Exploring the Neural Correlates of Wu-Wei.

Effortless Action: Wu-wei as Conceptual Metaphor and Spiritual Ideal in Early China

By Edward Slingerland

New York: Oxford University Press.  2003.

If the Tao is all around us in the natural world, what does it actually do?  In the monotheistic worldview, it’s all rather straightforward.  We have a command-and-control God who gets things going in the universe with direct, purposive action.  God said, “Let there be light!”… and there was light.  But early Chinese thought had no conception of a creator God.  There was the Tao, a “whirling emptiness” which was nevertheless “the ancestor of the ten thousand things.”  In stark contrast to God’s purposeful command, the Tao offers us the paradox of wu-wei: “Act by no-action, Then nothing is not in order.”[1]

Classical Chinese scholar, Edward Slingerland, translates wu-wei as “effortless action” and describes how this metaphor served “as a central spiritual ideal” of the great early Chinese philosophers.  Along with such great Chinese scholars as Joseph Needham and Benjamin Schwartz, Slingerland believes that the simple translation of wu-wei as “non-action” is inadequate to describe the concept.  Schwartz had previously suggested “non-purposive action or behavior”[2] and Needham offered: “‘refraining from activity contrary to Nature’, i.e. from insisting on going against the grain of things, from trying to make materials perform functions for which they are unsuitable.”[3] Slingerland’s “effortless action” seems consistent with these interpretations, but shifts the attention a little more to the dynamics within an individual consciousness rather than, for example, Needham’s focus on mankind’s relationship with the natural world.

This shift in focus leads Slingerland to identify what he sees as a crucial paradox in East Asian thought centered on the wu-wei concept, one that extended over more than a thousand years, through the development of Ch’an (Zen) Buddhism and into Neo-Confucian debates of the Song Dynasty.  The paradox goes like this.  The great Taoist works, such as the Laozi (Tao Te Ching) or the Zhuangzi (Chuang-tzu), advocate a wu-wei approach to the world, with the Laozi’s view of ideal human nature as a natural uncarved piece of wood, and the Zhuangzi’s memorable descriptions of butchers, cicada-catchers and swimmers so involved in what they’re doing that they lose their self-consciousness, becoming one with their activity.  But if wu-wei is so “natural,” then how did we humans ever lose it, and how can we get back to that state without going against the very nature of wu-wei? Here’s how Slingerland summarizes it:

If, in fact, we are naturally good in a ‘so-of-itself,’ no-effort fashion, why are we not good already?  If the Laozian soteriological[4] path is so effortless and spontaneous, why do we have to be told to pursue it? … Laozi urges us to behaviorally ‘do wu-wei’ and to cognitively ‘grasp oneness,’ while at the same time he systematically condemns doing and grasping… The fact that we are not already … open to the Way means that we need to somehow render ourselves receptive, and Zhuangzi is thus forced to supplement his effortlessness and unself-consciousness metaphors with references to hard work and training…

Slingerland examines each of the great early Chinese philosophers from this perspective, pulling open the text to expose the underlying paradox.  In what was for me a particularly enlightening section, he demonstrates the conceptual relationship between the Confucian philosophy of Mencius and the Taoism of Laozi, showing how Mencius’ favorite agricultural metaphor transforms the Laozian sense of wu-wei as “pristine nature” into an agricultural vision of wu-wei as “appropriate cultivation.”

Slingerland concludes that “the paradox of wu-wei is a genuine paradox and that any ‘solution’ to the problem it presents will therefore necessarily be plagued by superficial and structural difficulties.”  While I agree with his view of the centrality of the wu-wei paradox in traditional Chinese thought, I believe it may be possible to make some headway in this paradox by applying recent findings in neuroscience to a cognitive view of human development, and considering the notion of wu-wei in terms of what I call “democracy of consciousness.”

In another blog, The Tyranny of the Prefrontal Cortex, I’ve argued that the symbolizing and conceptual functions mediated by the prefrontal cortex (pfc) have led to a “tyranny” of those capabilities over other aspects of human consciousness.  This view can be seen as a modern formulation of the Taoist narrative of the loss of our original state of nature, that primordial time when “in the Age of Perfect Te, men lived in common with birds and beasts, and were on terms of equality with all creatures, as forming one family.”[5] Under this approach, the Laozian view that:

From knowing to not knowing,
This is superior.
From not knowing to knowing,
This is sickness.[6]

may be seen as a repudiation of pfc-mediated forms of symbolic and conceptual cognition (which I’ve termed “conceptual consciousness”) and an idealization of what I call “animate consciousness”, the pre-symbolic form of consciousness that we share with other animals.  Similarly, the rise of the “tyranny of the pfc” that I’ve traced through agriculture, monotheist dualism and the scientific revolution, could be paraphrased in these lines from the Laozi:

Therefore when Tao is lost, then there is te.
When te is lost, then there is jen (humanity).
When jen is lost, then there is i (righteousness).
When i is lost, then there is li (propriety).[7]

The trappings of culture, the forces of technology, cumulatively come to dominate mankind’s original animate consciousness, imposing a different kind of conceptualized order on society and in each of our minds.

