Google: Rats Experience Feelings of Regret, for research discovering that when a rat realizes it made a mistake, its body and brain show signs of regret (1). This finding is yet another nail in the coffin of human ‘exceptionalism’. Sure, we are different from rats, but so are butterflies and cats. Research like this truly challenges ideals that have humans as superior beings; stories onto which every culture on Earth appears to cling, and which cultivate humanity’s collective ego..
Before delving into humanity’s collective ego, we best stipulate a fundamental part of Buddha’s second noble truth: “The illusion of self originates and manifests itself in a cleaving to things”. Now, Buddha advised people to verify this and any of his observations via our own experience, and not merely accept them on faith. I couldn’t truly (viscerally) verify this ‘illusion of self” origin until many decades after I found Buddha’s Four Truths to be relevant and useful overall. Consequently, I don’t assume that you will have truly verified this “illusion of self” truth, but at least consider it as a working hypothesis.
A Pandora’s Box of cultural evolution
Before the agricultural revolution, physical survival had been humanity’s principle challenge. Not unlike wild animals everywhere, our main concern would have been finding the next meal. Not that this would be a problem, it is just life as usual in the wild. In the several hundred thousand plus years of pre-agricultural humanity, there was no post-harvest free time. This made each day a more spontaneous affair. Daily life was a simple process of hunting and gathering, and extemporaneously dealing with whatever problems arose. Simply put, in the wild, there are no opportunities for ‘growth’; living is truly a circle of life. Genuine progress occurs only on an evolutionary scale in balance with the rest of nature.
As we settled down to cultivate crops and domesticate animals, our day-to-day survival issues greatly diminished. However, we naturally retained our core survival instincts. This changing circumstance merely set the stage for a growing list of existential problems onto which these instincts could focus. A settled existence made possible an ever-increasing variety of “things” on which to “cleave”. To name a few: land, crops, livestock, tools, buildings, hierarchical social niches (e.g., farmers, warriors, artisans, priests, rulers), along with associated social status. We expanded our horizons for growth, and in the process, multiplied matters over which we could desire or worry. So you see, we have been cultivating a lot more than just agricultural crops!
Feeling you don’t quite fit in?
The agricultural revolution enabled an increasing sense of the individual self, or rather “the illusion of self” (ego) along with its imagined desires (need + thought) and worries (fear + thought). This growing illusion of self is culturally educated into us throughout childhood, and then we augment it by all the opportunities we have for “cleaving to things”. This leaves us with a rather profound sense of disconnection compared to ancestral hunter-gatherer humanity. Even so, archeological evidence shows that hunter-gatherers had difficulty coping with their sense of disconnection beginning hundreds of thousands of years earlier due to our brain’s obvious increasing ability to imagine. Civilization simply deepens the disconnection.
It is natural for any animal to try to fix the problem it feels, like the rat feeling regret and lamenting its decision (1). Humanity’s departure from the hunter-gatherer life style launched a whole set of existential problems as the illusion of self (ego) developed. The more firmly established the illusion of self became, the more easily threatened its self-identity. It is truly a house of cards built on an illusion. And so, we set about developing schemes to shore up our self-identity, and ostensibly ‘fix’ the problem. Myth and religion have been one of the main fixes, although you can see this quest for a fix in every area of human endeavor, particularly in politics and the arts.
Well, so what now? Clearly, we are casualties of complex circumstances set in motion many millennia before we were born. The problem can feel insurmountable given this key factor: All of our fixes have in turn become yet more “things” on to which we “cleave”. Simply put, we are fighting fire with fire. Such profound irony leaves me nearly speechless, but not hopeless.
Compounding Baseline Suffering
For this section, first take note of Buddha’s First Noble Truth, the existence of suffering: “Birth is sorrowful; growth, decay, and death are sorrowful. Sad it is to be joined with that which we dislike. Sadder still is the separation from that which we love, and painful is the craving for that which cannot be obtained.”
We soothe this baseline suffering partly by “cleaving to things”, as Buddha put it. However, the suffering described in the Buddha’s truth above is an integral part of each living thing’s experience. Imagine a dog, a mouse, or even a worm “being joined with that which it dislikes”, or feeling a pressing need “for that which cannot be obtained”, or “the separation from that which it loves”. Loves? Sure. For example, think of the pair-bonded goose mourning the loss of its mate.
