Category Archives: Religion


Cognitive Distortions and the Five Hindrances (Post 1)

(This is the first in a series of unknown length on my thoughts on Buddhism’s Five Hindrances and their relationship to the concept in psychotherapy of Cognitive Distortions.)

I was first introduced to the psychological concept of cognitive distortions by Maria. Per the linked Wikipedia article, cognitive distortions are thought processes that “maintain negative thinking and … emotions”. Learning to refute them is termed “cognitive restructuring”.

On reading Maria’s old post, I was immediately reminded of Buddhism, and had in fact just listened to a series of podcasts on the “Five Hindrances”. However, there is no simple mapping between cognitive distortions and the hindrances. I’m tempted to try to make a Venn diagram on the relationship between the two sets.

My readings so far in Mind Over Mood have reaffirmed my suspicion that the two concepts are inter-related. Take, for example, this statement from the book’s introduction:

Mind over Mood teaches you to identify your thoughts, moods, behaviors, and physical reactions in small situations as well as during major events in your life … you learn how to make changes in your life when your thoughts are alerting you to problems that need to be solved.

The major function for me of meditation has been to find a baseline. Our thoughts build up during the day like layers as we work on something, are interrupted, hear interesting news, spontaneously think of things that were bugging us days ago. Sometimes we follow a train of thought for a while, based mostly on assumptions. Gil Fronsdal calls these bits of imagination ‘stories’. We create stories, often about the intentions of others, build up long conversations in our heads imagining confrontations and how other people in our life will react to what we say. Aside from getting lost daydreaming these stories, we tend to accumulate feelings about our imagined conversations and conversation partners, even though the conversations have never occurred. Gil usually calls the state we arrive in after this as being ‘caught’.

Here are some examples from of people building stories in their minds:

She’s tired of working at the coffee shop. She expected so much more for herself.

Her mother is a real estate agent, hawking million-dollar homes to the contemporary gentry. Her father is a entertainment lawyer. Her older sister manages her own ballet studio. Her younger brother designs computer games for a major software corporation.

And then there’s her. A barista at a small coffee shop. Between a tall Americano and double-shot espresso, her mind wanders—

I’m the failure of the family. They were embarrassed to talk about me at the wedding; everyone else is so successful and then there’s me, the coffee girl. I hate spending time with my family. I’m trying the best that I can to get back on my feet, but they will never understand. They’re too busy with the expensive details of their lives—

She calls out, “Tall Americano!” and offers a warm smile to the elderly woman who approaches the counter to pick up the steaming beverage.

(From The Things That We Hide)

A man walked past her on the sidewalk. His dark eyes darted to her face before snapping back to an invisible point in the distant horizon.

She saw his surreptitious glance.

He thinks I’m hot, she thought to herself. He wants to ask me out, I know it.

Her stiletto heels clicked loudly against the concrete catwalk and, after he passed her, she swiveled her hips with more panache to offer him a teasing view of her backside.

They all look back—what’s there not to like?

With a gentle toss of her head, her long hair floated over her shoulder and landed softly on her back, revealing more of her voluptuous figure. Throwing her shoulders back and pushing her chest out, she continued to sashay along the sidewalk while the crowd parted around her.

I’m so gorgeous that everyone wants to look at my delicious body.

(From Perception Spectrum.)

The interesting thing about the Perception Spectrum post is that it contains several other examples of stories that could be built from the same situation. I suggest you read the whole post and think about how the stories are being built based on assumptions.

In order to extricate ourselves from the state of being ‘caught’ in our stories, it’s helpful to understand how we feel when we are not caught. Meditation gives us practice at identifying our ‘stories’ (complexes of distortions?) in a controlled environment. Having practiced in a controlled environment, we find it easier to identify story-building that occurs during our daily lives.

Can you think of an instance in which you built up a story and later found it to be far from reality?

Happy Darwin Day!

