Chittamani Mahayana Buddhist Meditation Centre

Science and Meditation Research  


Dalai Lama and MIT Together Investigate Value of Meditation

By Sharon Begley

19 September 2003

The Wall Street Journal, B1 English

(Copyright (c) 2003, Dow Jones & Company, Inc.)

IF YOU KNOW any couples who can't live with each other and can't live apart, then you have a good head start on understanding the relationship between science and religion.

On the one hand, there was that nasty business of burning Giordano Bruno at the stake in 1600 when his cosmological theories annoyed the Inquisition, not to mention the persecution of Galileo for similar heresies. But the Vatican also began sponsoring astronomical observatories in the 1500s, and belief in a perfect God whose creation reflects immutable laws helped inspire the scientific revolution soon after.

These days, science and faith are making nice almost everywhere you look (the battle between creationism and Darwinian evolution being a sad exception). Neurobiologists are exploring the brain mechanisms that produce the feeling of oneness with the cosmos that advanced practitioners of Tibetan Buddhist meditation report. People of faith are finding support for their beliefs in cosmologists' discoveries that the universe is "fine-tuned" to produce life. Even the Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhism, has joined in. "If I had not been a monk," he said last weekend, "I would have become an engineer."

More striking than what he said was where he said it: at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, that pantheon of engineering, at a conference on "Investigating the Mind." The Dalai Lama has hosted 10 invitation-only meetings with scientists in India since 1987. But getting a neurobiology institute at MIT to co-sponsor this one was a coup, one all the more striking for the scientific firepower agreeing that Buddhists could be not merely scientific guinea pigs but scientific collaborators.

TRAINED INTROSPECTION "can reveal subtleties that no other techniques can," said developmental psychologist Jerome Kagan, of Harvard University. "It is a very valuable source of evidence to be added to that of the neuroscientist, the geneticist . . . and all others who wish to be wise observers of phenomena that we can never know completely."

Already, scientists are reaping the rewards of their collaborations with advanced meditators. At the University of Wisconsin, Madison, Matthieu Ricard recently offered up his brain to psychologist Richard Davidson and his team. The scientists wired the French-born monk with electrodes and scanned his brain activity with an MRI, in an attempt to fathom the neural underpinnings of meditative states.

Mr. Ricard alternated between a neutral mental state and a meditative one in which he focused on generating a sense of compassion. When 150 untrained volunteers were told to focus on compassion, activity in their prefrontal cortex (behind the forehead) was pretty equally divided between activity on the right, a locus of negative emotions, and on the left, a center for feelings of happiness or other positive emotions. But Mr. Ricard's pattern of activity was so far to the left "that he was off the curve," said Prof. Davidson.

In another study, the Wisconsin scientists asked monks to generate the meditative state called open presence, in which you are deeply, but nonjudgmentally, aware of thoughts or feelings. Activity plunged in each monk's orbital frontal cortex, a region that assigns emotional meaning to perceptions.

TO TEST THE STRENGTH of the monks' mental discipline, the scientists blasted recordings of a baby laughing or a woman screaming while the monks meditated. When they were generating the state of compassion, activation in their brain's left superior prefrontal region spiked, compared with the response during a nonmeditative state. Yet in the state of nonjudgmental open presence, the emotion-processing regions reacted to the sounds hardly at all.

It's possible that the monks' patterns of brain activity is innate, rather than the result of meditation practice. Only before-and-after-training studies will reveal that. For now, the preliminary results suggest that the compassion and open presence that Buddhist contemplatives report achieving in meditation has a real neural basis.

At the MIT meeting, neuroscientists were already starting to question some pet theories in light of Buddhist claims. For example, advanced meditators are able to visualize an image, blow it up to the size of a mountain, and fill in every tiny detail, said Mr. Ricard. Some contemplatives can visualize the fine details of 720 deities for hours. Yet neuroscience says that's impossible. Somebody's wrong.

Through their alliance with neuroscience, Buddhist scholars hope to gain insight into ways to improve contemplative techniques and training. But they also hope to show that meditators' claims -- that the practice cultivates compassion, allows them to control their attention for long periods, and enables them to call up mental images with the clarity and detail of a zillion-pixel photo -- have a measurable basis in brain activity.

"People believe in the great god of data," explained Ajahn Amaro, co-abbott of a Buddhist monastery in Northern California.

If science undermines the claims, the Buddhists are ready. "If science proves facts that are different from Buddhist understandings," the Dalai Lama has vowed, "Buddhism must change."

There might yet be hope for a rapprochement between that odd couple, science and faith.


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