Why your self-image might be wrong: Ego, Buddhism and Freud
"You" might not be as real as you think you are. Here's what Buddhism has to say about living ego-free, and how Freud misunderstood it.
Mark Epstein, M.D. is a psychiatrist in private practice in New York City and the author of a number of books about the interface of Buddhism and psychotherapy, including Thoughts without a Thinker, Going to Pieces without Falling Apart, Going on Being, Open to Desire, Psychotherapy without the Self, and The Trauma of Everyday Life. His newest book is Advice Not Given: A Guide to Getting Over Yourself. He received his undergraduate and medical degrees from Harvard University and is currently Clinical Assistant Professor in the Postdoctoral Program in Psychotherapy and Psychoanalysis at New York University.
Mark Epstein: I think the average person who knows maybe a little bit about psychology or a little bit about Buddhism would think that the Buddhist emphasis or the Buddhist conversation about the ego is all about getting rid of the ego completely. There’s this notion in Buddhist psychology of “egolessness” or “no self”, and most people misinterpret that—as Freud actually did—most people misinterpret it to think that Buddhism is saying we don’t need the ego at all or we don’t need the self at all, like get rid of it and then we’re one with everything and that’s it. And I think that’s wrong. Obviously we need our egos.
A good friend of mine Robert Thurman who is a Professor of Buddhism at Columbia, a Professor of Religion at Columbia, he had a Mongolian teacher in the 1960s who used to say to him about this topic of egolessness or selflessness: "It’s not that you’re not real, of course you’re “real” you have a self, but people like you— secular people who don’t really understand—think that they’re “really real”" and what Buddhism is teaching is that that belief in your own “really realness” is misguided. We take ourselves more seriously than we need to; the self is not as fixed as we would like to think.
The ego is born out of fear and isolation. It comes into being when self-consciousness first starts to come, when you’re two or three years old and you start to realize, “Oh, there’s a person in here,” and you're trying to make sense of everything: who you are, who are those parents there? The ego is a way of organizing one’s self, and it comes from the intellect as the mind starts to click in. And for many people it stays in a kind of immature place where our thinking mind, our intellect, is defining for ourselves who we are—either taking all the negative feedback like, “I’m not good enough,” and the ego fastens onto all the negativity, or the positive—the affirmation like, “Oh, I’m really something.”
And the ego likes certainty, it likes security, it likes repetition, and so it’s always reinforcing its own vision of itself, and that starts to restrict us, to confine us, to make us think that we know ourselves better than we actually do.
So to bring Buddhism into therapy or to bring Buddhism into a secular audience, it’s all about starting to doubt the ego a little bit. Maybe you don’t know yourself as much as you think you do. Maybe some of those fixed ideas that have been operating inside of you since you were a little kid and conditioning the way you interact with other people, with the world, maybe those are not all so right. Maybe you’re not as really real as you think you are, and you could start to let go of some of that a little bit.
You first develop your ego when you are two or three years old. It creeps into existence the moment you realize that you are not empty—you are a self, and everyone else has a self in them. As you grow up, it latches onto positive and negative feedback and uses them to build the story of who you are. "The ego likes certainty, it likes security, it likes repetition, and so it’s always reinforcing its own vision of itself, and that starts to restrict us, to confine us, to make us think that we know ourselves better than we actually do," says psychiatrist Mark Epstein. So what to make of the Buddhist concept of 'egolessness'? Should we destroy the ego? Freud seemed to think that's what Buddhists meant, but as Mark Epstein explains, the famous psychoanalyst got it wrong. The full nuance of 'egolessness' is not to be completely without ego, but to doubt the story that it tells you. "For many people [the ego] stays in a kind of immature place," he says. Your ego has been your constant companion throughout life, but was there some point at which it stopped growing? "Maybe some of those fixed ideas that have been operating inside of you since you were a little kid and conditioning the way you interact with other people, with the world, maybe those are not all so right. Maybe you’re not as "really real" as you think you are, and you could start to let go of some of that a little bit." Mark Epstein is the author of Advice Not Given: A Guide to Getting Over Yourself.
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How would the ability to genetically customize children change society? Sci-fi author Eugene Clark explores the future on our horizon in Volume I of the "Genetic Pressure" series.
- A new sci-fi book series called "Genetic Pressure" explores the scientific and moral implications of a world with a burgeoning designer baby industry.
- It's currently illegal to implant genetically edited human embryos in most nations, but designer babies may someday become widespread.
