“I would be the first patient!” exclaimed the Dalai Lama before 14,000 neuroscientists who flocked to hear him speak at the Society for Neuroscience's annual meeting in November 2005 in Washington, D.C. The Buddhist spiritual leader's promise followed his comment that hospitals not only should aid the mentally ill but also should provide mind-altering brain surgery and drugs to control anger, hate or jealousy in everyday people. He added—only half-jokingly—that if a small electrical jolt to his brain could free him of negative emotion, he would have no need to spend hours meditating each day to reach a trouble-free state of mind.

The audience members responded to the Dalai Lama's proposal with nervous laughter, because they knew that the means already exist to tweak emotions. The checkered history of prefrontal lobotomy flashed collectively through their minds. But the high priest had already moved ahead to other similarly difficult questions. Is it ethical to take drugs such as antidepressants to find happiness? Yes, he replied, as long as critical faculties are not numbed. But should a patient in dire need be forced to take antidepressants? “Never forced,” he said, although he quickly added that he thought troubled individuals could be persuaded. Where does a caretaker draw the line? “Some have the view that [ethics] must be based on religious beliefs. I don’t believe that.”

In this direct fashion, the Dalai Lama confronted the most critical issue of neurobiological research: How are scientists, and society, going to handle the explosion of information on the machinery of our thoughts? While scientists grapple with their own ethical dilemmas of applying brain research to treat the mentally ill, the Dalai Lama is probing an even greater philosophical challenge: how to utilize this science to make a healthy mind better.

Rising above the Controversy
Science and society have drifted back and forth on ethical dilemmas presented by new treatments for brain disorders. For decades after its inception, prefrontal lobotomy was lauded as a breakthrough in easing the suffering of hopelessly ill schizophrenics. Egas Moniz was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1949 for introducing the surgical procedure. But later the technique was stigmatized as an unethical remedy, because it crippled parts of the patient's mind and personality in exchange for fewer horrifying delusions or catatonia. The treatment was also sometimes abused as an expedient method to control difficult individuals. More recently, the use of electroconvulsive (shock) therapy for treating depression has suffered similar swings in acceptance. Today psychotropic drugs, mood stabilizers, and antianxiety and antidepressant pharmaceuticals abound, and the same issue arises: When should they be used?

According to the Dalai Lama, securing human well-being and happiness is paramount. Audience members pressed the spiritual leader to elaborate on what appeared to be a prescription for abuse. They raised the specter of a society addicted to pills to treat nonexistent ailments, as many people now are addicted to alcohol and other drugs. He offered no simple answers, dogma, or “just say no” platitudes.

The monk's scheduled appearance at the meeting had been highly controversial. A petition demanding that the invitation be rescinded had been circulating for months and was ultimately signed by 500 neuroscientists. “What can the Dalai Lama teach me about neuroscience?” asked one of the petition movement's leaders. The co-signers stated that they objected to using science, or pseudoscience, to validate the Buddhist method of enlightenment through meditation. Many of them felt it was inappropriate for a spiritual leader to espouse his views at a scientific meeting, particularly in this time of heated debate over the government mandate in certain states that the religious concept of “intelligent design” be taught in science classes as an equivalent alternative to evolution.

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The Dalai Lama's approach turned out to be surprisingly scientific, however. His intention is to unite Buddhist techniques with neuroscience techniques to control the mind. From his perspective, the mind is the root of all evil and unhappiness in the world. By openly considering how meditation and neuroscience can benefit humankind, he is struggling to make the wisest choices—in his case, about how to improve a medically healthy brain.

In this quest, the Dalai Lama is confronting the same ethical issues as neuroscientists. He did not come to the symposium with pat answers, and that confused some audience members. Most expected a religious leader to resolve difficult questions with doctrine, but he refused, replying at times with “I don’t know.” Coming from a scientist in a white coat, this response is reasonable and acceptable, but from a person in religious robes it seemed to clash with expectation. In objecting to the Dalai Lama's appearance, they revealed their own dogmatic view that science and religion must always be at odds.

Others in the audience may have experienced an epiphany, as I did, realizing that the Dalai Lama's approach and solutions are in harmony with their own. Like them, he is seeking to find principles for guidance and uses reasoning and compassion to make an ethical choice for the greater good. This is exactly what a neurosurgeon must do, because almost all brain surgeries and drug treatments come with a cost.

In addition, this leader surprised the audience by demonstrating qualities found in great scientists: open-mindedness combined with objective criticism. He laid bare his own cherished views on meditation to scrutiny and made plain his eagerness to exploit neuroscience to reach his goal of purging the mind of negative emotions. If Buddhist dogma conflicted with science, he was willing to shatter religious teachings in the name of verifiable facts.

How many scientists would act with such open-mindedness? The Dalai Lama's address suggests that leaving the comfort of dogma and using ethical principles for guidance, together with reason and compassion to choose correctly for the greater good, will lead to the most responsible application of science. The revered monk has traveled farther than any other religious leader to learn what science can reveal about the human mind. In exchange, neuroscientists may have gained new bearings to help guide them through the treacherous ethical dilemmas emerging from their discoveries.