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The Science of Karma

Karma is real , but it’s not what you think.

Reap what you sow. What goes around comes around. If you do good you’ll be rewarded, and if you do ill you’ll be punished.

The idea is an ancient one, and universal.

In Buddhism, it’s called karma. And to the unfamiliar, karma sounds like a system of justice governed by the cosmos.

Karma illustration

Social cognitive theory can give the Buddhist concept of karma an empirical place to rest. Illustration by Oliver Day.

Karma, however, is deeply personal. “In the Buddhist point of view karma is a psychological phenomenon. It happens because of the way the mind works. It’s not some general force that exists in the universe. It’s not the hand of God,” says John Edwards, director of CLA’s School of Psychological Science and OSU’s Contemplative Studies Initiative. “The basic idea is that your own behaviors and actions lead you to experience the world in a certain way.”

Edwards has studied Buddhist philosophy for more than a decade, and has been a researcher in the area of social cognition for over twenty years. One of his passions is the intersection of karma in the Mind Only school of Buddhism and the Western concept of construct activation — which also suggests our mental habits and actions influence how we see the world.

Edwards and colleague Winston McCullough have published articles and taught classes on this overlap. To them, the marriage of an ancient religion and cognitive science not only provides evidence for the existence of karma — it helps us reach beyond scientific literature to help people lead happier lives.

“In cognitive theory, the word ‘construct’ explains the concepts and ideas we have in our minds,” Edwards says. “When they’re activated they’re influencing us. For instance, if I have the idea of dishonesty in my mind it’s activated. It will guide my attention to the things in the environment that are consistent with or related to dishonesty, and I will interpret things in that manner. When I see someone behave in an ambiguous way, I’ll be prone to interpret it as dishonesty.”

Constructs arise with our earliest memories, and we continue to replay, reinforce and collect them throughout our lives. The more ingrained they become, whether they’re positive or negative, the easier it is to call upon them in the moment. Buddhists use the metaphor of a “storehouse consciousness” to illustrate this. Think of a silo, and each thought or action you have in your life is a kernel of corn. These stored memories, thoughts and actions germinate, and become the ripening or results of our karma, our actions.

“These mental imprints collected over billions of discreet actions in our lifetimes create our karmic pattern. This doesn’t deny external events or the fact that people treat us in certain ways, but karma is how we interpret, how we remember and how we make sense of these external events over time,” McCullough says.

Underlying both social cognitive theory and karma in the Mind Only school of Buddhism is the idea that there’s no singular way to interpret an object, event, or person. None possess an inherent, inborn nature. In psychology it’s called ambiguity; in Buddhism, emptiness.

Our mind’s tendency is to assign categories and values to what we witness. We “fill” the ambiguous or empty with our own concepts. Unhappiness can come when we hold too fast to some of these assignations, particularly ones that that are resentful or traumatic.

“We assume that when perceiving something it’s a high fidelity perception. Like we’re recording what’s actually out there, like a camera. That’s actually not correct from a Buddhist or a psychological perspective. Instead we’re making sense out of things. We’re co-creating the qualities of everything we encounter. Realizing that these qualities are not actually inherently there, residing in the objects we perceive, is what emptiness or ambiguity means,” McCullough says.

Research on construct activation has shown that people can be primed to perceive things in a certain way. In one seminal study, Edwards says, participants read a description of a man engaged in a number of ambiguous behaviors, like going to a store and asking for money back. The participants who were exposed to the idea of hostility prior to reading the paragraph were more likely to think of the man as aggressive instead of assertive. What’s more, participants who were primed with hostility did not perceive the man as especially high on other traits. The effects of the prime were specific to hostility.

Other studies, according to Edwards, show that manipulating participants into behaving in ways that are linked to a concept (such as hostility) lead the person to perceive others in a way consistent with the concept. This is the essence of karma – a person’s own behavior leads him or her to see the world in a certain way.

Such findings give Buddhist philosophical tradition an empirical foundation on which to rest. And Buddhism offers a way forward. Western scientists, Edwards says, are often loathe to go beyond their findings, to make recommendations or predictions to help people change their lives for the better. “Buddhism is entirely oriented that way. Its goal is to help us to be happier, more enlightened people who are kind to others. This really humanizes the science in a sense. It was an epiphany once I realized that the things I was studying really speak to how I ought to be behaving in life,” Edwards says.

Edwards and McCullough’s classes, both for OSU students and the Corvallis community, explain these concepts and include Buddhist meditative practices that are designed to help practitioners deconstruct their own long-held preconceptions. “For the past 500 years there’s been this head bashing with religion and science as antagonistic partners dueling it out. We’re now at the beginning of a respectful dialogue between ancient wisdom and modern science, especially psychology,” McCullough says. “There’s a great opportunity for students to learn practices like meditation to learn how the mind works. And researchers can test some of the hypotheses from karmic theory in our laboratory experiments. It’s a very exciting time.”

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