- While gene-editing technology could help humans eliminate genetic diseases, some in the scientific community fear it may also usher in a new era of eugenics.
Tribalism and discrimination<p>One question the "Genetic Pressure" series explores: What would tribalism and discrimination look like in a world with designer babies? As designer babies grow up, they could be noticeably different from other people, potentially being smarter, more attractive and healthier. This could breed resentment between the groups—as it does in the series.</p><p>"[Designer babies] slowly find that 'everyone else,' and even their own parents, becomes less and less tolerable," author Eugene Clark told Big Think. "Meanwhile, everyone else slowly feels threatened by the designer babies."</p><p>For example, one character in the series who was born a designer baby faces discrimination and harassment from "normal people"—they call her "soulless" and say she was "made in a factory," a "consumer product." </p><p>Would such divisions emerge in the real world? The answer may depend on who's able to afford designer baby services. If it's only the ultra-wealthy, then it's easy to imagine how being a designer baby could be seen by society as a kind of hyper-privilege, which designer babies would have to reckon with. </p><p>Even if people from all socioeconomic backgrounds can someday afford designer babies, people born designer babies may struggle with tough existential questions: Can they ever take full credit for things they achieve, or were they born with an unfair advantage? To what extent should they spend their lives helping the less fortunate? </p>
Sexuality dilemmas<p>Sexuality presents another set of thorny questions. If a designer baby industry someday allows people to optimize humans for attractiveness, designer babies could grow up to find themselves surrounded by ultra-attractive people. That may not sound like a big problem.</p><p>But consider that, if designer babies someday become the standard way to have children, there'd necessarily be a years-long gap in which only some people are having designer babies. Meanwhile, the rest of society would be having children the old-fashioned way. So, in terms of attractiveness, society could see increasingly apparent disparities in physical appearances between the two groups. "Normal people" could begin to seem increasingly ugly.</p><p>But ultra-attractive people who were born designer babies could face problems, too. One could be the loss of body image. </p><p>When designer babies grow up in the "Genetic Pressure" series, men look like all the other men, and women look like all the other women. This homogeneity of physical appearance occurs because parents of designer babies start following trends, all choosing similar traits for their children: tall, athletic build, olive skin, etc. </p><p>Sure, facial traits remain relatively unique, but everyone's more or less equally attractive. And this causes strange changes to sexual preferences.</p><p>"In a society of sexual equals, they start looking for other differentiators," he said, noting that violet-colored eyes become a rare trait that genetically engineered humans find especially attractive in the series.</p><p>But what about sexual relationships between genetically engineered humans and "normal" people? In the "Genetic Pressure" series, many "normal" people want to have kids with (or at least have sex with) genetically engineered humans. But a minority of engineered humans oppose breeding with "normal" people, and this leads to an ideology that considers engineered humans to be racially supreme. </p>
Regulating designer babies<p>On a policy level, there are many open questions about how governments might legislate a world with designer babies. But it's not totally new territory, considering the West's dark history of eugenics experiments.</p><p>In the 20th century, the U.S. conducted multiple eugenics programs, including immigration restrictions based on genetic inferiority and forced sterilizations. In 1927, for example, the Supreme Court ruled that forcibly sterilizing the mentally handicapped didn't violate the Constitution. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendall Holmes wrote, "… three generations of imbeciles are enough." </p><p>After the Holocaust, eugenics programs became increasingly taboo and regulated in the U.S. (though some states continued forced sterilizations <a href="https://www.uvm.edu/~lkaelber/eugenics/" target="_blank">into the 1970s</a>). In recent years, some policymakers and scientists have expressed concerns about how gene-editing technologies could reanimate the eugenics nightmares of the 20th century. </p><p>Currently, the U.S. doesn't explicitly ban human germline genetic editing on the federal level, but a combination of laws effectively render it <a href="https://academic.oup.com/jlb/advance-article/doi/10.1093/jlb/lsaa006/5841599#204481018" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">illegal to implant a genetically modified embryo</a>. Part of the reason is that scientists still aren't sure of the unintended consequences of new gene-editing technologies. </p><p>But there are also concerns that these technologies could usher in a new era of eugenics. After all, the function of a designer baby industry, like the one in the "Genetic Pressure" series, wouldn't necessarily be limited to eliminating genetic diseases; it could also work to increase the occurrence of "desirable" traits. </p><p>If the industry did that, it'd effectively signal that the <em>opposites of those traits are undesirable. </em>As the International Bioethics Committee <a href="https://academic.oup.com/jlb/advance-article/doi/10.1093/jlb/lsaa006/5841599#204481018" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">wrote</a>, this would "jeopardize the inherent and therefore equal dignity of all human beings and renew eugenics, disguised as the fulfillment of the wish for a better, improved life."</p><p><em>"Genetic Pressure Volume I: Baby Steps"</em><em> by Eugene Clark is <a href="http://bigth.ink/38VhJn3" target="_blank">available now.</a></em></p>
The newly discovered galaxies are 62x bigger than the Milky Way.
