03/21/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Brain, Spirituality, Confidence And Suffering

The condition of being human is so strange. We have so many convictions and often lead our lives based on these convictions. But one of the perils of the "mind" was recently revealed to me in a study that examined the association between confidence, right/wrong judgments and brain activation. This study by Kim and colleagues published in the Journal of Neuroscience in 2007 showed that both high and low confidence reliably produce brain activations whether a person is right or wrong. Essentially, it showed that even when we are wrong we can feel confident, but confidence about wrong things activates a different part of the brain than when we are right. Wrong judgments that we are confident about activated the fronto-parietal cortex and correct judgments activated the medial temporal lobe. So why do I think this is so interesting and what are the implications of this?

Firstly, this experiment confirms that we can feel very confident even when we are wrong. Although it is somewhat comforting that at least the brain knows, it is less comforting that the brain won't tell us that we're wrong. Why would a brain "know" and not tell us that we are wrong, and even worse, have us feel confident about this? In fact, the more confident you are when you are wrong, the more the fronto-parietal cortex will activate, but you still won't know. This is just one of many "brain-tricks" but it throws into question what the brain does anyway-and shows how we cannot trust the brain in its decision-making.

I find this humbling, because it begs the question-how can I trust what I am writing or what you are reading? Or the judgment calls that I have been so confident about in my life? Clearly they were not all wrong (at a probability level), but which ones were wrong and which were right? If I cannot use conviction to determine this, what can I use? Am I supposed to get an MRI every time?

In the spiritual literature, one hears over and over again how one cannot trust the mind. Sri Ramana Maharishi has said: "When the subtle mind emerges through the brain and the senses, the gross names and forms are cognized. When it remains in the Heart, names and forms disappear." The Buddha's teachings are: "What is the mind? It is a phenomenon that is not body, not substantial, has no form, no shape, no color, but, like a mirror, can clearly reflect objects." The Bible sates: 'we walk by faith, not by sight." Maya is a fundamental concept in Hindu philosophy that has come to mean "the very subtle force that creates the grand illusion that the phenomenal world is real." In all of these descriptions, there is an implication that the perceptual world is not real; that we must question what we perceive. This experiment shows why this may need to be the case.

In the context of these ideas then, it is possible that human suffering comes from basing its conclusions on a conviction in the perceptual world. If what we perceive is filled with contradictions, and it often seems to be, how can this not cause suffering? It is no wonder then that all spiritual traditions, even atheism, prescribe a peace of mind: whether it from study of the scriptures or science, or from being in a church or temple or in the blissful throes of concentration in an intellectual endeavor. All of these practices seem to still the mind, and in so doing, reveal a part of being human that is beyond the peace of confidence about our perceptions. It is a peace that is different from certainty.

With this fundamental idea in mind then-that the brain can play tricks on us-should we not be looking at a way to understand the universe that transcends psychological theory, logic or perceptions? While looking at the brain provides these insights, we still have to "think" about them. Is there something beyond thinking that can provide understanding? I think there is.