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Talking Up Enlightenment

Neuroscientists hear -- and applaud -- the Dalai Lama



FLICKR/JAY INSLEE

Editor's note: We are posting this feature from our February 2006 issue to commemorate the 50th anniversary this month of the Dalai Lama's forced exile from China.

Many years ago a curious boy looked through a telescope and, on seeing the shadows in the craters of the moon, realized that he had to make a choice. His religion taught him to respect the moon as a generator of light, but science taught him that the moon reflected the sun’s rays. The subtle clarification offered by science ultimately trumped the Buddhist interpretation for Tenzin Gyatso, the current Dalai Lama.

Today when this political and religious leader is faced with conflicting explanations of life’s mysteries, the Dalai Lama still favors scientific evidence over classical Buddhist concepts. At a time when Americans are battling state by state for religion-free science education, he urges people to take a path of peace between the perspectives. An estimated 14,000 people attended his lecture on November 12, 2005, at a meeting of the Society for Neuroscience in Washington, D.C., with most of them watching from overflow rooms where the talk was broadcast on large screens. Dressed in gold and crimson robes, he suggested a healthy dose of skepticism toward religious pronouncements. Although science can overturn spiritual teachings, people can benefit from scientific understanding without losing faith, he reasoned.

But the Dalai Lama also emphasized that religion can help science, not just hinder it. In particular, he urged neuroscientists not to discount the role of Buddhist traditions on the brain, specifically meditation. “Try to find reality with an open mind,” he said, referring both to investigations in science as well as to studies in Buddhist thought. “Without investigation we can’t see reality.”

The neuroscientists in the auditorium responded with approval, especially those who have examined the effects of meditation. One was Bruce F. O’Hara of the University of Kentucky, who has found that meditation improves the performance of sleep-deprived individuals about as much as drinking a cup of coffee does. O’Hara applauded the religious leader’s support of science, “especially given the issues with evolution and the [fundamentalist] Christian reluctance to accept evolution because it threatens their beliefs.” Olivia Carter of Harvard University found it fascinating to hear about the Dalai Lama’s personal interest in neuroscience and the importance he places on the scientific method of inquiry. “It should not matter that the observations associated with meditation arise through introspection or contemplation, as long as the observations can be used to generate objective testable predictions,” she says. Carter’s own work in the field examines meditation’s effect on perception.

Sara W. Lazar of Harvard Medical School remarks that not all scientists are equally as open to testing Buddhist meditation practices. “I have encountered mainstream scientists who do not meditate who are very curious and open, and those who are still unwilling to even consider the possibility that meditation might have some positive effects.” Lazar has found that meditation may help prevent the rate of cortical thinning with age. Brain scans show that as people get older, the white matter typically degenerates. This material envelops the neurons and helps them work more efficiently. Lazar discovered that older meditators had active cortical regions that were comparable to those of younger nonmeditators.

But such a discovery should not have been too surprising, according to neuroscientist Michael Merzenich of the University of California, San Francisco. The brain typically responds to repetitive use by thickening the cortex in the relevant area—for example, people who play the piano have more cortex associated with that skill. Moreover, recent studies indicate that “plastic changes driven by mental exercises in many respects parallel those driven by actual exercise,” Merzenich says.

Still, he finds the idea of science studying the influence of faith on the brain intriguing. Imaging work has shown that an area in the frontal cortex is activated in response to how strongly someone believes an answer to be correct. Merzenich adds that “this activation affirms the brain’s decision that one’s conclusion is correct, whether it is or not.” Such findings reinforce why the Dalai Lama places so much importance on maintaining an open mind.

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