'Wired'article, Feb. 2006http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/14.02/dalai.html
Buddha on the Brain
The Dalai Lama has a cold. He has been hacking and sniffling his way around Washington, DC, for three days, calling on President Bush and Condoleezza Rice and visiting the Booker T. Washington Public Charter School for Technical Arts. Now he's onstage at the Washington Convention Center, preparing to address 14,000 attendees at the Society for Neuroscience's annual conference.
The mood is tense. The State Department Diplomatic Security Service has swept the hallways for explosives. Agents stand at their posts.
The 14th incarnation of the Living Buddha of Compassion approaches the podium, clears his throat, and blows his nose loudly. "So now I am releasing my stress," he says. The audience dissolves into laughter.
The Dalai Lama is here to give a speech titled "The Neuroscience of Meditation." Over the past few years, he has supplied about a dozen Tibetan Buddhist monks to Richard Davidson, a prominent neuroscience professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Davidson's research created a stir among brain scientists when his results suggested that, in the course of meditating for tens of thousands of hours, the monks had actually altered the structure and function of their brains. The professor thought the Dalai Lama would make an interesting guest speaker at the Society for Neuroscience's annual meeting, and the program committee jumped at the chance. The speech also gives the Tibetan leader an opportunity to promote one of his cherished goals: an alliance between Buddhism and science.
But the invitation has sparked a noisy row within the neuroscience community. To protest the talk, some scientists set up an online petition, which was immediately hacked by the pro-Dalai Lama faction. Others are boycotting the event or withholding their conference papers. Still others have demanded - unsuccessfully - time for a rebuttal.
All of which may explain the lama's ailment. "His Holiness' cold is a manifestation of the opposition of some scientists to his coming to the conference," a young Chinese Buddhist explains to me.
The protesters complain that the Tibetan leader isn't qualified to speak about brain science. They fret that he'll draw media attention away from important findings presented at the conference. Worst of all, his presence muddles the distinction between objective inquiry and faith. "We don't want to mix science and religion in our children's classrooms," says Bai Lu, a researcher at the National Institutes of Health, "and we don't want it at a scientific meeting."
One of the petition organizers, Lu Yang Wang, is even more blunt: "Who's coming next year?" he asks. "The pope?"
Richard Davidson, 54, is at once a distinguished scientist and an avid spiritual seeker. He became fascinated with meditation in the '60s. As a graduate student at Harvard, he channeled that interest into the study of psychology and neuroscience. In his spare time, he hung out with Ram Dass, Timothy Leary's former LSD research partner turned mystic. Davidson traveled to India for a meditation retreat, then finished his doctorate in biological psychology and headed to the University of Wisconsin, where he now directs the Waisman Laboratory for Brain Imaging and Behavior.
The Dalai Lama learned of Davidson's work from other scientists and in 1992 invited him to Dharamsala, India, to interview monks with extensive meditation experience about their mental and emotional lives. Davidson recalls the "extraordinary power of compassion" he experienced in the Dalai Lama's presence.
A decade later, he got a chance to examine Tibetan Buddhists in his own lab. In June 2002, Davidson's associate Antoine Lutz positioned 128 electrodes on the head of Mattieu Ricard. A French-born monk from the Shechen Monastery in Katmandu, Ricard had racked up more than of 10,000 hours of meditation.
Lutz asked Ricard to meditate on "unconditional loving-kindness and compassion." He immediately noticed powerful gamma activity - brain waves oscillating at roughly 40 cycles per second - indicating intensely focused thought. Gamma waves are usually weak and difficult to see. Those emanating from Ricard were easily visible, even in the raw EEG output. Moreover, oscillations from various parts of the cortex were synchronized - a phenomenon that sometimes occurs in patients under anesthesia.
The researchers had never seen anything like it. Worried that something might be wrong with their equipment or methods, they brought in more monks, as well as a control group of college students inexperienced in meditation. The monks produced gamma waves that were 30 times as strong as the students'. In addition, larger areas of the meditators' brains were active, particularly in the left prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain responsible for positive emotions.
Davidson realized that the results had important implications for ongoing research into the ability to change brain function through training. In the traditional view, the brain becomes frozen with the onset of adulthood, after which few new connections form. In the past 20 years, though, scientists have discovered that intensive training can make a difference. For instance, the portion of the brain that corresponds to a string musician's fingering hand grows larger than the part that governs the bow hand - even in musicians who start playing as adults. Davidson's work suggested this potential might extend to emotional centers.
But Davidson saw something more. The monks had responded to the request to meditate on compassion by generating remarkable brain waves. Perhaps these signals indicated that the meditators had attained an intensely compassionate state of mind. If so, then maybe compassion could be exercised like a muscle; with the right training, people could bulk up their empathy. And if meditation could enhance the brain's ability to produce "attention and affective processes" - emotions, in the technical language of Davidson's study - it might also be used to modify maladaptive emotional responses like depression.
Davidson and his team published their findings in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in November 2004. The research made The Wall Street Journal, and Davidson instantly became a celebrity scientist.
Not everyone was impressed. Yi Rao, a professor in the neurology department at Northwestern University, dismisses Davidson's study as rubbish. "The science is substandard," he says. "The motivations of both Davidson and the Dalai Lama are questionable."
As a leader of those opposing the Dalai Lama's speech, Rao criticizes Davidson for being a "politically involved scientist" who engineered the Dalai Lama's invitation to lend scientific legitimacy to Buddhism and press the Chinese government to ease up on Tibet.
