psychopharmacological research and was predicated on hardcore behaviorism & molecular biology.

Eventually it became evident that the subjective philosophy of a person impacts his values & behavior as well but there was little to no study of this.

At this point consciousness research and cognitive behavioral therapy were in the infancy and pople wanted to study the psychological effects of character-changing experiences such as spiritual, mystical or great learning.

The natural course is that this would be still an extention of pharmacology and therefore the academic consciousness study turned to researching psychedelic drugs.

I think it can be summed up that behavioral science holds a person's understanding of the context of his experiences shapes his motivations and circumstances shape the behavior circuitry accordingly.

Afaik as to Anatta in particular, scientific litterature makes a strong case for there being no free-will, rather there being conditioning only and that neurobroadcasting is a reliable predictor of behavior and that maybe more so than a person's own philosophy which is generally more or less speculative & with cognitive dissonance.

Another interesting point is that there is some litterature on what exact brain activity is associated with the notion of self and the way this plays out has been surprising to people as it's not what a naive person would expect.

Eg when people think about death, what lights up are regions that are associated with other beings rather than that which has to do with oneself.

Here a person would say that he/she or that "self" thinks that death is something that applies to all beings but the circuitry tells a different story and the circuitry is the actual behavioral wiring.

If there indeed was an element of self then one would expect a different circuitry.

The field of 'general semantics' is probably closest to understanding anatta.

General semantics is concerned with how electrocolloidal events are abstracted as objects of perceptions, how these are further classified by words for thought, how these words are likewise more or less of an abstraction and how we might gain a measure of control over our own behavior & mental wellness through insight.

Imo one could say that general semantics establishes the emptiness of words and explains how delusion about these truths is a mental illness.

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