Small lies matter

A new study shows that even small lies can weaken our self control, causing us to tell bigger lies and more of them.

Lead author of the study, Neil Garrett, says of it:

“It is likely the brain’s blunted response to repeated acts of dishonesty reflects a reduced emotional response to these acts. This is in line with suggestions that our signals aversion to acts that we consider wrong or immoral. We only tested dishonesty in this experiment, but the same principle may also apply to escalations in other actions such as risk taking or violent behaviour.” [emphasis added] (How lying takes our brains down a ‘slippery slope’)

The study itself can be found here: The brain adapts to dishonesty.

Here is the abstract:

Dishonesty is an integral part of our social world, influencing domains ranging from finance and politics to personal relationships. Anecdotally, digressions from a moral code are often described as a series of small breaches that grow over time. Here we provide empirical evidence for a gradual escalation of self-serving dishonesty and reveal a neural mechanism supporting it. Behaviorally, we show that the extent to which participants engage in self-serving dishonesty increases with repetition. Using functional MRI, we show that signal reduction in the amygdala is sensitive to the history of dishonest behavior, consistent with adaptation. Critically, the extent of reduced amygdala sensitivity to dishonesty on a present decision relative to the previous one predicts the magnitude of escalation of self-serving dishonesty on the next decision. The findings uncover a biological mechanism that supports a ‘slippery slope’: what begins as small acts of dishonesty can escalate into larger transgressions. [emphasis added]

Though this is only one study based on results from only 80 people, I find it very credible.

In Buddhism we learn that even the smallest of thoughts can have enormous consequences.

An important aspect of Buddhist mindfulness is watching how our thoughts develop and how they affect us and others. FIML practice is based on sharing the fruits of real-time mindfulness with a partner.

Done correctly, FIML allows us to observe small transitions in our minds and correct them in real-time if they are wrong.

FIML does not deal all that much with lies per se because partners are expected to be beyond that and FIML won’t work if partners lie.

Nonetheless, FIML does deal with small misunderstandings that can lead to slippery slopes similar to what is described in the study.

For example, if you think your partner’s tone is dismissive and it isn’t and you don’t do a FIML query, the next time you hear that tone you will experience confirmation bias and be on your way down the slope. It’s very hard to trace that sort of thing back to its origin after a few occasions. Your misunderstanding of your partner’s tone could be construed as an unconscious lie that you are telling yourself.

This is why FIML is so important and why it is very helpful to start doing it early in your relationship when all is well and there are no misunderstandings.

FIML can be described as detailed, shared, real-time moral and existential awareness. It demands integrity and mindfulness from both partners and rewards them with greatly enhance shared integrity and mindfulness.

A major purpose of FIML is to prevent the sort of thing that happened in the study. To prevent partners from sliding down a slippery slope that sometimes cannot be regained.

Dalai Lama: Putin Is Right, U.S. Created ISIS

“I believe the crux of today’s Middle-East problem is laid in Obama administration policies and the Saudi interference in Syrian crisis. When Saudi clerics fallaciously claim they represent Islam and they side with cutthroats in Syria; thus they give the radical groups a plausible excuse for their heinous crimes against innocent civilians,” AFP quoted the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader as saying.

“…several times I importuned President Obama to end his catastrophic support for Saudis and their terrorist proxies in the Middle-East but my appeals fell on deaf ears,” said world’s most famous exile. (Source)

The seriousness of lying shows in alcoholism

About a year ago, I posted an essay suggesting that not lying may be the most important of the five precepts of Buddhism (guidelines for lay Buddhists).

In that essay, Buddhist morality and signaling, I said that the precepts can be understood as signals coming from the mind and that as such the morality of the signals themselves is of paramount importance.

If you don’t lie, you won’t kill, steal, do sexual misconduct or use alcohol irresponsibly because breaking any of the other five precepts will cause you to conceal what you have done or lie about it.

Yesterday, I saw a meme on alcoholism entitled part of being an alcoholic is making it seem like you are drunk less often than you really are. Here’s the meme:

It’s a long, bad, slippery slope from there on. I would hate myself if I did that.

When I mentioned this meme to my partner this morning, she said that she had read about an alcoholic who started lying to her family about her drinking.

The first time, the woman said, her lie made her feel a little distant from them. Before long, she felt so far away she couldn’t even remember where they were anymore.