Charles Darwin was born 199 years ago today. From the Darwin Day press release,

Recent Gallup polls show that 43 percent of Americans reject the theory of evolution and instead believe that “God created human beings pretty much in their present form at one time within the last 10,000 years or so.” And at least four 2008 presidential candidates have said they do not believe the theory of evolution.

“There is a continuous threat to evolutionary biology and to science in general that has been posed by fundamentalists who reject entirely a Darwinian worldview because they feel it threatens their religious beliefs,” said Massimo Pigliucci, Ph.D., a professor of evolutionary biology at the State University of New York-Stony Brook.

43% — Keep in mind that while these people think God created humans in the last 10,000 years, we have evidence that dogs were domesticated by humans some 4000-7000 years before that.

Mind/Brain Duality (or lack thereof)

What is the mind? Is it a product of the brain, or does it come from somewhere else? Is there a ghost in the machine?

A number of things have brought this source of controversy to my mind recently. One is that I just finished the second season of Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex (not as good as the first season). The Ghost in the Shell franchise is largely an exploration of the implications of mind/brain duality and how it may actually become a reality as technology improves. Another is that I’m still reading Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid by Douglas Hofstadter, a book that (among many other things) is largely about the origin of consciousness. Yet another is that there was a great party at the Mind/Brain Institute here at Hopkins last Friday. The final thing is that over the weekend I have gotten into some arguments with anti-choice people on YouTube (I know, bad move).

First, a disclaimer — here are the things that I believe, after a lot of reading and thinking:

  • The mind exists as a result of things that happen in the brain.
  • As it stands now, the mind cannot exist without the brain.
  • It is conceptually possible that the mind could be ‘liberated’ from the physical hardware of the brain, but it would require some other equivalent physical hardware. The most computationally difficult and brute-force version of this would be to accurately simulate a physical brain on a computer.
  • Humans are not the only conscious animals on this planet.
  • Not all humans have the same level of consciousness. For instance, a baby in the womb or even a newborn is not likely conscious in the sense that adults or older children are. Probably many animals are more conscious than a one-year-old.

The alternative view, as far as I can discern it, is that the mind is something special that sort of “sits on” the brain, but can be liberated from it should the brain fail (read: die). This consciousness (or “ghost”) can then go on to lead an afterlife. This is an extremely common perception, though it’s highly unlikely, and it is the basis of some very common and heated controversies. It leads to statements of belief (contrasted with mine above) like this:

  • As soon as a zygote is formed, it has a soul and is a person. It has feelings and cries out in pain if aborted, thinking “Why does my mommy not love me?
  • Humans have a soul and are special. Animals do not, and are not essentially ‘special’.
  • When the body dies, the soul lives on. Its future can contain things like heaven, hell, joining with the universal consciousness from whence it originally came, and so on.

This is why anti-choicers insist that abortion is murder. They will swear up and down to you that abortion is taking a “life”, but try to pin them down on what “life” is and why it’s more valuable than the life of the mildew in their shower or the pregnant woman, and they start to stutter and dive into circular logic. We can pose some difficult questions that will reveal this:

  • What is an aborted foetus’s soul like in Heaven? Does it remain always a baby? Does it grow into an adult?
  • Do people with life-long brain dysfunction on earth (say, from Down’s Syndrome) become different, more intelligent, and function better when relieved of their physical brain?
  • Do people who have suffered head injuries on earth that allow them to survive but damage their ability to function, or people who have survived a stroke regain full function in the afterlife?

These questions are designed to bring attention to conflicting beliefs held within the same mind. That is, if one believes that a head injury causes its mental effects via damage to the brain, and not because it allows a demon into the soul, the rest of the ghost-in-the-machine belief system comes into question. The latter explanation is still accepted by some uneducated people (think rural west Africa) and crazy people in the developed world. The questions make it harder for people to rest assured that they hold reasonable beliefs on the nature of the brain and that these beliefs do not jeopardize their religious convictions.

What are your views on the subject? Do you disagree with me? Can you think of similar and better questions to bring out this sort of thing?