- Two recently discovered radio galaxies are among the largest objects in the cosmos.
- The discovery implies that radio galaxies are more common than previously thought.
- The discovery was made while creating a radio map of the sky with a small part of a new radio array.
An extremely active galaxy<p> <br> </p><p>Radio galaxies are galaxies with extremely active central regions, known as nuclei, which shine incredibly brightly in some part of the electromagnetic spectrum. They are known for emitting large jets of ionized matter into intergalactic space at speeds approaching that of light. They are related to quasars and blazars. It is thought that supermassive black holes are the energy source that make these galaxies shine so brightly. </p><p>What makes these two galaxies (known as MGTC J095959.63+024608.6 and MGTC J100016.84+015133.0) so interesting is their size. Only 831 similar, "giant radio galaxies" are known to exist. As study co-author Dr. Matthew Prescott explains, these are particularly large even for <a href="https://www.forbes.com/sites/jamiecartereurope/2021/01/18/we-just-found-two-mysterious-galaxies-62-times-bigger-than-our-milky-way-say-scientists/?sh=76edf29c2892" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">giants</a>:</p><p>"These two galaxies are special because they are amongst the largest giants known, and in the top 10 percent of all giant radio galaxies. They are more than two mega-parsecs across, which is around 6.5 million light-years or about 62 times the size of the Milky Way. Yet they are fainter than others of the same size."</p><p>The smaller of the two is just over two megaparsecs across, roughly six and a half million light-years. The larger is almost another half megaparsec larger than <a href="http://www.sci-news.com/astronomy/giant-radio-galaxies-09266.html" target="_blank">that</a>. <br></p><p>Exactly how these things get to be so massive remains a mystery. Some have proposed that they are ejecting matter into unusually empty space, allowing for the jet to expand further, though some evidence contradicts this. The most commonly suggested idea is that they are simply much, much older than the previously observed radio galaxies, allowing more time for expansion to occur.</p>
How does this change our understanding of the universe?<p> While exciting and impressive on their own, the findings also suggest that there are very many more of these giant galaxies than previously supposed. If you were going off the previous estimates for how typical these galaxies are, then the odds of finding these two would be 1 in 2.7×10<sup>6. </sup>This suggests that there must be more, given that the alternative is that the scientists were impossibly lucky. </p><p> In the study, the researchers also apply this reasoning to smaller versions of these galaxies, saying:</p><p> "While our analysis has considered only enormous (>2 Mpc) objects, if radio galaxies must grow to reach this size, then we may expect to similarly uncover in our data previously undetected GRGs with smaller sizes."</p><p> Exactly how common radio galaxies and turn out to be remains to be seen. Still, it will undoubtedly be an exciting time for radio astronomy as new telescopes are turned skywards to search for them.</p>
How did they find them?<iframe width="730" height="430" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/c1ZW3nVfe5A" frameborder="0" allow="accelerometer; autoplay; clipboard-write; encrypted-media; gyroscope; picture-in-picture" allowfullscreen></iframe><p> The new galaxies were discovered by the amusingly named <a href="https://www.sarao.ac.za/gallery/meerkat/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">MeerKAT</a> radio telescope in South Africa during the creation of a new radio map of the sky. The MeerKAT is the first of what will soon be the <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Square_Kilometre_Array" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Square Kilometre Array</a> of telescopes, which will span several countries in the southern hemisphere and make even more impressive discoveries in radio astronomy possible. </p>
Daydreaming can be a pleasant pastime, but people who suffer from maladaptive daydreamers are trapped by their fantasies.
Maladaptive daydreaming<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNTUwMjgyMy9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY0OTUxNzc3Nn0.yVIUGnZl6VnJhfevESkBpb1TEvwKrHcLtobwNJV55HI/img.jpg?width=1245&coordinates=0%2C63%2C0%2C63&height=700" id="713cf" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="e2d24a66284b3aa58ad16b66c135dc9d" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" data-width="1245" data-height="700" />
One maladaptive dreamer spent hours a day dreaming he was a powerful man who could solve the world's problems.
