Buddhism and Science: The Mind and Life Conference

The following article is from the Autumn, 2003 issue of the Snow Lion Newsletter and is for historical reference only. You can see this in context of the original newsletter here.

Imagine the Dalai Lama as an engineer. If he weren't the spiritual leader of Tibet, that's what he'd like to beaccording to Nobel Laureate and McGovern Institute president Philip Sharp. Sharp made the comment at the 11th Mind & Life conference, held in September on the MIT campus, the American heart of engineering and the sciences.

Engineer or not, His Holiness the Dalai Lama has a deep interest in the world of scienceparticularly as it interfaces with Buddhism, itself a science of a kind, with 2000 years of empirical examination of the workings of the mind.

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One monk, Matthieu Ricard (a presenter at the conference), was way off the curve in his ability to keep the pre-frontal cortex activated for extended periods....Davidson commented that he simply couldn't imagine how it was possible to accomplish this feat.

It's precisely Buddhism's track record of effective technologies of the mind that brings top-level scientists to the Mind and Life conferences to learn what Buddhism can teach them about topics such as attention and cognition. In turn, they present the results of their cutting-edge research into the same issues.

At the recent conference, Professor Richard Davidson of University of Wisconsin talked about his research on Tibetan monks wired to brain wave monitors while meditating on compassion. In a variety of studies the monks showed a marked activation in the pre-frontal cortex of the brain, an area associated with calmness and capacity to over-ride knee-jerk emotional responses. One monk, Matthieu Ricard (a presenter at the conference), was way off the curve in his ability to keep the pre-frontal cortex activated for extended periods, according to Davidson, and was even able to deactivate his own startle reflex in response to sudden loud noises. This is an extremely rare capability; even expert marksmen cannot repress a startle response to the'sound of their own guns. Davidson commented that he simply couldn't imagine how it was possible to accomplish this feat.

B. Alan Wallace, a key figure at the conference, suggested that, just as we can train humans far beyond the norm to achieve Olympic-level athletic capabilities, it's possible to train people to achieve Olympic cognitive abilitiesand that how to do this is maybe just what Buddhism can teach science.

His Holiness the Dalai Lama seemed intrigued by many of the issues evoked at the meeting, and listened intently as the scientists and Buddhists on the panel (including B. Alan Wallace, Georges Dreyfus, and Matthieu Ricard) discussed issues such as: What is attention? What is cognitive control? How are they related? Does the human mind construct a visualization instantaneously or bit by bit (scientific studies demonstrate that visualizing even a simple object such as an A is done piece by piece)?

Harvard professor Eric Lander noted that both Buddhism and science are attempting to ameliorate the suffering of the world and observed that Buddhism is not a technology for detection [as is science] but for modulation.

Scientists know that the brain can in fact be modulated. For example, when the blind use Braille, sensing the words with their fingertips, it's actually the visual cortex of the brain that is activatedeven though there's no seeingindicating that the brain has re-organized itself. The capacity for practices of various kinds to actually re-model our brains is an exciting promise and prospect for meditators and scientists alike.

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Several intriguing books on the previous Mind and Life conferences are available; take a look in Science and Buddhism in the catalog section of this newsletter.

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