But the political critique cuts both ways. Rao is Chinese, as are more than half of the 544 cosigners of the petition protesting the Dalai Lama's lecture. Many in the neuroscience community believe that Chinese opposition to the speech is fueled by the Chinese government's long-running propaganda campaign against the Tibetan leader. "It's pretty transparent," Davidson says.
Still, the broader point of Rao's argument has undeniable force: Davidson's close personal relationship with the Dalai Lama is unseemly. Scientists are supposed to maintain professional distance from individuals and organizations that support their research and have a stake in the outcome. If Davidson were receiving corporate support to study the effects of ice cream on the brain's pleasure centers, he wouldn't hang out with Ben and Jerry. Yet he's frequently seen with the Dalai Lama, whom he clearly reveres.
Davidson bristles at this charge. "I tremendously value my relationship with His Holiness and feel it has benefited my research," he says with a thin smile. "I have no intention of giving it up."
The Dalai Lama's fascination with science dates to his childhood, when young Tenzin Gyatso (his birth name) found a brass telescope that had belonged to his predecessor. For years he has been meeting with leading figures in physics and biology to broaden his understanding. He's still scratching his shaved head over quantum mechanics.
The Tibetan leader believes that Buddhism and science have much in common. Both are investigative traditions that seek to explain reality. He admires the power of the scientific method and has famously stated his willingness to jettison Buddhist doctrines shown by science to be false. However, since much of Buddhist doctrine - reincarnation, for instance - is inherently untestable, many of the Dalai Lama's beliefs remain insulated from scientific critique.
Ultimately, Buddhists and scientists hold very different views of the universe. Buddhists believe that mental and physical realms have an equal claim on reality. That is, mental constructs that science considers imaginary are, to Buddhists, objectively real and perceptible. In contrast, neuroscientists are materialists. The mind can't be separated from the physical circumstances that give rise to it. In this regard, Davidson's views hew to the scientific mainstream. "I believe mind is an emergent property of brain," he says. "Mind depends upon brain." The Dalai Lama has agreed to set this point aside for the time being.
What Buddhism has to offer science is a way to examine consciousness from the inside - though it wouldn't normally be accepted as scientific. Neuroscience approaches the brain the same way Western science views all problems: from an external, objective perspective the Dalai Lama calls "third-person." Buddhist meditation provides an introspective, first-person way to study consciousness; meditators can report their findings to scientists. "If we very precisely look at when a thought arrives, what it does … all that is very empirical," Ricard said in a 2003 radio interview. "If different meditators reproduce the same descriptions," it "has the character of science because it's experimental."
As much as the Dalai Lama enjoys dabbling in science, he has a greater purpose: to alleviate suffering. Buddhism has an extensive toolkit of techniques intended to reduce misery and perfect humanity through quieting the mind and cultivating compassion. The Dalai Lama wants to extract these methods from their religious context and ground them in the science of the brain in the hope that they will be widely adopted.
On this, Davidson and the Tibetan leader agree. Kids take PE, Davidson points out. "Wouldn't it be wonderful if they also attended a class called ME - mental education? The scientific work we're doing is providing one small piece of that larger message."
Standing onstage at the Washington Convention Center, the Dalai Lama clears his throat one last time and addresses the Society for Neuroscience.
If there is a prepared speech, he's ignoring it. For the next 30 minutes, in broken English and through his interpreter, he riffs on his childhood interest in science. "Curiosity is part of my life, part of my self. Look at this body. Some areas have more hair, some less. Why?" He stresses the importance of ethics in pursuit of scientific answers. He's especially concerned that researchers are not paying enough attention to the development of "warmheartedness." Like charity, this quality begins at home. "Come home and be with your wife, your husband, or your children," he beseeches the assembled neuroscientists, "and feel happy!"
A few minutes later, he departs in a swarm of aides and security personnel.
Opponents of the Dalai Lama's appearance fear a breach in the barrier between science and religion. For now, though, brain researchers are staying on their side of the wall. Davidson is the first to admit that his studies haven't proven that compassion is a skill to be cultivated - though clearly he believes it is. "The honest answer is, we don't know," he says, "which is why longitudinal studies are necessary."
Such research is just beginning. Experiments that will follow novices through months of intensive training - the only way to test whether meditation actually changes the brain - are starting up at UC San Francisco and UC Davis. Meditation research is blossoming at a dozen universities, including Harvard and Princeton.
Amid the flurry of Buddhist-inflected inquiry, however, there's a risk that researchers' beliefs and desires will influence the results of their experiments. Already the Mind & Life Institute, an organization cofounded by the Dalai Lama to foster dialog between researchers and mystics, sponsors summer programs that are part scientific discourse, part Buddhist retreat. These programs, Davidson says, are "producing a hybrid discipline of dharma practitioners and scientists." The scientific method is designed to counteract the bias of faith, but adulterating scientific objectivity with a first-person perspective makes it more likely that researchers will see what they want to see.
A few days before the Dalai Lama addressed the Society for Neuroscience, he stood before a similarly eminent crowd at the Mind & Life Institute's 13th annual meeting. The audience of 2,500 consisted mostly of scientists and clinicians, yet the mood was more dharma than Darwin. Sessions opened to the guttural chants of Tibetan liturgical music. Everyone stood and bowed when His Holiness entered the room.
During one presentation, Duke University professor of medicine Ralph Snyderman paused to tell His Holiness, "This is one of the most wonderful moments of my life, being here with you." It was a touching gesture. It also crystallized the dilemma. Scientists can try to test the validity of the Dalai Lama's first-person perspective. But if they allow reverence for him to cloud their judgment, they will cease to be scientists and take rebirth as something quite different: acolytes.
-by John Geirland (firstname.lastname@example.org)