This illustrates the power of the mind. If you are willing and able to accurately monitor your mind and report on it truthfully to your partner, you won’t even start down a bad road like the author of the meme or the woman who chose booze over her family.

Alcoholics are notorious liars because the condition all but forces them to lie to their most intimate companions. The booze itself causes the lying. The yeast that makes alcohol is like an off-site parasite that gets food from its “hosts” by forcing them to buy the waste products of its metabolism.


Note: I put up a fair amount of stuff on alcoholism on this site because I have witnessed the devastation of this condition up close with several friends. I also post on this subject because I know that the condition is greatly worsened by its being very hard for most people to identify during its early stages.

Alcoholism often starts in the mid to late teens, sometimes earlier or later. Normally three stages are recognized. 1) the early stage during which the future addict is just drinking a lot but may not be addicted yet; 2) the middle stage where the addict is addicted and knows it and is probably lying about it; 3) the last stage, which is the stage everyone recognizes.

In this last stage, the alcoholic typically is unhealthy, sloppy, and no longer conceals their drinking (which is less than before because their livers are damaged).

I think that if I had known more about alcoholism and how it progresses, I would have been able to help several people who were becoming alcoholic. I would also have prevented at least some of the harm they did/do to others.

I honestly feel bad about not having recognized the symptoms of early and middle stage alcoholism. I mistook it for good times and sensitive, artistic natures just going a bit too far. What I was actually witnessing was good people gradually turning into abusive drunks.

Anxiety and fight, flight, or freeze

I suppose we all know what the fight, flight, or freeze response is.

In the wild, the freeze response is extremely valuable. You see a bear in the near distance and freeze. While you are frozen, you decide what to do. Quietly pull out the bear spray if you have any or just stay still in the hope the animal will leave.

The freeze response gets bad PR when we think of it as only the “deer in the headlights” response. That happens to deer because they do not understand that your car is moving at 60 MPH. If it were going at walking speed, the freeze response would protect the deer by giving it a few more seconds to consider more options.

It might be better to call the “freeze” response the “neither” response, or the “neutral” response or the “neither and keep thinking” response. Fight, flee, or do neither.

Rather than panic and run at or away from the bear, we do neither. Just stay still and consider our options. Time often dilates in such situations and most people probably have at least a few memories of making a very good decision during that brief time dilation.

In the human social realm—the realm of human signals—anxiety is often a sign of a stalled fight-flight response.

What I propose is that the next time you feel anxious about anything, consider the “freeze” or “neither and keep thinking” response rather than fight or flight. Call up and explore your freeze response. It is a very rich and useful response.

You can practice on a small anxiety-inducing incident, even manufacture one.

Do something that normally causes you to feel slightly anxious, but rather than feel anxious choose the “freeze” response instead. If the incident is small enough you will be able to engage in a cool, neutral brain state that greatly resembles beginner’s mind of the Zen tradition.

This technique moderates our instinctive response to a stressor by adding a layer of metacognition that guides it to what we want it to be.

It makes us mindful that we have more options than simply feeling anxious. Since we are social animals, human social stressors very often induce outsized responses that get stuck in a panic mode.

With just a small push from a metacognitive vantage, we can transform counterproductive anxiety into a more open and creative “freeze” response.

Dalai Lama says ‘too many’ refugees in Europe

BERLIN: The Dalai Lama said in an interview published Thursday that Europe has accepted “too many” refugees, and that they should eventually return to help rebuild their home countries.

“When we look into the face of every single refugee, especially the children and women, we can feel their suffering,” said the Tibetan spiritual leader, who has himself lived in exile for over half a century.

“A human being who is a bit more fortunate has the duty to help them. On the other hand, there are too many now,” he said. (Source)

This statement shows the beauty and wisdom of Buddhism. What the Dalai Lama said is obvious and true, so he said it. That is right speech. ABN

Edit 5:55 PM: Compare to the Pope’s comments on this subject a few weeks ago.

Belief in a self isn’t what gives force to judgement, it’s what blocks it

The West seems to  find it very difficult to understand how recognizing that the self has no true existence doesn’t stand in the way of determination, strength of mind and action in the slightest.  Instead it opens our eyes wide to the causes of happiness and suffering.  It’s a recognition that makes action very precise.  Belief in a self isn’t what gives force to judgement, it’s what blocks it.  If our actions aren’t always clear-sighted, courageous, lucid and effective, as you say, it’s because we are the plaything of our attachment to the self.  It’s said, ‘the viewpoint of the sage is higher than the sky, and his discernment in terms of cause and effect is finer than flour.’  You can’t rebel against what you’ve sown yourself, but you can build the future by knowing how to distinguish between what leads to misery and what liberates you from it.  That’s very different from fatalistically espousing an inevitable future.  ~ Jean-Francois Revel and Matthieu Ricard, from  “The Monk and the Philosopher”

Is consciousness continuous or discrete?

