Philosopher Dan Dennett makes a compelling argument that not only don't we understand our own consciousness, but that half the time our brains are actively fooling us.

(The illusion of consciousness)

The above look very much like the Buddhist understanding on the matter where you are initially not mindful of the realities on the present moment but ultimately realize it through meditation.

How does the concept of Consciousness in modern psychology relate to that of the Buddhist understanding? What are the similarities and differences of the concept and the background body of knowledge surrounding concepts in psychology and Buddhism?

  • Are you asking: a) "when modern psychologists study consciousness, how much of their theory/hypothesis comes/came from Buddhism?" i.e. 'related' because it comes from Buddhism; or b) "when you study modern psychology, to what extent can you relate that to your Buddhist understanding?" i.e. 'related' because you relate/connect them.
    – ChrisW
    Commented Nov 25, 2014 at 13:22
  • If you compare and contrast the two theories, what is common and what is different, what are similar at the surface but different. Commented Nov 25, 2014 at 13:52

4 Answers 4


In answering the question i think we can look to the Anattalakkhana Sutta by Mahasi Sayadaw which can be found here. In here the 5 aggregates are discussed, how they are formed and why they are not-self.

All of the 5 aggregates are suffering because they are subject to the 3 signs of existence: impermanence, unsatisfactoriness & not-self.

I think this philosopher Dan Dennett does not go to the deepest level of reality - Paramattha Sacca, the ultimate reality. Here designations such as "we, us, brain" does not exist. They are only conventional truths that humans have constructed in order to be able to communicate with each other.

If one looks at the ultimate level of reality there are only 4 things that can be said to be ultimately real according to the Abhidhamma. These 4 things are: Mind, Mental concomitants, Materiality and Nibbana. When Dan Dennett talks about "us and the brain" he speaks only of conventional reality.

There is no "us". The human being is a comming-together of the 5 aggregates. When these aggregates are working together as a physio-psychological machine the idea of an "I" is formed. But this false idea of an "I" is really just one of the 52 mental states, contained in the 4th aggregate of mental formations. This is said by Dr. Walpola Rahula on p. 19 in his book "What the Buddha taught" .

I think that a philosopher like Dan Dennett would get much intellectual knowledge out of reading the Anattalakkhana Sutta and The Abhidhamma but he will never truly understand consciousness or anything else if he does not engage in insight meditation.

To my knowledge even Modern psychology, limited as it is, has finally come to the conclusion that the "Self" is merely a construct. Although they only deal with it at a conventional level. Buddhism have been dealing with this on an ultimate level for 2500 years while modern psychology have just begun to scrath the surface in the last 100 years. Although modern psychologists are actually beginning to understand more about how buddhist psychology is really what they are now "rediscovering".

I am here quoting Dr. K. Sri Dhammananda as he writes in his book "What Buddhists Believe" on p. 109:

"... The analysis of the nature of the mind given in the Abhidharma is not available through any other source. Even modern psychologists are very much in the dark with regards to subjects like mental impulses or mental beats (Javana Citta) as discussed in the Abhidharma. Dr. Graham Howe, an eminent Harley Street psychologist, wrote in his book, THE INVISIBLE ANATOMY:

In the course of their work many psychologists have found, as the pioneer work of C.G. Jung has shown, that ‘we are near to [the] Buddha. To read a little Buddhism is to realise that the Buddhists knew two thousand five hundred years ago far more about our modern problems of psychology than they have yet been given credit for. They studied these problems long ago, and found the answers too. We are now rediscovering the Ancient Wisdom of the East.’..."

I hope i have understood the above mentioned correctly. If im wrong about something feel free to correct me.

  • Is your answer the same as saying, "If we analyze a house we find it's just made of bricks: the bricks exist but there is no 'house': and 'house' is merely a construct"? Also although the question was about "consciousness", a majority of this answer is about "self".
    – ChrisW
    Commented Dec 19, 2014 at 13:46

"Consciousness" is a word or concept which is not well-defined, for example:

  • Pholosophy of mind

    Philosophers have used the term 'consciousness' for four main topics: etc.

    Philosophers and non-philosophers differ in their intuitions about what consciousness is

  • Scientific study

    • Measurement

      Experimental research on consciousness presents special difficulties, due to the lack of a universally accepted operational definition.

