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Does your ego serve you, or do you serve it? What Buddhism and Freud say about self-slavery
"Buddhist psychology and Western psychotherapy both hold out hope for a more flexible ego, one that does not pit the individual against everyone else in a futile attempt to gain total surety."
Ego is the one affliction we all have in common. Because of our understandable efforts to be bigger, better, smarter, stronger, richer, or more attractive, we are shadowed by a nagging sense of weariness and self-doubt. Our very efforts at self-improvement orient us in an unsustainable direction since we can never be certain whether we have achieved enough. We want our lives to be better but we are hamstrung in our approach. Disappointment is the inevitable consequence of endless ambition, and bitterness a common refrain when things do not work out. Dreams are a good window into this. They hurl us into situations in which we feel stuck, exposed, embarrassed, or humiliated, feelings we do our best to keep at bay during our waking hours. Our disturbing dreams are trying to tell us something, however. The ego is not an innocent bystander. While it claims to have our own best interests at heart, in its relentless pursuit of attention and power it undermines the very goals it sets out to achieve. The ego needs our help. If we want a more satisfying existence, we have to teach it to loosen its grip.
There are many things in life we can do nothing about—the circumstances of our childhoods; natural events in the outer world; the chaos and catastrophe of illness, accident, loss, and abuse—but there is one thing we can change. How we interact with our own egos is up to us. We get very little help with this in life. No one really teaches us how to be with ourselves in a constructive way. There is a lot of encouragement in our culture for developing a stronger sense of self. Self-love, self-esteem, self-confidence, and the ability to aggressively get one’s needs met are all goals that most people subscribe to. As important as these accomplishments may be, however, they are not enough to guarantee well-being. People with a strong sense of self still suffer. They may look like they have it all together, but they cannot relax without drinking or taking drugs. They cannot unwind, give affection, improvise, create, or sympathize with others if they are steadfastly focused only on themselves. Simply building up the ego leaves a person stranded. The most important events in our lives, from falling in love to giving birth to facing death, all require the ego to let go.
This is not something the ego knows how to do. If it had a mind of its own, it would not see this as its mission. But there is no reason for the untutored ego to hold sway over our lives, no reason for a permanently selfish agenda to be our bottom line. The very ego whose fears and attachments drive us is also capable of a profound and far-reaching development. We have the capacity, as conscious and self-reflecting individuals, to talk back to the ego. Instead of focusing solely on success in the external world, we can direct ourselves to the internal one. There is much self-esteem to be gained from learning how and when to surrender.
While our culture does not generally support the conscious de-escalation of the ego, there are silent advocates for it in our midst. Buddhist psychology and Western psychotherapy both hold out hope for a more flexible ego, one that does not pit the individual against everyone else in a futile attempt to gain total surety. These two traditions developed in completely different times and places and, until relatively recently, had nothing to do with each other. But the originators of each tradition—Siddhartha Gautama, the South Asian prince who renounced his luxurious lifestyle to seek an escape from the indignities of old age, illness, and death; and Sigmund Freud, the Viennese doctor whose interpretation of his own dreams set him on a path to illuminate the dark undercurrents of the human psyche—both identified the untrammeled ego as the limiting factor in our well-being. As different as these two individuals were, they came to a virtually identical conclusion. When we let the ego have free rein, we suffer. But when it learns to let go, we are free.
Detail of 'Head of the Buddha' on display at the Victoria and Albert Museum on October 16, 2016 in London, Great Britain, United Kingdom. (Waring Abbott/Getty Images)
Neither Buddhism nor psychotherapy seeks to eradicate the ego. To do so would render us either helpless or psychotic. We need our egos to navigate the world, to regulate our instincts, to exercise our executive function, and to mediate the conflicting demands of self and other. The therapeutic practices of both Buddhism and psychotherapy are often used to build up the ego in just these ways. When someone is depressed or suffers from low self-esteem because he or she has been mistreated, for example, therapy must focus on repairing a battered ego. Similarly, many people have embraced the meditation practices of the East to help build up their self-confidence. Focus and concentration diminish stress and anxiety and help people adapt to challenging home and work environments. Meditation has found a place in hospitals, on Wall Street, in the armed forces, and in sports arenas, and much of its benefit lies in the ego strength it confers by giving people more control over their minds and bodies. The ego-enhancing aspects of both of these approaches are not to be minimized. But ego enhancement, by itself, can get us only so far.