However, my approach differs from Laozi in that it’s clear that there’s “no going home.”  Even if, according to some romantics, the hunter-gatherer way of life was superior to ours in many ways, that’s now irrelevant.  We live in an age when both the positive and negative effects of our pfc-dominated culture pervade every aspect of our existence.  The way forward, then, is for us to achieve a “democracy of consciousness” by regaining a harmony between our animate and conceptual consciousness.

This is where my approach meets Slingerland’s “paradox of wu-wei.”  When Zhuangzi describes the perfect harmony of the cicada-catcher or Butcher Ding, I believe he’s capturing moments of “democracy of consciousness”, when the functions of the pfc are perfectly aligned with those of our animate consciousness.  Slingerland points out the paradox here that Butcher Ding “apparently had to train for years and pass through several levels of attainment before he was finally able to follow his spiritual desires.”  I agree.  But modern neuroscience shows us that this paradox is encapsulated in the biology of our brains.  When you are learning a new routine, whether it’s driving, playing music, or walking into a restaurant, your pfc is fully engaged.  You are attentive to every move you make, thinking about it, making an effort, measuring it against pre-conceived rules of conduct.  Your self-awareness is at its height.  Wu-wei is nowhere to be found.

However, when you have mastered your activity, your pfc takes a back seat, only intervening if something unexpected occurs.  A recent neuroimaging study observes that, as familiarity with a particular activity increases, the pre-motor cortex begins to take over from the pfc:

Evidence suggests that the PFC is more critical for new learning than for familiar routines… Human imaging studies report a decrease in blood flow to the PFC as a task become more familiar and greater blood flow to the dorsal premotor cortex (PMC) than the PFC when subjects are performing familiar versus novel tasks.  Also, with increasing task familiarity, there is a relative shift in blood flow from areas associated with focal attention, such as the PFC, to motor regions.  Therefore, it may be that the PFC is primarily involved in new learning, but with familiarity, rules become more strongly established in motor system structures.[8]

I suggest that this study, and others like it, may be describing the neural correlates of Zhuangzi’s wu-wei.  Another recent study examines the neural activity predominant in meditation conducted by novices and those at more advanced stages of practice.  Again, in early stages, a practitioner requires greater mental effort to direct his/her wandering thoughts, which “requires strong executive function and capacity that heavily involves the PFC.” At intermediate stages, the anterior cingulate cortex (a brain area involved in self-regulation) “maintain[s] the balance of cognitive control and autonomic activity.”  For an advanced practitioner, however, an effortless state of wu-wei is achieved.  Here’s how it’s described:

In later meditation stages, the practitioner does not need strong effort and uses only effortless experience to maintain the meditative state. When deeply in this state, practitioners totally forget the body, the self and the environment. In this stage, the ANS [autonomic nervous system] is in control…[9]

I would propose that the “effortless experience” described here is the same wu-wei state as Slingerland’s “effortless action”.  Finally, in what is perhaps the most enlightening recent study on the subject, an analysis of the neural correlates of jazz improvisation shows a shift towards wu-wei in the cognitive experience of jazz musicians – what I view as a harmonization of animate and conceptual consciousness.  The study notes a deactivation of the lateral pfc regions that “are thought to provide a cognitive framework within which goal-directed behaviors are consciously monitored, evaluated and corrected” and which are active “during effortful problem-solving, conscious self-monitoring and focused attention.”  The authors of the study describe their findings in terms which, again, echo Slingerland’s “effortless action”:

Whereas activation of the lateral regions appears to support self-monitoring and focused attention, deactivation may be associated with defocused, free-floating attention that permits spontaneous unplanned associations, and sudden insights or realizations. The idea that spontaneous composition relies to some degree on intuition, the ‘‘ability to arrive at a solution without reasoning’’, may be consistent with the dissociated pattern of prefrontal activity we observed. That is, creative intuition may operate when an attenuated DLPFC [dorsolateral prefrontal cortex] no longer regulates the contents of consciousness.[10]

The subjects of this study were “highly skilled professional jazz musicians”.  We can imagine, based on the earlier studies mentioned, that novice jazz musicians would have shown much greater pfc-activation along with their greater effort.

Based on these analyses, I suggest that we can usefully correlate different levels of pfc-activation to different aspects of wu-wei that Slingerland identifies in Laozi, Mencius and Zhuangzi.

