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Buddhism and Cognitive Enhancement: Self-Control, Renunciation, Honesty, and Wisdom (Part 3)
J. Hughes   Oct 18, 2012   Ethical Technology  

Neurotechnology can be used to enhance Buddhist virtues such as patience and equanimity; it provides help to those who are genetically disadvantaged.

Part 1 of this essay is HERE

Part 2 of this essay is HERE

Self-discipline in Buddhism begins with the ability to keep the five ethical precepts, to refrain from killing, stealing, lying, intoxicants and sexual misconduct. But more generally sila and nekkhamma are the capacity to refrain from self-gratification, to be temperate in speech and deed.

Here again we find that there is a substantial body of research suggesting that our capacity for self-discipline is genetically determined, and chemically malleable. The personality factor of conscientiousness is associated with carefulness, self-discipline, and thinking carefully before acting. Low conscientiousness is associated with substance abuse and criminality (Ozer & Benet-Martinez, 2006).  Conscientiousness appears to be associated in turn with genetic variations of the dopamine receptor (Blasi, 2009). Dopamine is the neurochemical that mediates the pleasure we receive from novel and risky activities such as gambling, drugs, alcohol and sex (Zald et al., 2008). Ben Zion et al. (2006) found that variations in the dopamine receptor gene is linked to lower or higher amounts of sexual desire. About 30% of humans have a variant that boosts sexual desire. Zietsch (2010) found a strong heritability of “risky sexual behavior” in a study of 5000 twins.

Another line of research has looked at the role of glucose availability in the brain and having the energy to resist temptation. Baumeister et al. (2007) found that the exercise of self-control depletes brain glucose, and with it the energy for self-control. Therapies that increase the brain’s supply of glucose would therefore boost self-discipline.

Specific forms of compulsive behavior may be open to more targeted neurotechnological control. Sexual compulsion for instance is strongly influenced by testosterone, and the recidivism rate of sex offenders has been successfully reduced via chemical suppression of testosterone (Grubin, 2010). Although not a standard therapy, some clinicians are using testosterone suppression, antidepressants and other psychiatric drugs for “sex addiction” or compulsive hypersexuality (Goodman, 2009). The neurochemical vasopressin has also been found to play an important role in sexual fidelity, facilitating the binding of the memory of sexual pleasure to a specific partner. Lim et al. (2004) found that modifying a vasopressin gene in prairie voles made males of a non-monogamous species monogamous. Savulescu and Sandberg (2008) have suggested that the administration of oxytocin, vasopressin and testosterone might be useful as an adjunct to marital therapy in the future, rekindling sexual desire, deepening feelings of trust and mentally bonding partners to one another.

As to the vice of gluttony, hundreds of thousands of people have undergone lap-band procedures to shrink the size of the stomach, and for most, their appetite for food. Patients are having electrical “pacemakers” implanted in their stomachs to tell the nervous system the stomach is full. Dozens of drugs are being researched to safely control appetite through the manipulation of the hormones involved in satiety, such as ghrelin and leptin (Hameed et al., 2008). Sibutramine, a drug which blocks the uptake of norepinephrine and serotonin, is in wide use as an appetite suppressant (although it has been removed from the market in Europe because of safety concerns.)  Lorcaserin, which acts on the brain’s cannabinoid receptors, is another appetite-suppressing drug close to approval in the United States.

Patience and Equanimity (Kshanti and Upekkha)

Our capacities for patience and equanimity appear to be similarly genetically and neurochemically determined. For instance a variety of mental health disorders have been found to be heritable. Tambs et al. (2009) studied twins and found that vulnerability to anxiety disorders was about 50% heritable.

Our propensity towards anger and aggression appears to be affected by variations in the monoamine oxidase A gene (MAOA). A third of people have a form of the MAOA gene which predisposes them to aggression in response to provocation (McDermott, 2009). 

The ability to rebound from traumatic life events without lasting effects on mental health is known as “resilience,” and research has also found resilience to be strongly heritable. Multiple studies have found genetic inheritability for risks of stress, depression and schizophrenia. Beaver et al. (2010) found psychological resilience from victimization to be related to variations of genes that determine dopamine and serotonin. Variations in the corticosteroid regulating genes are linked to our susceptibility to stress (DeRijka, 2008). The OCEAN personality trait of Neuroticism is also highly heritable, a major risk factor for clinical depression (Kendler, 2010).