Both Western psychotherapy and Buddhism seek to empower the observing “I” over the unbridled “me.” They aim to rebalance the ego, diminishing self-centeredness by encouraging self-reflection. They do this in different, although related, ways and with different, although related, visions. For Freud, free association and the analysis of dreams were the primary methods. By having his patients lie prone and stare into space while saying whatever came to mind, he shifted the usual equilibrium of the ego toward the subjective. Although few people lie on the couch anymore, this kind of self-reflection remains one of the most therapeutic aspects of psychotherapy. People learn to make room for themselves, to be with uncomfortable emotional experiences, in a more accepting way. They learn to make sense of their internal conflicts and unconscious motivations, to relax against the strain of the ego’s perfectionism.
Buddhism counsels something similar. Although its central premise is that suffering is an inextricable aspect of life, it is actually a cheerful religion. Its meditations are designed to teach people to watch their own minds without necessarily believing everything they think. Mindfulness, the ability to be with whatever is happening in a moment-to-moment way, helps one not be victimized by one’s most selfish impulses. Meditators are trained to not push away the unpleasant nor cling to the pleasant but to make room for whatever arises. Impulsive reactions, in the form of likes and dislikes, are given the same kind of attention as everything else, so that people learn to dwell more consistently in their observing awareness, just as one does in classic modes of therapy. This observing awareness is an impersonal part of the ego, unconditioned by one’s usual needs and expectations. Mindfulness pulls one away from the immature ego’s insistent self-concern, and in the process it enhances one’s equilibrium in the face of incessant change. This turns out to be enormously helpful in dealing with the many indignities life throws at us.
While the two approaches are very similar, the primary areas of concern turned out to be different. Freud became interested in the roiling instincts and passions that rise to the surface when the ego is put under observation. He saw himself as a conjuror of the unconscious, an illuminator of the dark undercurrents of human behavior. When not prompted, people reveal themselves, often to their own surprise, and what they discover, while not always pretty, gives them a deeper and richer appreciation of themselves. Out of the dark earth, after a night’s rain, flowers grow. Freud took delight in poking fun at the belief that we are masters in our own houses, comparing his discoveries to those of Copernicus, who insisted that the sun does not revolve around the earth, and Darwin, who claimed that man “bears in his bodily frame the indelible stamp of his lowly origin.” For Freud, the ego could evolve only by giving up its ambitions of mastery. The ego he encouraged was a humbled one, wider in scope but aware of its own limitations, not driven so much by instinctual cravings but able to use its energies creatively and for the benefit of others.
While maintaining a similar reliance on self-observation, Buddhism has a different focus. It seeks to give people a taste of pure awareness. Its meditation practices, like those of therapy, are built on the split between subject and object. But rather than finding uncovered instincts to be the most illuminating, Buddhism finds inspiration in the phenomenon of consciousness itself. Mindfulness holds up a mirror to all the activity of mind and body. This image of the mirror is central to Buddhist thought. A mirror reflects things without distortion. Our consciousness is like that mirror. It reflects things just as they are. In most people’s lives, this is taken for granted; no special attention is given to this mysterious occurrence. But mindfulness takes this knowing consciousness as its most compelling object. The bell is ringing. I hear it and on top of that I know that “I” am hearing it and, when mindful, I might even know that I know that I am hearing it. But once in a while in deep meditation, this whole thing collapses and all that is left is one’s mirrorlike knowing. No “I,” no “me,” just pure subjective awareness. The bell, the sound, that’s it! It is very hard to talk about, but when it happens the freedom from one’s usual identity comes as a relief. The contrast with one’s habitual ego-driven state is overwhelming, and much of the Buddhist tradition is designed to help consolidate the perspective of this “Great Perfect Mirror Wisdom” with one’s day-to-day personality.