(Photo: Pixabay)<p>Daydreaming is an indulgence of the mind and imagination, one provided courtesy of the <a href="https://www.sciencedirect.com/topics/neuroscience/default-mode-network#:~:text=The%20default%20mode%20network%20(DMN,and%20Exercise%20Psychology%20Research%2C%202016" target="_blank">default mode network</a>, a network of interacting brain regions that is active even when the conscious mind is not. But like so many of life's indulgences—wine, steak dinners, video games, and even <a href="https://www.healthline.com/health-news/why-too-much-exercise-can-be-bad-042514" target="_blank">exercise</a>—too much daydreaming can be harmful to our well-being. When daydreaming crosses that threshold, it can be considered maladaptive.</p><p>This disorder was first identified by <a href="https://haifa.academia.edu/EliSomer" target="_blank">Eli Somer</a>, a professor of clinical psychology at the University of Haifa, School of Social Work, in <a href="https://link.springer.com/article/10.1023/A:1020597026919" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">a 2002 paper</a>. That paper looked to six patients in a trauma center whose daydreaming habits replaced human interactions or interfered with their standard life functions, such as going to school or holding down a job. </p><p>Since then, other case studies have looked at <a href="https://www.healthline.com/health/mental-health/maladaptive-daydreaming#:~:text=Maladaptive%20daydreaming%20is%20a%20psychiatric,life%20events%20trigger%20day%20dreams." target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">maladaptive daydreamers</a> and compiled a list of potential symptoms. These include vivid, richly-detailed daydreams; abnormally long daydreaming sessions; daydreams triggered by real-life events; daydreaming sessions that interrupt sleep; and repetitive motions or whisperings while daydreaming. On average, one study reported, maladaptive daydreamers spend <a href="https://bigthink.com/bps-research-digest/people-with-maladaptive-daydreaming-spend-an-average-of-four-hours-a-day-lost-in-their-imagination" target="_self">four hours a day</a> housed in their imaginations.</p><p>"This is not like rehearsing a conversation that you might have with a boss," <a href="https://www.cnn.com/2016/12/30/health/maladaptive-daydreaming-feature/index.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Somer told CNN</a>. "This is fanciful, weaving of stories. It produces an intense sense of presence."</p><p>While such symptoms are common, though not comprehensive or guaranteed, how maladaptive daydreams manifest are naturally individual to the dreamers. <a href="https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6426361/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">In one case study</a>, researchers analyzed the diary of a man codenamed "Peter." Peter described investing as many as 14 hours a day online. The news and images he happened upon would trigger related fantasies. For example, he may envision himself as a multimillionaire genius who could prevent bad news from occurring or self-insert himself into the power fantasies of superhero movies or police procedurals for hours at a time.</p><p>"When I felt this pain as a child, I started imagining how things could be different. I created stories which never happened. To suppress that pain I would hug my pillow or quilt, thinking I was being comforted by someone else," Peter wrote.</p><p>In an interview with CNN, Cordellia Rose described her maladaptive daydreaming like a drug and noted that her daydreams developed into intricate storylines that could last for years. These stories proved so distracted that she was unable to complete everyday tasks such as driving lessons.</p><p>"You get hooked on it, because it can be like an action movie in your head that's so gripping that you cannot turn off," Rose told CNN. "This [condition] needs to be public, because these are people suffering, and badly."</p><p>To be clear, maladaptive dreaming is not a <a href="https://www.webmd.com/schizophrenia/guide/what-is-psychosis#1" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">psychotic disorder</a> like schizophrenia. Daydreamers such as Peter and Rose are aware that their fantasies are as unreal as they may be unrealistic. Because of this, many maladaptive dreamers understand the difficulties they face and the real-life losses they have endured for the sake of their fantasies. </p>