Effort, Perseverance, and Concentration (Virya, Adhitthana and Dhyana)

One piece of evidence for the neurobiological basis of our capacity for diligence and concentration is found in attention deficit disorder. Twin studies and studies of parents and children show that ADHD is strongly heritable, and appears to linked to variations of the dopamine and serotonin regulating genes (Faraone et al., 2010). While clinical ADHD is only present in 5-10% of the population, the underlying attentional mechanisms presumably vary across the population, with outliers at the other end exhibiting very high capacities for focus, persistence and self-control. Andrew Fenton’s (2009) essay on a Buddhist approach to the use of methylphenidate has already advanced the argument that drugs could facilitate meditative practice and general mindfulness in daily life. A goal of Buddhist moral enhancement in general would be to develop means for the average person bring their full attention to every situation. An even stronger case could be made for the drug modafanil, which, unlikely methylphenidate, improves wakefulness and task performance in most subjects, and without the stimulants side effects and risks of dependency. Greeley et al. (2008) and others have begun to argue that these cognitive enhancement drugs are so safe and beneficial that they should be deregulated.

The ability to keep returning to task is likewise a desirable virtue, and one that appears to have a neurogenetic component. In a study of twins Tony Vernon and his team at the University Western Ontario (Horsburgh et al., 2009) found that half of the variation in the capacities for commitment, confidence and the ability to face new challenges were genetically determined. More disturbingly Vialou et al. (2010) subjected rats to days of electrical shocks from the wire mesh whenever they attempted to leave their cages. They found that rats that had been engineered to overexpress the chemical ΔFosB in their reward circuits of the nucleus accumbens were more likely to continue trying to escape, while rats engineered with low levels of ΔFosB gave up. They speculate that supplementing this brain chemical in humans might increase resilience to stress and determination in the face of challenges.

Wisdom (Prajna Paramita)

Meditation-oriented Buddhism has tended to downplay the discursive, intellectual aspect of the concept of prajna, and to emphasize non-discursive awareness. But the Buddhist canon is clear that prajna is a combination of discursive, intellectual analysis with the mental clarity of a concentrated and spacious mind. Prajna is the capacity to see the true nature of things, their causal connections, and how things constantly change.  Prajna requires an openness to new ideas and experiences, and the ability to recognize and avoid cognitive biases, habits of mind that lead us to false conclusions. Prajna requires general intelligence, and the more the better.

Again there is substantial evidence for genes that influence our cognitive abilities. For instance, Haworth et al. (2009) found 50% of the variation of intelligence (“g”) to be genetic in a study of in 11,000 twins in Australia, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom and the United States. Many neuro-geneticists believe that genetic enhancement for intelligence is unlikely because of the number of genes involved. But if half a dozen of the most potent intelligence genes, or their neurochemistries, were targeted for enhancement that would presumably have a dramatic effect.

Drugs are now being investigated to enhance a number of cognitive abilities, largely as therapies for neurological conditions such as Alzheimers and Downs syndrome. A great deal of attention has focused on the ability of the brain to generate neural stem cells to repair brain damage, and to find drugs and gene therapies which can enhance the plastic and reparative capacity of the brain. Sugiyama et al. (2009) have found for instance that neural plasticity is controlled by the Otx2 protein, which may be a potential therapy for ramping up brain repair. Two other intriguingly futuristic avenues of this research are the electrical stimulation of neural tissue, and the use of nanomaterials are scaffolds for the regeneration of neural connections.


Future neurotechnologies will include drugs, implanted devices and gene therapies that target specific moods, cognitions, impulses and behaviors. From a Buddhist perspective the growing ability to control our behavior will be an opportunity to suppress unskillful impulses and behaviors, and enhance our practice of the virtues. Mental illness and more routine emotional lability can be smoothed out, and mood ramped up to an optimal level of high, dynamic well-being. Neurotechnologies will at first be relied on as temporary spiritual training wheels, helping to create a solid foundation of moral behavior, concentration and mental clarity as part of the practice of self-reflection and meditation. As the technologies develop they may be used as the principal means of self-transformation. The Buddhist rejection of the idea of an essential core self and emphasis on self-transformation will likely become more attractive as personalities become more malleable.

At the same time the growing ability to modify mood and induce states of blissful absorption will pose a growing risk of addiction and stasis. The Buddhist goal of a more engaged, compassionate, form of eudaemonic happiness will become increasingly relevant as a alternative to the growing temptation of wireheading and chemical bliss. Buddhism can offer a model of cognitive enhancement that points past the tarpits to liberation.