Is consciousness a continuous flow of awareness without intervals or is it something that emerges continually at discrete points in a cascade of microbits?

The Buddhist answer has always been the latter.

The Buddha’s five skandha explanation of perception and consciousness says that there are four discrete steps that are the basis of consciousness.

The five skandhas are form, sensation, perception, activity, consciousness. A form can arise in the mind or outside of the mind. This form gives rise to a sensation, which gives rise to perception, followed by activity (mental or physical), and lastly consciousness. In the Buddha’s explanation, the five skandhas occur one after the other, very rapidly. They are not a continuous stream but rather a series of discrete or discernible moments. A form arises or appears, then there is a sensation, then perception, then activity, then consciousness. (The five skandhas and modern science)

The first four skandhas are normally unconscious. Buddhist mindfulness and meditation training are importantly designed to help us become conscious of each of the five skandhas as they actually function in real-time.

A study from 2014—Amygdala Responsivity to High-Level Social Information from Unseen Faces—supports the five skandha explanation. From that study:

The findings demonstrate that the amygdala can be influenced by even high-level facial information before that information is consciously perceived, suggesting that the amygdala’s processing of social cues in the absence of awareness may be more extensive than previously described. (emphasis added)

A few days ago, a new model of how consciousness arises was proposed. This model is being called a “two-stage” model, but it is based on research and conclusions derived from that research that support the Buddha’s five skandha explanation of consciousness.

The study abstract:

We experience the world as a seamless stream of percepts. However, intriguing illusions and recent experiments suggest that the world is not continuously translated into conscious perception. Instead, perception seems to operate in a discrete manner, just like movies appear continuous although they consist of discrete images. To explain how the temporal resolution of human vision can be fast compared to sluggish conscious perception, we propose a novel conceptual framework in which features of objects, such as their color, are quasi-continuously and unconsciously analyzed with high temporal resolution. Like other features, temporal features, such as duration, are coded as quantitative labels. When unconscious processing is “completed,” all features are simultaneously rendered conscious at discrete moments in time, sometimes even hundreds of milliseconds after stimuli were presented. (Time Slices: What Is the Duration of a Percept?) (emphasis added)

I, of course, completely support science going where the evidence leads and am not trying to shoehorn these findings into a Buddhist package. Nonetheless, that does sound a lot like a slimmed-down version of the five skandhas. Considering these and other recent findings in a Buddhist light may help science resolve more clearly what is actually happening in the brain/mind.

As for form-sensation-perception-activity-consciousness, you might suddenly think of your mother, or the history of China, or the spider that just climbed onto your shoulder.

In Buddhist terms, initially, each of those items is a form which leads to a sensation which leads to perception which leads to activity which leads to consciousness.

Obviously, the form of a spider on your shoulder differs from the form of the history of China. Yet both forms can be understood to produce positive, negative, or neutral sensations, after which we begin to perceive the form and then react to it with activity (either mental or physical or both) before becoming fully conscious of it.

In the case of the spider, the first four skandhas may happen so quickly, we will have reacted (activity) to it (the spider) before being conscious of what we are doing. The skandha of activity is deeply physical in this case, though once consciousness of the event arises our sense of what the first four skandhas were and are will change.

If we slapped the spider and think we killed it, our eyes will monitor it for movement. If it moves and we are sensitive in that way, we might shudder again and relive the minor panic that just occurred.

If we are sorry that we reacted without thinking and notice the spider is moving, we might feel relief that it is alive or sadness that it has been wounded.

In all cases, our consciousness of the original event, will constellate around the spider through monitoring it, our own reactions, and whatever else arises. Maybe our sudden movements brought someone else into the room.

The constellation of skandhas and angles of awareness can become very complex, but the skandhas will still operate in unique and/or feedback loops that can often be analyzed.

The word skandha means “aggregate” or “heap” indicating that the linear first-fifth explanation of how they operate is greatly simplified.

The above explanation of the spider can also be applied to the form skandhas of the history of China or your mother when they suddenly arise in your mind, or anything else.