The Laozian wu-wei correlates with what I call animate consciousness, equivalent to the pre-symbolic kind perception experienced by an infant.  In a grown person, our experiences are mediated by the pfc so automatically that it’s difficult to discern this pre-symbolic moment of awareness, but experienced practitioners of meditation can describe it.  Here is a description of that pre-symbolic, pre-pfc moment by a renowned Buddhist meditation teacher:

When you first become aware of something, there is a fleeting instant of pure awareness just before you conceptualize the thing, before you identify it.  That is a state of awareness.  Ordinarily, this state is short-lived…   It takes place just before you start thinking about it – before your mind says, ‘Oh, it’s a dog.’  That flowing, soft-focused moment of pure awareness is mindfulness.  In that brief flashing mind-moment you experience a thing as an un-thing.  You experience a softly flowing moment of pure experience that is interlocked with the rest of reality, not separate from it…[11]

By contrast, as Slingerland points out, the Mencian view of wu-wei involves “appropriate” human cultivation of experience.  In this view, the pfc’s functions of identifying, establishing rules, and promoting appropriate action are considered part of the natural, wu-wei human experience.  Just as it’s “natural” for an infant to spend their first two and a half years formulating the symbolic pfc-mediated network required to understand native language, so the Mencian view would place the societal manifestations of this function – language, community, agriculture – as wu-wei, the effortless activity of a mature human consciousness.

The Mencian view, though, describes another ideal context – that of a stable agricultural society where man and nature co-exist in harmony – which is almost as far removed from our world as the Laozian “state of nature.”  To use the Mencius agricultural harvest metaphor, mankind has been tugging on the naturally growing shoots for so long that we’re in danger of pulling up the entire plant from the ground, having to replace it with our own genetically engineered variety.

I suggest that the Zhuangzian approach to wu-wei, in contrast to both Laozi and Mencius, describes a path that’s directly relevant to our individual and societal conditions in the 21st century.  Rather than reject the pfc’s involvement in human experience, the Zhuangzian approach, supported by the neuroimaging findings above, advocates the full utilization of pfc functions – willpower, application, attention – to arrive at a stage where the pfc can take a back seat, and a harmonization of consciousness becomes available.  This dynamic can be extended beyond the specific aspects of life analyzed in the neuroimaging studies to all aspects of our lives, indeed to the general way we choose to lead our lives.

From this viewpoint, Slingerland’s original “wu-wei paradox” doesn’t go away, but it’s transformed into a descriptor of the pfc’s dynamics within our consciousness:  We can use the very power of our pfc functions – self-awareness, goal identification, willpower – to reduce the pfc’s “tyranny” over the other aspects of our consciousness.  I think this may be what Zhuangzi means when he says “Words are for holding ideas, but when one has got the idea, one need no longer think about the words.”[12]

It might take a great effort to get there, but by utilizing rather than rejecting our unique pfc-mediated functions, we each have the capability within us to arrive at a place of wu-wei, to shift the balance of power within our own minds and achieve our own democracy of consciousness.


[1] Chen, E. M. (1989). The Tao Te Ching: A New Translation with Commentary, St. Paul, Minnesota: Paragon House. TTC 3 & 4, pp. 58, 60.

[2] Schwartz, B. I. (1985). The World of Thought in Ancient China, Cambridge, MA: Belknap Harvard University Press,  188.

[3] Needham, J. (1956/1972). Science and Civilisation in China, Volume II. London: Cambridge University Press.

[4] “Soteriology” generally refers to the religious study of salvation.

[5] Cited by Chen, E. M. (1973). “The Meaning of Te in the Tao Te Ching: An Examination of the Concept of Nature in Chinese Taoism.” Philosophy East and West, 23(4), 457-470.

[6] Chen, E. M. (1989). The Tao Te Ching: A New Translation with Commentary, op. cit. 215: TTC 71

[7] Chen, op. cit. 146: TTC 38.

[8] Muhammad, R., Wallis, J. D., and Miller, E. K. (2006). “A Comparison of Abstract Rules in the Prefrontal Cortex, Premotor Cortex, Inferior Temporal Cortex, and Striatum.” Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 974-989.

[9] Tang, Y.-Y., and Posner, M. I. (2009). “Attention training and attention state training.” Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 13(5: May 2009).

[10] Limb, C. J., and Braun, A. R. (2008). “Neural Substrates of Spontaneous Musical Performance: An fMRI Study of Jazz Improvisation.” PLoS ONE, 3(2: February 2008), e1679.  It should be noted that another part of the pfc, called the fronto-polar cortex, was active during the improvisation.  This area is thought to be related to integrative functions, and is distinct from the “effortful” planning functions of the lateral pfc described in the post.

[11] Gunaratana, V. H. (1991). Mindfulness in Plain English, Somerville, MA: Wisdom Publications.

[12] Quoted by Fung, Y.-L. (1948/1976). A Short History of Chinese Philosophy: A Systematic Account of Chinese Thought From Its Origins to the Present Day, New York: The Free Press.

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