Adapted from ADVICE NOT GIVEN: A Guide to Getting Over Yourself by Mark Epstein, published by Penguin Press, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2018 by Mark Epstein.
The father of all giant sea bugs was recently discovered off the coast of Java.
- A new species of isopod with a resemblance to a certain Sith lord was just discovered.
- It is the first known giant isopod from the Indian Ocean.
- The finding extends the list of giant isopods even further.
Humanity knows surprisingly little about the ocean depths. An often-repeated bit of evidence for this is the fact that humanity has done a better job mapping the surface of Mars than the bottom of the sea. The creatures we find lurking in the watery abyss often surprise even the most dedicated researchers with their unique features and bizarre behavior.
A recent expedition off the coast of Java discovered a new isopod species remarkable for its size and resemblance to Darth Vader.
The ocean depths are home to many creatures that some consider to be unnatural.
According to LiveScience, the Bathynomus genus is sometimes referred to as "Darth Vader of the Seas" because the crustaceans are shaped like the character's menacing helmet. Deemed Bathynomus raksasa ("raksasa" meaning "giant" in Indonesian), this cockroach-like creature can grow to over 30 cm (12 inches). It is one of several known species of giant ocean-going isopod. Like the other members of its order, it has compound eyes, seven body segments, two pairs of antennae, and four sets of jaws.
The incredible size of this species is likely a result of deep-sea gigantism. This is the tendency for creatures that inhabit deeper parts of the ocean to be much larger than closely related species that live in shallower waters. B. raksasa appears to make its home between 950 and 1,260 meters (3,117 and 4,134 ft) below sea level.
Perhaps fittingly for a creature so creepy looking, that is the lower sections of what is commonly called The Twilight Zone, named for the lack of light available at such depths.
It isn't the only giant isopod, far from it. Other species of ocean-going isopod can get up to 50 cm long (20 inches) and also look like they came out of a nightmare. These are the unusual ones, though. Most of the time, isopods stay at much more reasonable sizes.
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During an expedition, there are some animals which you find unexpectedly, while there are others that you hope to find. One of the animal that we hoped to find was a deep sea cockroach affectionately known as Darth Vader Isopod. The staff on our expedition team could not contain their excitement when they finally saw one, holding it triumphantly in the air! #SJADES2018
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What benefit does this find have for science? And is it as evil as it looks?
The discovery of a new species is always a cause for celebration in zoology. That this is the discovery of an animal that inhabits the deeps of the sea, one of the least explored areas humans can get to, is the icing on the cake.
Helen Wong of the National University of Singapore, who co-authored the species' description, explained the importance of the discovery:
"The identification of this new species is an indication of just how little we know about the oceans. There is certainly more for us to explore in terms of biodiversity in the deep sea of our region."
The animal's visual similarity to Darth Vader is a result of its compound eyes and the curious shape of its head. However, given the location of its discovery, the bottom of the remote seas, it may be associated with all manner of horrifically evil Elder Things and Great Old Ones.
If computers can beat us at chess, maybe they could beat us at math, too.
- Most everyone fears that they will be replaced by robots or AI someday.
- A field like mathematics, which is governed solely by rules that computers thrive on, seems to be ripe for a robot revolution.
- AI may not replace mathematicians but will instead help us ask better questions.
The following is an excerpt adapted from the book Shape. It is reprinted with permission of the author.
Will machines replace us? Since the origin of artificial intelligence (AI), people have worried that computers eventually (or even imminently!) will surpass the human cognitive capacity in every respect.
Artificial intelligence pioneer Oliver Selfridge, in a television interview from the early 1960s, said, "I am convinced that machines can and will think in our lifetime" — though with the proviso, "I don't think my daughter will ever marry a computer." (Apparently, there is no technical advance so abstract that people can't feel sexual anxiety about it.)