We can also perceive the skandhas when our minds bring in new information from memory or wander. As we read, for example, it is normal for other forms to enter our minds from our memories. Some of these forms will enhance our reading and some of them will cause our minds to wander.

Either way, our consciousness is always slightly jumpy because it emerges continually at discrete points in a cascade of microbits, be they called skandhas or something else.


See also: How the brain produces consciousness in ‘time slices’

Interview with researcher David Nutt on the effects of LSD

From the interview:

…Why study the effects of LSD on the brain?

For brain researchers, studying how psychedelic drugs such as LSD alter the ‘normal’ brain state is a way to study the biological phenomenon that is consciousness. (Brain scans reveal how LSD affects consciousness)

The actual study is here: Neural correlates of the LSD experience revealed by multimodal neuroimaging.

Another article on this study can be found here: Brain scans show how LSD mimics mind of a baby.

Current scientific research confirms what many understood in the 1950s and 60s—that LSD used wisely often leads to good outcomes, increasing “creativity,” lessening depression, and removing addictive behaviors.

I know am a bit of a Buddhist heretic when I say that I am pretty sure the Buddha would have approved of or not disapproved of LSD. I say this because the fifth precept does not mention the abuse of any other drug but alcohol. For more on this topic see: Are We Misunderstanding The Fifth Precept?

The Diamond Sutra Section Seven: Nothing Has Been Attained and Nothing Has Been Said

Section Seven of the Diamond Sutra has been added. A link to the sutra can be found at the top of this page. Discussions of previous sections of the Diamond Sutra can be found here or by clicking on the Diamond Sutra tag on the right margin of this page.


In this section the Buddha follows up on his statement in the previous section “…this is why I have often said to you monks that even my teachings should be understood to be like a raft; if even the Dharma must be let go of, then how much more must everything else be let go of?”

He does this by asking Subhuti “…what do you say? Has the Tathagata really attained anuttara-samyak-sambodhi? Has the Tathagata really spoken a Dharma?”

Anuttara-samyak-sambodhi means “complete, unsurpassed enlightenment,” which is the ultimate goal of all Buddhist practice.

Subhuti answers correctly by saying, “As far as I understand what the Buddha has said, there is no definite dharma that can be called anuttara-samyak-sambodhi, and there is no definite Dharma that could be spoken about by the Tathagata.”

When spelled with a small d, dharma means “thing,” or in this case “anything that can be thought of or named.”

Subhuti’s saying “…there is no definite Dharma that could be spoken about by the Tathagata” means that the teachings of the Buddha have no definite form. They are methods for purifying the mind in an infinite variety of circumstances, not strict codes to be followed blindly. Like a raft, the teachings are used when and where they are needed and not where they are not needed.

Subhuti continues: And why is this? The Dharma of which the Tathagata speaks cannot be held onto, it cannot be spoken, it is not a law, and it is not a non-law.”

The true Dharma is the Dharma that is understood, the Dharma that alters consciousness for the better, the Dharma that ultimately brings anuttara-samyak-sambodhi.

“And that is why all bodhisattvas understand the unconditioned dharmas differently.”

The “unconditioned dharmas” are the eight unchanging attributes of the Tathagata or the enlightened state. Since these attributes are qualities of the Tathagata, this line might be interpreted to mean “All bodhisattvas understand the Tathagata differently.” The truth is one, but the angles from which we perceive it are many.

Buddhist sutras generally agree that the unconditioned state of enlightenment is: 1) timeless, 2) without delusion, 3) ageless, 4) deathless, 5) pure, 6) universal, 7) motionless, 8) joyful.

Personality as strategy

Personality can be understood as a kind of strategy or pragmatic functionalism.

This aspect of it can be conscious, semi-conscious, or non-conscious and is most common or apparent in social milieus.

Personality is a unifying principle or unifying group of principles and ideas that guides the individual in all settings.

Personality must also comport with the individual’s understanding of ethics, morals, philosophy, eschatology, and so forth.

While it may benefit me in some ways to lie, lying does not comport with my ethics so I won’t do it in most situations, though I may wander into or toward gray areas sometimes.

A major aspect of personality is how big that gray area is (if the individual perceives it at all) and how often it appears in real-world situations.

The dictates of culture, or cultural norms, are also standards that lie at the heart of how a person’s strategy for functioning in the world works.

In this context, narcissism or narcissistic behavior can be analyzed fairly simply.