    • Biological function and evolution

      Opinions are divided as to where in biological evolution consciousness emerged and about whether or not consciousness has any survival value. It has been argued that consciousness emerged (etc.)

  • Medical aspects

    Whereas the philosophical approach to consciousness focuses on its fundamental nature and its contents, the medical approach focuses on the amount of consciousness a person has: in medicine, consciousness is assessed as a "level" ranging from coma and brain death at the low end, to full alertness and purposeful responsiveness at the high end.

  • Stream of consciousness

    In the west, the primary impact of the idea has been on literature rather than science etc.

IMO "modern psychology" will describe consciousness as an "emergent" property: for example, a home is not a brick; nor is a home two bricks; but with enough bricks put together in the right way you can construct a house.

I think that "consciousness" does exist in (at least some) Buddhist metaphysics, which calls it "sentience":

Sentient beings is a technical term in Buddhist discourse. Broadly speaking, it denotes beings with consciousness or sentience or, in some contexts, life itself.

Because it's such a broad (not well-defined) concept I think the question is too broad to be answered in more detail.

  • I agree to this. In my experience, the field of psychology isn't too concerned with a defintion of "consciousness", rather, psychology looks at specific processes like emotion, perception, cognition, memory et c, in a similar investigative fashion just like buddhism.
    – user11699
    Commented Jan 4, 2019 at 13:26

I use the medical definition of consciousness as quoted by ChrisW “as a ‘level’ ranging from coma and brain death at the low end to full alertness and purposeful responsiveness at the high end.” This definition has been successfully operationalized as a checklist helping any emergency physician to determine the severity of a brain injury. On the basis of this definition neurologists identified certain brain areas necessary to create conscious brain processes: neocortex and thalamus.

Today we can go beyond cognitive psychology to investigate the question ‘What characterizes conscious brain processes?’ First on a physiological basis and secondly, even on a basis from information theory.

Apparently, consciousness is an emergent property – if we call a system property emergent if it is not owned by any of its separate parts. A current approach tries to quantify consciousness by the amount of integrated information. Integrated information is the excess of information created by the system in comparison to the information created by its parts [Tononi, G.: Consciousness as Integrated Information: a Provisional Manifesto. Biol. Bull. 215, 216-242 (December 2008)]. Tononi’s approach is one of the first attempts to formalize the vague concept of consciousness by a mathematical model from information theory.

All these findings, from the brain areas involved up to the concept of integrated information, are independent from any statements of mainstream Buddhism. Instead, these results have been detected by using the scientific methods and techniques developed during the last two centuries. At most, Buddhist monks act as probands for introspection and meditation, its refined variant.

Insofar, nothing of these theories/hypothesis comes from Buddhist theses.

A second meaning of your question asks how these results fit to Buddhist theses, which have been formulated independently. In my opinion, the Buddhist core thesis hits the point: Consciousness should not be considered a permanent substance but a property of impermanent brain processes. Up to the best of my knowledge, this point of view has not been emphasized in Western philosophy earlier than David Hume in the 18. century.

The earliest Buddhist teachings consider consciousness (vijnana) under the heading of the fifth aggregate as the mental capability to make analysis, judgement and cognition in general. That seems to me a correct, but not comprehensive description of consciousness. It remains on the level of folk psychology. Notably, I do not see that it contributes much to solve the question: How to explain the phenomenon of consciousness?


From my understanding as a Buddhist, the worldview is that only 6 things truly can be said to truly, truly, exist.

These 6 things are seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, touching, and thinking.

Anything beyond these 6 things such as "the body" "the brain" "the economy" "the world" "the internet", is a mental construct, a thought.

All these mental constructs we make are for the sake of convenience, or comes from misunderstanding.

This understanding goes against the grain of the world, goes against the view of the status quo that "we" exist, that the outer world really exists.

Modern Psychology comes up with data through using these 6 senses. In order to gather data through these 6 senses, these 6 senses must be accurate and reliable. According to Buddhism these 6 senses, the idea of these 6 senses, is deceptive. There is no real 6 senses, it is just a mental construct, a thought. Anything besides seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, touching, thinking, is not "real".

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