Understanding the Brain

James H. Austin

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James H. Austin is Clinical Professor of Neurology, University of Missouri Health Science Center, and Emeritus Professor of Neurology, University of Colorado Health Science Center. Austin is the author of his well known book Zen and the Brain, which aims to establish links between the neurological workings of the human brain and meditation. Austin has written two sequels to it: Zen-Brain Reflections (February, 2006), and Selfless Insight (2009). He was student of the late Rinzai roshi Kobori Nanrei Sohaku.


Austin is also a practicing Zen Buddhist. After a number of years of Zen meditation, Austin claims to have spontaneously experienced what Zen practice calls "enlightenment" on a subway platform in London. The chief characteristic of his experience seems to be a loss of the sense of "self" which is central to human identity, and a corresponding feeling of union with the outer world. Austin speculates as to what might be going on in the brain when the "self" module goes offline, and also discusses the seeing timelessness of the experience in the context of the brain's internal clock mechanisms. In Austin's own words,[1]

It strikes unexpectedly at 9 am on the surface platform of the London subway system. (Due to a mistake)...I wind up at a station where I have never been before....The view is the dingy interior of the station, some grimy buildings, a bit of open sky. Instantly the entire view acquires three qualities: Absolute Reality, Intrinsic Rightness, Ultimate Reflection. With no transition, it is all complete....Yes, there is the paradox of this extraordinary viewing. But there is no viewer. The scene is utterly empty, stripped of every last extension of an I-Me-Mine (his name for ego-self). Vanished in one split second is the familiar sensation that this person is viewing a city scene. The new viewing proceeds impersonally, not pausing to register the paradox that there is no human subject "doing" it. Three insights penetrate the experient, each conveying Total Understanding at depths far beyond simple knowledge: This is the eternal state of affairs. There is nothing more to do. There is nothing whatever to fear.

Austin claims that the experience represented "objective reality" in that his subjective self did not exist to form biased interpretations. Austin claims that there is little conflict between Zen Buddhism and scientific rigor.


  • AUSTIN James H., 1978, (en), Chase, Chance, and Creativity. The Lucky Art of Novelty. New York: Columbia University Press

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Notes and references

  1. From amazon.com customer reviews for Zen and the Brain
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