A conscious narcissist is someone who uses the unifying principle of self-interest as a strategy or guide, often at the expense of sound ethics and fairness toward others.

A semi-conscious narcissist is one who does this in a more muddled way.

A non-conscious narcissist is one who does this out of training, lack of awareness, or cognitive decline due to substance abuse or injury.

The first kind—the conscious narcissist—can change easily if conditions are right. So can the second kind—the semi-conscious narcissist—though good conditions will be harder for them to find.

The third kind is less likely to change because the cause is organic. This kind illustrates the raw functionalism of personality. A simple principle such as relentless self-interest is easier to hold in the brain than a more complex one that factors in fairness and ethical standards.

Many other personality traits can be analyzed and understood as practical strategies that are used by the brain to guide the organism. In some cases, these strategies are complex with varying ties to ethics and fairness.

In other cases, these strategies are the simple standards that remain after organic damage in the brain has occurred. I am pretty sure this is one reason the Buddha made the fifth precept “refraining from irresponsible use of alcohol.”

Saint Romuald

Saint Romuald lived over 1,000 years ago. He is venerated today in both the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox traditions.

A couple of quotes from the short link below:

Empty yourself completely and sit waiting.

Sit in your cell as in paradise. Put the whole world behind you and forget it. Watch your thoughts like a good fisherman watching for fish. The path you must follow is in the Psalms — never leave it.


I tend to see religions and beliefs as something like languages. Much of it is vocabulary and context.

I bet Romuald and Milarepa would have gotten along well and understood each other well.


Repost: How delusions are formed

Delusions must start somewhere.

A recent study (Emoticons in mind: An event-related potential study) convincingly demonstrates that our responses to emoticons as simple as a colon next to a parenthesis :) are similar to our responses to real human faces.

Clearly, this response has been learned. No infant is born with that response and no one anywhere had it just a few decades ago.

Our tendency to respond to :) as a face arose with its use in email and texting. This response is now a well-established “public” response to a “public” semiotic. In this context, public means “understood and shared by many people.”

A public semiotic is a sign with wide currency. It is a unit of culture and often of language itself. We can see in the case of the emoticon :) that a new sign can arise due to unique circumstances and that that sign can come to have a deep meaning for many people.

The sign :) seems quite beautiful to me because it is very simple, very easily produced, and very telling about how our minds work. If the elements of the sign are reversed (: people no longer respond to it as a face, though of course we could learn to do that if the reversed sign were used that way more frequently.

I remember the first time I saw a derivative sign ;) and wondered briefly what it meant. If you had a similar experience, you may be able to remember how such a simple sign can bloom in your mind and go from something that is unknown to something of considerable significance in just a few seconds.

That is an example of the birth of a sign, the birth of a semiotic in your mind.

When the semiotic is public, we strive to learn what other people mean by it. When it is private—that is, with a meaning known only to us—there will be other, often very significant, implications.

What would a “private sign” be like? A straightforward example might be a code we use in a diary. Such a code would have at least one visual sign whose meaning is known only to us.

Another kind of private visual sign might be a facial expression that we have come to interpret differently from other people. My guess is everyone has a good many of these. That is to say, the “idiolect” of facial expressions we each use to understand other people is at least as various as different idiolects within a spoken language.

Now add tone of voice, posture, accent, word choice, topic choice, and so on to this mix. Each of those areas of communication uses signs that can and always will be interpreted in a wide variety of ways, including private ones.

Now, consider how an individual may get lost in all this. If someone ever smiled at you as they hurt you, you may have learned to be suspicious in your interpretation of human smiles. Or you may employ your own smile in ambiguous ways.

Now consider all the signs of communication and how many possible interpretations there are. Then consider the study linked above which shows how deep our responses can be to something as trivial as the sign :).

One way we form delusions occurs when our interpretations of communicative signs become too private and/or do not correspond well with the interpretations employed by other people. The other way we form delusions occurs when our interpretations of signs does correspond well with the interpretations employed by other people, but those other people are wrong.

In “public” situations—professional, commercial, business, school, etc.—it is fairly easy to communicate well enough based on established norms. But in interpersonal communication, you can only take “established norms” so far. At some point, you will have to understand your partner and be understood by them in much greater detail than “established norms,” or public semiotics.

Here is a newspaper article on the study linked above:  Happy days: Human brain now registers smiley face emoticon as real facial expression.