Chapter 11: The Upside of Emptiness

One day, a fifty-nine-year-old man asked his wife where his wife was. “Fred”—the pseudonym given this man by the researchers who wrote up his case in the journal Neurological Science—wasn’t kidding. “On her surprised answer that she was right there,” the researchers wrote, “he firmly denied that she was his wife.”

The problem wasn’t that Fred didn’t recognize his wife’s face. Clearly this woman looked like his wife. But he insisted that she was a “double.” His actual wife, he speculated, had gone out and would re-turn later.

Fred suffered from Capgras delusion, which consists of being convinced that someone—usually a relative, sometimes a close friend—is an imposter. And a very good imposter, an exact replica—on the outside, at least. But not on the inside. This person may look exactly like, say, your mother, but she lacks what we might call essence-of-your-mother.

Essence, as we’ve seen, is central to the Buddhist concept of emptiness. At least its absence is central to the concept of emptiness. The idea of emptiness is that, while the things we perceive out there in the world do in some sense exist, they lack this thing called “essence.” So when Fred looked at his wife and didn’t see essence-of-wife, was he experiencing emptiness? Was he poised on the threshold of Buddhist enlightenment?

Um, no. The idea of enlightenment is to lose your delusions, whereas to start thinking that your wife isn’t your wife is to gain a delusion. Hence the term Capgras delusion. Whatever was going on in Fred’s brain, it wasn’t what Buddhists mean by enlightenment. At the same time, I think Fred’s brain may have something in common with the brain of someone who, while in a deep meditative state, sees the world as wholly or partially “empty.” And I think this prospect may shed important light on the experience of emptiness: what it is, why people experience it, and what we should make of it….