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The Links Between the Dalai Lama and Neuroscience

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The Links Between the Dalai Lama and Neuroscience


The Links Between the Dalai Lama and Neuroscience

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This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.


And I'm Steve Inskeep.

This weekend, the world's largest group of brain scientists will hear from Tibet's exiled spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama. He's a keynote speaker at the annual Society for Neuroscience meeting here in Washington, DC. Now some researchers are extremely unhappy that a religious figure is addressing a scientific meeting. Hundreds even signed a petition protesting his appearance. But as NPR's Jon Hamilton reports, the Dalai Lama and brain scientists have more in common than you might expect.

JON HAMILTON reporting:

More than 30,000 people are expected to attend this year's neuroscience meeting. They'll choose from hundreds of sessions on topics like autism, Alzheimer's disease and depression. There will also be a few sessions on meditation. One presenter will be Richard Davidson of the University of Wisconsin. He says there's nothing flaky about the idea of studying whether a mental activity like meditation alters the brain's circuitry.

Mr. RICHARD DAVIDSON (University of Wisconsin): 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 bodies. In the same way, this is exercising the mind in a particular way.

HAMILTON: For example, small studies suggest meditating on compassion affects parts of the brain associated with positive thought. The Dalai Lama's talk this weekend will be on training the mind to be happier. Davidson says the Dalai Lama has been encouraging this sort of research for years.

Mr. DAVIDSON: 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.

HAMILTON: 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 and Life Institute, Georgetown University and Johns Hopkins University. One speaker was Wolf Singer, the director of the Max Planck Institute for Brain Research in Frankfurt. He said meditation is a highly active state. He showed how certain brain waves become synchronized when a person's mind is attentive or meditating.

Mr. WOLF SINGER (Director, Max Planck Institute for Brain Research): The brain waves have small amplitude and fairly high frequency, as we see on the left. And then when the brain gets a little bit drowsy, inattentive, then these large amplitude waves occur.

HAMILTON: That sort of talk was a bit beyond many members of the public in the audience, but not the Dalai Lama. He wanted more details.

Mr. SINGER: And here you see...

DALAI LAMA: (Foreign language spoken)

HAMILTON: Some of the Dalai Lama's questions proved too technical even for his interpreter. Sara Lazar, a researcher at Harvard who studies meditation, says it's really not so odd to find the Dalai Lama deeply involved in neuroscience.

Ms. SARA LAZAR (Harvard): There is a lot of parallels between Buddhist philosophy and Western scientific philosophy. I mean, certainly, there are some exceptions, you know, reincarnation being one of them.

HAMILTON: The Dalai Lama explores the parallels in his latest book, "The Universe in a Single Atom." Here's a passage from the English audio version. If the voice sounds familiar, yes, it's Richard Gere.

(Soundbite of English audio version of "The Universe in a Single Atom")

Mr. RICHARD GERE: (Reading) 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.

HAMILTON: So far, 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.

(Soundbite of English audio version of "The Universe in a Single Atom")

Mr. GERE: (Reading) If scientific analysis were conclusively to demonstrate certain claims in Buddhism to be false, then we must accept the findings of science and abandon those claims.

HAMILTON: 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. Richard Davidson, the brain researcher, says at some point science and Buddhism have to part company.

Mr. DAVIDSON: There are certainly beliefs in traditional Buddhism that conflict with basic principles of scientific understanding, and we can't make sense of those beliefs in any kind of scientific framework.

HAMILTON: That's one reason some brain researchers aren't comfortable with the Dalai Lama's appearance at the upcoming meeting. But Davidson says many scientists have shown it's possible to do research on evolution and still believe in God. So it should be possible to study the science of meditation regardless of your views on reincarnation. Jon Hamilton, NPR News, Washington.

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