The Dalai Lama will present a lecture to the world's largest group of brain scientists this weekend. He's scheduled to speak at the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience, which begins Saturday in Washington, D.C.
Some researchers are profoundly unhappy about the religious leader's scheduled speech. Hundreds have signed a petition protesting it.
But the Dalai Lama and brain scientists have more in common than you might expect.
Richard Davidson, Ph.D., of the University of Wisconsin, is one of several scientists who will present research on meditation at the neuroscience meeting. He says there's nothing flaky about the idea of studying whether a mental activity like meditation alters the brain's circuitry.
"Most Americans now realize that if they go to the gym or exercise several times a week, they will observe systematic changes occurring in their body," Davidson says. Meditations, he explains, is "exercising the mind in a particular way."
Some small studies have suggested that meditating on compassion can affect parts of the brain associated with positive thoughts. The Dalai Lama's talk will discuss meditation as a way to promote well-being and compassion.
Davidson says the Dalai Lama has been encouraging research on meditation for more than a decade.
"He has been very interested in investigating the brain function of monks who have practiced for many, many years, to investigate how their brain function might have been changed by their practice," Davidson says.
The Dalai Lama spends a lot of time with scientists.
Earlier this week in Washington, he shared the stage with several prominent brain researchers. They were at a meeting put together by the Mind & Life Institute, Georgetown University and John Hopkins University.
One speaker was Wolf Singer, M.D., Ph.D., the director of the Max Planck Institute for Brain Research in Frankfurt, Germany. Singer said meditation is a highly active mental state. He described studies indicating that certain brain waves become synchronized when a person's mind is attentive — or meditating.
Singer's talk was a bit beyond many members of the public in audience. But not the Dalai Lama. Through an interpreter, he asked for more details several times.
Sara Lazar, Ph.D., a researcher at Harvard who studies meditation, says it's really not so odd to find the Dalai Lama deeply involved in neuroscience.
"There are a lot of parallels between Buddhist philosophy and Western scientific philosophy," she says. "Definitely there are some exceptions, reincarnation being one of them.
The Dalai Lama explores the parallels between Buddhism and science in his latest book, The Universe in a Single Atom.
In one passage he writes, "My confidence in venturing into science lies in my basic belief that as in science, so in Buddhism, understanding the nature of reality is pursued by means of critical investigation."
So far, scientific studies appear to support Buddhist claims that the mind can be trained to ward off things like negative thoughts. But in his book, the Dalai Lama says Buddhists should embrace scientific evidence even if it contradicts their beliefs.
"If scientific analysis were conclusively to demonstrate certain claims in Buddhism to be false," he says, "then we must accept the findings of science and abandon those claims."
But the Dalai Lama also says science has limits.
He rejects so-called scientific materialism — the idea that consciousness, for example, is no more than a series of chemical reactions in our brains. That wouldn't allow for reincarnation.
Davidson of the University of Wisconsin says at some point, science and Buddhism must take separate paths.
"There are certainly beliefs in traditional Buddhism that conflict with basic principles of scientific understanding," Davidson says. "We can't make sense of those beliefs in any kind of scientific framework."
That's one reason some brain researchers aren't comfortable with the Dalai Lama's appearance at the neuroscience meeting.
But Davidson says many scientists have shown it's possible to do research on evolution and still believe in God. He says it also should be possible to study the science of meditation regardless of your views on reincarnation.