Let's make the relevant question more personal: will machines replace me? I'm a mathematician; my profession is often seen from the outside as a very complicated but ultimately purely mechanical game played with fixed rules, like checkers, chess, or Go. These are activities in which machines have already demonstrated superhuman ability.
Some people imagine a world where computers give us all the answers. I dream bigger. I want them to ask good questions.
But for me, math is different: it is a creative pursuit that calls on our intuition as much as our ability to compute. (To be fair, chess players probably feel the same way.) Henri Poincaré, the mathematician who re-envisioned the whole subject of geometry at the beginning of the 20th century, insisted it would be hopeless
"to attempt to replace the mathematician's free initiative by a mechanical process of any kind. In order to obtain a result having any real value, it is not enough to grind out calculations, or to have a machine for putting things in order: it is not order only, but unexpected order, that has a value. A machine can take hold of the bare fact, but the soul of the fact will always escape it."
But machines can make deep changes in mathematical practice without shouldering humans aside. Peter Scholze, winner of a 2018 Fields Medal (sometimes called the "Nobel Prize of math") is deeply involved in an ambitious program at the frontiers of algebra and geometry called "condensed mathematics" — and no, there is no chance that I'm going to try to explain what that is in this space.
Meet AI, your new research assistant
What I am going to tell you is the result of what Scholze called the "Liquid Tensor Experiment." A community called Lean, started by Leonardo de Moura of Microsoft Research and now open-source and worldwide, has the ambitious goal of developing a computer language with the expressive capacity to capture the entirety of contemporary mathematics. A proposed proof of a new theorem, formalized by translation into this language, could be checked for correctness automatically, rather than staking its reputation on fallible human referees.
Scholze asked last December whether the ideas of condensed mathematics could be formalized in this way. He also wanted to know whether it could express the ideas of a particularly knotty proof that was crucial to the project — a proof that he was pretty sure was right.
When I first heard about Lean, I thought it would probably work well for some easy problems and theorems. I underestimated it. So did Scholze. In a May 2021 blog post, he writes, "[T]he Experiment has verified the entire part of the argument that I was unsure about. I find it absolutely insane that interactive proof assistants are now at the level that within a very reasonable time span they can formally verify difficult original research."
And the contribution of the machine wasn't just to certify that Scholze was right to think his proof was sound; he reports that the work of putting the proof in a form that a machine could read improved his own human understanding of the argument!
The Liquid Tensor Experiment points to a future where machines, rather than replacing human mathematicians, become our indispensable partners. Whether or not they can take hold of the soul of the fact, they can extend our grasp as we reach for the soul.
Slicing up a knotty problem
That can take the form of "proof assistance," as it did for Scholze, or it can go deeper. In 2018, Lisa Piccirillo, then a PhD student at the University of Texas, solved a long-standing geometry problem about a shape called the Conway knot. She proved the knot was "non-slice" — this is a fact about what the knot looks like from the perspective of four-dimensional beings. (Did you get that? Probably not, but it doesn't matter.) The point is this was a famously difficult problem.
A few years before Piccirillo's breakthrough, a topologist named Mark Hughes at Brigham Young had tried to get a neural network to make good guesses about which knots were slice. He gave it a long list of knots where the answer was known, just as an image-processing neural net would be given a long list of pictures of cats and pictures of non-cats.
Hughes's neural net learned to assign a number to every knot; if the knot were slice, the number was supposed to be 0, while if the knot were non-slice, the net was supposed to return a whole number bigger than 0. In fact, the neural net predicted a value very close to 1 — that is, it predicted the knot was non-slice — for every one of the knots Hughes tested, except for one. That was the Conway knot.
For the Conway knot, Hughes's neural net returned a number very close to 1/2, its way of saying that it was deeply unsure whether to answer 0 or 1. This is fascinating! The neural net correctly identified the knot that posed a really hard and mathematically rich problem (in this case, reproducing an intuition that topologists already had).
