No Self

Dr Thanh-Tam Pham - 25/05/2022

Have you ever ask yourself the question: “ Who am I?”. 

Am I the name someone gave it to me, the gender that was assigned to me, the job, the social roles that I play, the body that others define me as, the biological age that society tells me I am, the memories of my past, my emotions, my beliefs, my expectations…?

The real “you “cannot be put into words, labels, beliefs, identity…

The “I” represents the idea of our individual self, the controller of our thoughts, feelings and actions. 

Dr Chris Niebauer, PhD, a neuropsychologist, explores strong evidence suggesting that the self is simply a construct of the mind, rather than the physical thing located within the brain itself. Buddhism has a word “anatta” that is “no self” which is the most fundamental principle of Buddhism. This idea seems to contradict our everyday experience, our whole sense of being. This illusory sense of self is the primary cause of our mental suffering and it blocks our access to the eternal, infinite potential of universal consciousness that is always available to us. 

Neuroscience is successful of mapping every function of the brain but is unable to locate the self in the brain simply because it isn’t there. 

Dr Niebauer explains the idea that the left brain is an interpreter and story-maker with pattern recognition, language, mapmaking, and categorisation that lead to the sensation and a strong belief of a self. The right brain’s function is about finding meaning, our ability to see and understand big picture ideas, expressing creativity, experiencing emotions and spatial processing. 

The brain has 2 mirror halves connected by a large set of fibres called the corpus callosum. Gazzaniga studied in split brain patients where the connection was disrupted, he determined that the left brain created explanations and reasons to help make sense of what was going on and acted as an “interpreter” for reality.  Furthermore, he found that this interpreter was often completely and totally wrong. Because most people are not conscious of the left brain interpreter, they could not believe that their thoughts are just interpretations but rather feel secure they are seeing things “as they really are.”’


The left brain.

Language is controlled by the left brain so the interpreter also talks to itself in the form of thoughts. This internal dialogue is happening continually for everyone and it plays a central role in the creation of the mirage that we call the self. 

When you become aware of the interpreter, you are free to choose and no longer take its interpretations so seriously. The brain constantly interpreting in ways that are subjective and often inaccurate or completely incorrect and you can realise that it is simply “your opinion” rather than “this is the way it is”. In that way, you make fewer judgments and can take your judgments less seriously. The left brain also creates a system of belief that can cause suffering and can be the major source of conflict between people. If you can understand this , you can be less attached to the idea that your own beliefs are ‘right’ and there is a possibility that your beliefs could be ‘wrong’.

The left brain can also see patterns that are not there and creates stories that are untrue, that can lead to unnecessary suffering, anxiety and depression. For example, a person witnessed his co-workers huddled in the corner whispering one to another and he thought they were plotting against him. Later he found they were planning a surprise party for him.

The left brain has created this illusion of self by noticing a pattern of differences between you and others and act as a pilot to steer the ship of the body and the mind. The self is an illusion doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist at all, but it is like a mirage in the middle of the desert. The vision of the oasis is real, but it is simply an image and nothing more. A lot of problems can arise out of thinking as the left brain doesn’t embrace “reality as it is” but constantly interprets the reality and creates an illusionary sense of self and proclaiming that this illusion is the true master. 


The right brain.

In 1996, Dr Jill Bolte Taylor, a neuroanatomist, suffered a stroke that affects much of her left brain and this opened for understanding the right brain consciousness. Years later, after recovering from her injury, her left brain was able to tell the story. During the stroke, her constant inner voice was silent for the first time. She reports: “I became detached from the memories of my life, and I was confronted by an expanding sense of grace.” Her left-brain ego, which viewed herself as separate, was no longer dominant. She felt gratitude and a sense of contentment. The right brain was compassionate, nurturing, and eternally optimistic. In her words, “I think the Buddhists would say I entered the mode of existence they call nirvana.” In Buddhism it was said” you are already a buddha, you just don’t know it. These right brain processes are already there, and we simply need to wake up to them. Buddha simply means “one that is awake.” Perhaps our happiness depends on finding a balance between the left-brain interpreter and the right brain. 

The left brain wants to be the master of the conversation, and the right brain can’t speak in the traditional sense, but it does understand language on its own. In many ways the right brain is the yin to the yang of the left brain. The left brain is more categorical whereas the right brain takes a more global approach to what it perceives. The left brain is sequential, separating time before and after, while the right brain is focused on the immediacy of the present moment.

Right brain consciousness:

Right brain consciousness is focused on experiences in the present moment and in doing and in a way that is beyond thinking and language.

The essence of the right brain consciousness is doing things without thinking about them that is without language or thought such as in practices of meditation, yoga, tai chi and mindfulness. Mindfulness is defined as being fully in the present moment, observing what is happening in the world around you along with the world inside you- your thoughts, feelings, sensations.

The ancient Eastern philosophers valued non-linguistic consciousness whereas to live in a world of abstractions based on language, concepts, beliefs, patterns, labels is to live in a dream world rather than reality.

Right brain intelligence:


Our true identity

We identify with our body made out of flesh and bones and we believe we are this physical body with the inevitable conditions of old age, sickness and death. Our everyday perception of each other is governed by this false identity of a separate self. As we have seen, the ego is a construct of the left brain. When we are openhearted and ready to drop our previous perception of self, then spiritual awakening can happen at any moment. This is really about deconstructing all our illusions of self and identity as it is a complete mental fabrication. When all the layers of false identity have been stripped off, there is no longer a version of the old self. What is left behind is pure consciousness, our true identity. Many people are looking for the perfect life in the distant future while they are busy wasting each moment of their precious life fabricating mental and psychological problems. Awakening to our true nature is the key to unlock the door of the paradise that lies within each of us. Paradise can happen right here, right now in this life. The choice is ours. 






No Self No Problem – How Neuropsychology is Catching up to Buddhism by Dr Chris Niebauer