More research needed<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="6fdb8ca5dcc87c58b441d9c7cd766f35"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/vI7b4_-MA8g?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span><p>Researchers don't have a <a href="https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/319400" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">standard diagnosis or treatment for maladaptive daydreaming</a> because they aren't yet sure it's a unique psychological condition. Maladaptive daydreaming has not been included in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition—blessedly abbreviated as the DMS-5—the definitive book on mental disorders. To date, there isn't enough evidence to determine if maladaptive daydreaming is a separate condition or a manifestation of an already listed disorder.</p><p>Somer has developed a <a href="https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S1053810015300611" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">14-point scale</a> to help people determine whether they are experiencing maladaptive-daydreaming symptoms, but the results only indicate whether an individual should seek help. They provide no formal diagnosis.</p><p>Also, maladaptive daydreaming is often expressed alongside other conditions, such as anxiety disorders, <a href="https://www.psychiatryadvisor.com/home/topics/anxiety/ptsd-trauma-and-stressor-related/high-prevalence-of-maladaptive-daydreaming-among-patients-with-dissociative-disorders/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">dissociative disorders</a>, attention deficit disorders, and obsessive-compulsive disorders. And the researchers of Peter's case study noticed a striking similarity between his condition and those with <a href="https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3164585/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">behavioral addition response</a>—including analogous responses with preoccupation, mood modification, tolerance, and withdrawal. It may be that maladaptive daydreaming is an expression of these, or other, disorders.</p><p>It's worth noting that similar empirical hurdles exist for other well-known, though not formalized, disorders. Orthorexia, sex addiction, misophonia, internet addiction, and parental alienation syndrome are all <a href="https://www.verywellmind.com/whats-missing-from-the-dsm-4145344#:~:text=This%20diagnosis%20covered%20patients%20who,%22%20or%20%22unspecified%20disorder.%22" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">likewise absent from the DSM-5</a>. For maladaptive daydreaming and these other conditions, it's simply a case of more evidence and research needed before a determination can be made.</p>
A growing understanding of maladaptive daydreaming<p>The question of labeling is a tricky one—not only from a medical point-of-view but also a prosocial one. Some people find having a recognized condition validating; they feel it promotes social acceptance and makes seeking treatment easier. Others find such labels stigmatizing and restricting.</p><p>But the question of how to label something is an academic one. It isn't to say that the experience doesn't exist. It does, and whether maladaptive daydreaming ultimately enters the DSM-5 or not, awareness is growing. <a href="https://daydreamresearch.wixsite.com/md-research/links" target="_blank">Online communities</a> now exist to give support and spread awareness. And regardless of a condition's presence in the medical literature, if symptoms disrupt work, school, or social lives, help should be sought.</p><p>Thanks to the efforts of psychologists and the community, maladaptive daydreaming, unlike Thurber's literary creation, is no longer "inscrutable to the last." And those who suffer it are no longer relegated to a firing-squad of their own mind but can find they help the need.</p>
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.
The ocean depths are home to many creatures that some consider to be unnatural.<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMzU2NzY4My9vcmlnaW4ucG5nIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYxNTUwMzg0NX0.BTK3zVeXxoduyvXfsvp4QH40_9POsrgca_W5CQpjVtw/img.png?width=980" id="b6fb0" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="2739ec50d9f9a3bd0058f937b6d447ac" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" data-width="1512" data-height="2224" />
What benefit does this find have for science? And is it as evil as it looks?<div class="rm-shortcode" data-media_id="7XqcvwWp" data-player_id="FvQKszTI" data-rm-shortcode-id="8506fcd195866131efb93525ae42dec4"> <div id="botr_7XqcvwWp_FvQKszTI_div" class="jwplayer-media" data-jwplayer-video-src="https://content.jwplatform.com/players/7XqcvwWp-FvQKszTI.js"> <img src="https://cdn.jwplayer.com/thumbs/7XqcvwWp-1920.jpg" class="jwplayer-media-preview" /> </div> <script src="https://content.jwplatform.com/players/7XqcvwWp-FvQKszTI.js"></script> </div> <p>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.</p><p>Helen Wong of the National University of Singapore, who co-authored the species' description, explained the importance of the discovery:</p><p>"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." </p><p>The animal's visual similarity to Darth Vader is a result of its compound eyes and the curious shape of its <a href="https://lkcnhm.nus.edu.sg/research/sjades2018/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer dofollow" style="">head</a>. 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 <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cthulhu" target="_blank" rel="dofollow">Great Old Ones</a>. <em></em></p>
Psychologists point to specific reasons that make it hard for us to admit our wrongdoing.
- Admitting mistakes can be very difficult for our ego and self-image, say psychologists.
- Refusing to own up to guilt boosts the ego and can feel more satisfying.
- Not acknowledging you are wrong can lead to psychological issues and ruined relationships.