Bibliography Available Upon Request, email


James Hughes Ph.D., the Executive Director of the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies, is a bioethicist and sociologist who serves as the Associate Provost for Institutional Research, Assessment and Planning for the University of Massachusetts Boston. He is author of Citizen Cyborg and is working on a second book tentatively titled Cyborg Buddha. From 1999-2011 he produced the syndicated weekly radio program, Changesurfer Radio. (Subscribe to the J. Hughes RSS feed)


it would set too dangerous of a precedent.  I wouldn’t be surprised if higher lamas would even prescribe drugs in certain cases, but a general proclamation that they are alright even if it was followed by a big “only in certain circumstances” would still create to much potential danger down the road.  The whole point of the process is you transcend the ‘self cherishing self’ before you begin gaining the blissful experiences of tantra so as to not be seduced by them.  I’m sure lamas dont reject the use of the artificial outright they are likely looking at the more longterm ramification as the Dharma’s evolve and further diverge over time.

Not unless we can do something about this:

“Our nature assures that we will simultaneously be obsessed with our relative status in society and possess unequal abilities for acquiring higher status. Thus individuals will always seek to use the government as a means to rearrange their relative positions.”

which is a polite way of saying people scramble for money and power (plus they only care about their families and nations). What is written in Dr. Hughes article is valid, but is about tweaking micro-behavior. Substance abuse, sex addiction, gluttony, etc. etc. can be altered, yet the corollary is macro grasping for power, money, status (all is not vanity, all is status) are v. probably beyond the ability to alter—in this we may be philosophically penny-wise/pound foolish.

...“philosophically penny-wise/pound foolish.”

What is emblematic of the increasing obsolescence of 21st century ‘conservatism’ is its insistence on what are relatively petty issues. Let’s take guns, God, gays, as a departure: with real but basically unknown existential threats, such issues fade into virtual insignificance. Buddhism ‘itself’ (there is no one ‘Buddhism’, naturally) ought avoid not seeing the wheat for the chaff; prioritisation is not exact yet neither is it to be dispensed with.
For instance substance abuse—which as everyone at IEET knows includes ubiquitous alcohol, tobacco—is a significant problem however substance abuse pales as an issue before existential threats, war and peace.

“Neurotechnology can be used to enhance Buddhist virtues such as patience and equanimity; it provides help to those who are genetically disadvantaged. Self-discipline in Buddhism begins with the ability to keep the five ethical precepts, to refrain from killing, stealing, lying, intoxicants and sexual misconduct. But more generally sila and nekkhamma are the capacity to refrain from self-gratification, to be temperate in speech and deed…”

One more stab at at a response, without having read (too much of a good thing) the other two Pts. of the essay. As survey of micro-behavior, essay #1 works well yet when we look at the larger picture much is negated:

Top-> down corruption;
‘Bubbling-up’ of depravity;
‘Behavorial cesspool’ effect at bottom.

Before going on, must reiterate how existential threats render micro-behavior negligible; e.g. un-Boddhisatvic behavior is a contributor to war, civil strife, pollution, etc. but not to solar flares, asteroids, volcanic/seismic activity, typhoons, hurricanes, tsunamis…
Having out of morbid curiosity observed depravity at the bottom, in the ‘underclass’, it has been revealed as quite complicated. The upper classes corrupt the bottom, yet depravity at the bottom filters upwards. Plus there’s naturally a feedback involved. Corruption seeps downwards to the grass roots, depravity at the bottom filters both upwards and laterally, being reinforced by heredity which in turn negatively reinforces depravity which seeps upwards in the cycle… on and again.

“Buddhism can offer a model of cognitive enhancement that points past the tarpits to liberation.”

A model, yes, however IMO virtue can only be pursued not attained; liberation can only be pursued not attained. The model
points past the tarpits to liberation—but we do not arrive at liberation, there is no terminus. Would like to do a history, for brevity’s sake extremely truncated, of morality in the last six centuries. During the medieval ages a standard of morality existed in for example nominally Christian Europe. It goes without saying morality ebbed and flowed according to time and place- and it was merely a standard of morality albeit a standard nonetheless. Afterwards the Renaissance, Enlightenment, Industrial Revolution, Age of Totalism (1917- ‘89) eroded the nominal standard.
Only region I know of retaining a nominal standard of morality is N. Europe, which was prodded by WWII into the civilisation which exists there—buffeted though it is by post-totalist dislocation.
More chaos in freedom than there is caused by totalitarianism.

In 1945- ‘55 America, a nominal morality existed although since the late ‘50s it too has been buffeted by freedom versus imposed-order (distinct from spontaneous order) conflicts. The Vietnam War, Watergate were symptoms- not causes.

We can be sure freedom v imposed-order conflicts will continue, further eroding morality wherein at any rate no consensus has existed since the mid 1950s. In other words the good news is violence is diminishing; if one wants freedom, pleasure, excitement… the future appears promising.
If one wants morality, one is out of luck. Surveying the last decade (after all it wasn’t an anomaly, rather another decade of dislocation: 9/11 being a symbol not cause) I perceive a definite pattern of what is written above.


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