“Cleaving” to expectations is our way of escaping the difficulties of the present… for fleeting moments at best. As it happens, attempting to avoid baseline suffering only compounds the suffering. Similar to addiction, once “cleaving” promises happiness, the “cleaving” becomes yet another source of sorrow, i.e., “painful craving” or “sad separation”. The final irony is that much of our difficulty arises from this very approach. Our solution actually intensifies baseline suffering. The ego that the added “cleaving” creates suffers its own set of existential issues.
The Consciousness Constant
The only constant is consciousness; not the content of consciousness, only the light; not the thoughts, memories, needs and fears, only the light. To paraphrase chapter 1:
The excerpts from the Bhagavad Gita below also speak to the ‘constant. Interestingly, the Bhagavad Gita and Tao Te Ching both emerged around 500 BCE. They help attest to the unity of truth once you see beyond the culturally parochial names and words used to express the subtlest of human perception. Here, simply interpret thus: Spirit ≅ Consciousness ≅ Constant ≅ Way.
2:17 — Interwoven in his creation, the Spirit is beyond destruction. No one can bring to an end the Spirit which is everlasting.
2:22 — As a man leaves an old garment and puts on one that is new, the Spirit leaves his mortal body and then puts on one that is new.
2:24 — Beyond the power of sword and fire, beyond the power of waters and winds, the Spirit is everlasting, omnipresent, never‑changing, never‑moving, ever One.
2:30 — The Spirit that is in all beings is immortal in them all: for the death of what cannot die, cease thou to sorrow.
It is important to note that none of this is actually a mystery or secret teaching. If you are alive, you are conscious. If you are conscious, you intuitively know the indescribable. The struggle to label what is indescribable is where problems arise. Even so, I’ll take a roundabout stab at it…
Constant consciousness is everlasting; it can’t be added to; it can’t be diminished; it is eternal. It is here that we can find invincibility and immortality… the suffering of birth, growth, decay, and death, not withstanding. However, the roar of our expectations drowns out this whisper of consciousness. The glare of a cultivated ego eclipses the light of constant consciousness. So what, I say! Simply knowing that this whisper of consciousness is where peace dwells is enough. All I need do is strive. As chapter 16 encourages, Devote effort to emptiness, sincerely watch stillness.
The first hint of rat regret came unexpectedly, says neuroscientist A. David Redish of the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis. While watching rats forage for food, graduate student Adam Steiner noticed that one rat looked as though it lamented a previous bad decision.
That chance sighting led the researchers to build a regret-seeking experiment they called restaurant row. It consisted of a large arena where rats could sample four stations that served up plain food pellets or those flavored with cherry, banana or chocolate. At the entryway to each restaurant, the pitch of a chime indicated how long the rats would have to wait for sustenance.
Each rat had its own flavor preferences, Redish says, allowing the scientists to figure out which restaurants and wait times represented a sweet deal to each animal. For instance, a rat that relished chocolate would happily wait about 22 seconds for a chocolate meal but would tolerate only about a 16 second wait for a plain one. Crucially, the rats had only an hour to dine, so the pressure was on to find the most satisfying food with the shortest wait.
As four animals ran through multiple scenarios, Steiner and Redish noticed that rats that skipped a good deal and wound up with a bad one exhibited behaviors that looked like regret. The rodents paused and looked back toward a restaurant where they had turned down a good meal. After forgoing a favored meal with a short wait, rats were more likely to wait longer for a less-desirable meal at the next restaurant. And when food arrived, the rats didn’t seem to relish it as much. “Normally they’ll take 20 seconds or so to eat the food and get ready to go to the next place,” Redish says. “After the regret, they eat in three to five seconds. They just wolf the food down.”
Activity in the rats’ brains also suggested the rats were ruing missed opportunities. The researchers monitored cells in two brain regions, the orbitofrontal cortex and the striatum, that fired in a distinct pattern when each rat was in a particular restaurant. When a rat skipped a good meal of banana with a short wait time but then encountered a long wait for a less-than-ideal cherry meal, for instance, the neurons behaved as though the rat were back in the banana restaurant, the team discovered. The results suggest to Steiner and Redish that the rat was replaying its bad choice in a moment of regret.
The brain activity wasn’t caused by simple disappointment, the team found. When the rat got a bum deal but made the right decision at the previous restaurant, the animal didn’t show the same behavioral or brain signs.