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C O U R S E 
Buddhism and Modern Psychology
Robert Wright, Princeton University
C O U R S E   L E C T U R E 
Buddhism as Rebellion Against Natural Selection's Agenda
Notes taken on July 29, 2014 by Edward Tanguay
Buddhism writing teaches
the source of unsatisfactoriness is our craving and our attempt to hang on to pleasurable things that don't last
the biological mechanics of craving show that we focus on and anticipate pleasure
we tend to forget that pleasures we will last only a very short time
when eating pleasant food, we don't literally think that the pleasure will last forever
but in a sense we are disappointed when the pleasure subsides and so we crave it again
when we think about doing pleasurable things, we think much more about the pleasure than of the evaporation of the pleasure afterward
we focus on the "moment of pleasure coming up"
an extension of this is infatuation which can lead to delusion
when infatuated, we have trouble seeing blemishes or deficiencies in our object of infatuation
here we may have a sense that the food we are about to enjoy is perfect and has no blemishes, we are completely absorbed in the imminent pleasure
yet soon after taking the first bite and consuming the food, we realize the reality of the food and crave our idea of its perfection in the next bite, which is less perfect than the first
our infatuation with food quickly evaporates in this way
in terms of infatuation of a person, we feel that if we were to be in a relationship with the person we are infatuated with, then there would be some kind of eternal satisfaction
since relationships are more complicated than this, we can say that this is a type of delusion: we think they are perfect yet they are not
when we get into a real relationship with them, we discover their imperfections and our infatuation subsides
this applies as well to e.g. a certain job we want
we feel when we get that job, then everything in life will come into line and be right
we feel that if we get this job, we will "have arrived"
this is also a type of delusion based on lack of attention to detail of reality
one biological explanation why we often don't comprehend that gratification won't last forever is in the bio-transmitter dopamine
the way dopamine works is of course more complicated than these names suggest
we have to remember that dopamine is not simply a "pleasure chemical" or "reward chemical"
it depends what part of the brain it is in, which neurons are involved
we have to remember to distinguish between a causation and correlation
it may be that pleasure is simply correlated with dopamine but not caused by it
however, experiments particularly with monkeys, do show interesting correlations between pleasure causing actions and the chemical dopamine
they gave fruit juice to monkey
this cause in him 1/3 of a second of a dopamine spike
later in the experiment, they made anticipation possible
light means fruit juice is coming and what happens is that when the light went on, there was a dopamine spike in the anticipation of pleasure
shows that the monkey is focusing on the pleasure to come
an imagining of the pleasure that is coming
but when there is dopamine in anticipation, there is less spike when the fruit just comes
often the anticipation is where most of the pleasure happens
when we reflect on our own experience of anticipation of enjoyment and enjoyment itself, we can understand how anticipation brings strong pleasure, followed by an spike of initial pleasure and then rapid receding of pleasure
our bodies could have evolved to keep excreting dopamine for 10-20 seconds, but that didn't happen, why?
we can understand this by considering that the purpose an organism's life, as far as natural selection is concerned, is to pass its genes into the next generation, and so pleasure is used as a tool to get the organism to maximize the chance that this will happen
if you wanted animals to get their genes into the next generation, the following three elements that would be the most helpful:
1. when they are doing things that work toward this goal, they should get some pleasure, e.g. while eating, having sex, or elevating social status
2. make the pleasure evaporate shortly thereafter
if you ate just one meal and afterwards experienced pleasure from this for long periods of time, you would not have an unpleasant sensations during this time, and hence would not be motivated to go search for more food and eat again
these genes that encourage restlessness are going to do better at passing themselves to the next generation than genes which encourage extended periods of pleasure
3. make the animal focus more on the pleasure that is to come than on its ensuing evaporation
if you are thinking, "the pleasure is going to be over immediately anyway, why work so hard" then you will be less likely to do the work to get the pleasure
experiments have shown that if a pleasure without warning is given to an animal, it generally experiences a spike of the chemical dopamine in its brain
however, if the animal is allowed to anticipate the pleasure beforehand, i.e. if a light is consistently turned on before the pleasure is administered, then the anticipation will give the animal a larger spike of dopamine than the reward itself
each successive bite of a doughnut is less enjoyable
the anticipation of buying the donuts was greater as a whole and got me to do the necessary work to obtain the food
why would natural selection have designed brains that are attracted to powdered sugar donuts since they aren't very good for us
it didn't because powdered sugar donuts were not part of the landscape as our lineage evolved
what was part of the landscape, however, was sweetness, which was an indicator of sugars which was something that was rare and helped us survive
in cases where enjoyment has become routine, why don't we just do the anticipation and skip the eating
in experiments when monkeys anticipate and then do not get a reward, they have a drop in dopamine levels
e.g. when you know there is a piece of cake in the refrigerator, you open the door, and someone has eaten it, you feel let down
the basic principles of Buddhism identify the natural state of being we find ourselves in which has resulted from the process of natural selection forming us
1. Buddhism says pleasure doesn't last and will always leave us unsatisfied
this is natural selection's intention:
natural selection prefers organisms to be unsatisfied so that they continue to do the work on natural selection's agenda: stay alive and pass on your genes
2. Buddhism says we tend to focus on pleasure instead of on the fleetingness of pleasure
this is natural selection's intention:
if we focused on the fleetingness of pleasure, we wouldn't be so inclined to do the work in the first place to get the pleasure
3. Buddhism says that we do not see the world as it is
this is natural selection's intention:
natural selection has formed us to see the world unclearly so that we maintain a high stress level and are overly fearful of our environment so that we think there are more dangers than there actually are
those organisms which have been overly careful, i.e. not only seen real snakes but also often mistaken sticks for snakes and movements in the grass for snakes, have generally been those that have lived long enough to pass on their genes, and this is all natural selection cares about
so while natural selection has formed us to:
1. be unsatisfied
2. desire, anticipate and focus on pleasure
3. see the world unclearly
Buddhism teaches us to:
1. transcend unsatisfaction
2. do not focus on pleasure
3. see the world clearly