Some people imagine a world where computers give us all the answers. I dream bigger. I want them to ask good questions.
Dr. Jordan Ellenberg is a professor of mathematics at the University of Wisconsin and a number theorist whose popular articles about mathematics have appeared in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Wired, and Slate. His most recent book is Shape: The Hidden Geometry of Information, Biology, Strategy, Democracy, and Everything Else.
Laughing gas may be far more effective for some than antidepressants.
- Standard antidepressant medications don't work for many people who need them.
- With ketamine showing potential as an antidepressant, researchers investigate another anesthetic: nitrous oxide, commonly called "laughing gas."
- Researchers observe that just a light mixture of nitrous oxide for an hour alleviates depression symptoms for two weeks.
The usual antidepressants don't work for everyone. That's what makes a new study of the antidepressant properties of nitrous oxide so intriguing. It looks like just a single low dose of what your dentist may call "laughing gas" can help alleviate symptoms of depression for weeks afterward.
The study, from researchers at University of Chicago and Washington University-St. Louis, is published in the journal Science Translational Medicine.
Resistance to anti-depression medications
Nitrous oxide: two atoms of nitrogen, one of oxygenCredit: Big Think
According to the senior author of the study, Charles Conway, "A significant percentage — we think around 15 percent — of people who suffer from depression don't respond to standard antidepressant treatment."
"These 'treatment-resistant depression' patients," Conway says, "often suffer for years, even decades, with life-debilitating depression. We don't really know why standard treatments don't work for them, though we suspect that they may have different brain network disruptions than non-resistant depressed patients. Identifying novel treatments, such as nitrous oxide, that target alternative pathways is critical to treating these individuals."
"There is a huge unmet need," says lead author Peter Nagele. "There are millions of depressed patients who don't have good treatment options, especially those who are dealing with suicidality."
If ketamine can help, can nitrous oxide?
Credit: sudok1 / Adobe Stock
The researchers wondered if some of the anti-depression properties seen in ketamine might also apply to nitrous oxide. Nagele explains, "Like nitrous oxide, ketamine is an anesthetic, and there has been promising work using ketamine at a sub-anesthetic dose for treating depression."
The researchers conducted a one-hour session — they describe it as a "proof-of-principle" trial — in which 20 individuals with depression were administered an air mixture with 50 percent nitrous oxide. Twenty-four hours later, the researchers found a significant reduction in the participants' symptoms of depression versus a control group.
However, the individuals also suffered the unpleasant side effects that laughing gas often causes in dental patients: headache, nausea, and vomiting.
Smaller dose, longer effect
Credit: sudok1 / Adobe Stock
"We wondered if our past concentration of 50 percent had been too high," recalls Nagele. "Maybe by lowering the dose, we could find the 'Goldilocks spot' that would maximize clinical benefit and minimize negative side effects."
In a new trial, 20 people with depression were given a lighter nitrous oxide mix, just 25 percent, and the individuals tested reported a 75 percent reduction in side effects compared to the a control group given an air/oxygen placebo. This time, the researchers also tracked the effect of nitrous oxide on symptoms of depression for a far longer period, two weeks instead of just 24 hours.
"The reduction in side effects was unexpected and quite drastic," reports Nagele, "but even more excitingly, the effects after a single administration lasted for a whole two weeks. This has never been shown before. It's a very cool finding."
Nagele also notes that, despite its popular renown as laughing gas, even a light 25 percent mix of nitrous actually causes people to nod off. "They're not getting high or euphoric; they get sedated."
Delivering help to people with depression
Nagele cautions, "These have just been pilot studies. But we need acceptance by the larger medical community for this to become a treatment that's actually available to patients in the real world. Most psychiatrists are not familiar with nitrous oxide or how to administer it, so we'll have to show the community how to deliver this treatment safely and effectively. I think there will be a lot of interest in getting this into clinical practice."
After all, Nagele adds, "If we develop effective, rapid treatments that can really help someone navigate their suicidal thinking and come out on the other side — that's a very gratifying line of research."