The Dalai Lama and Brain Science

Tuesday August 2, 2005

The Guardian newspaper reported last week (see the full report ) that scientists were planning to boycott the Society for Neuroscience annual meeting if the Dalai Lama went ahead and spoke at the event. The petition to remove the Dalai Lama from the list of invitees read as follows:

Inviting the Dalai Lama to lecture on neuroscience of meditation is of poor scientific taste because it will highlight a subject with hyperbolic claims, limited research and compromised scientific rigour… it could be a slippery road if neuroscientists begin to blur the border between science and religious practices.

The petition also said that inviting the Dalai Lama to talk at a neuroscience conference was akin to asking the Pope to come and discourse on the relationship between the fear of God and the amygdala.

It is curious that the petition talks about taste. Surely taste shouldn’t enter into it. The question should be: is investigating this area scientifically fruitful or not? And likening the invitation of the Dalai Lama to inviting the Pope to talk about fear of God seems to be a misunderstanding. The Dalai Lama claims to have an insight into how the mind can be trained – an interesting area, one would think – and to also come from a tradition where rigorous methods of meditation are employed as a part of this training. Metaphysics on one side, these are interesting claims. The signatories admit that this is an area of limited research, and claim that the scientific rigour of previous research has been compromised. However, to respond to this by throwing the whole area of enquiry out of court, by branding it as ‘religious’ and hence antithetical to science, seems to me the opposite of scientific rigour. Here is an area, surely, where research is needed.

It is not too much of a leap of the imagination to wonder whether meditation, in relation to changing the mind (although perhaps within more limited parameters than admitted in some varieties of Buddhism), might be able to act as a method in the same way that going to the gym can act as a method in changing the body. It seems bizarre that whilst some neuroscientists might happily work out in the evenings to unwind from their day, thereby admitting the plasticity of the body, they should deny a priori that the brain (a hunk of quivering flesh, after all, just like the rest of the body) itself might be plastic, more versatile than they had hitherto admitted, trainable.

And the evidence for meditation having some effect on the mind is more or less unarguable. The question is what effect it has. Some of the questions that need to be addressed are these:

  1. How extensive are the effects of meditation?
  2. Are some of these effects permanent?
  3. What particular methods lead to these effects?
  4. How do first-person subjective accounts and objective experimental accounts relate to each other?

You are not going to be able to answer these questions by talking to anybody you happen to meet on the bus. You will need to ask those who have actually undergone the necessary training. Better, you will need to both ask them and also monitor how their brains work, because subjective and objective accounts will clearly differ. But, in light of this, surely the Dalai Lama has something to say about the training of the mind. By all means chuck out the metaphysics of Buddhism: about time too! Get rid of the separation of mind and brain, the bizarre intricacies of rebirth, the pantheon of Gods and deities. Tibetan Buddhism does not offer a scientific account of the mind, and it should not be taken as a scientific account. By all means disagree about Buddhist theories of mind. But surely the neuroscientists who were signatories to this letter should have sufficient curiosity in relation to such an under-researched area to investigate it more thoroughly, rather than to fall back upon denunciations and unintelligent dismissals.

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#1 · Visitor

20 September 2007

“By all means chuck out the metaphysics of Buddhism: about time too! Get rid of the separation of mind and brain, the bizarre intricacies of rebirth, the pantheon of Gods and deities. Tibetan Buddhism does not offer a scientific account of the mind, and it should not be taken as a scientific account. By all means disagree about Buddhist theories of mind”

First, I disagree that the idea of mind in buddhism is metaphysical. Buddhist is has a dualist onthology, but by ‘mind’, buddhism does not mean something mystical as a soul, but the array of our daily perceptions, thoughts, and feelings. So, buddhism poses two interacting elements – mind and matter, both of which we are familiar with.

What do you mean by the “seperation of brain and mind”? As far as I understand, they are different, though interacting. They aren’t “seperated”.

With regards to the ideas of rebirth, buddhism can argue for it from a rational point of view, for example

www.berzinarchives.c…

With regards to buddhist theories of the mind, I wonder if you have read “Mind in Tibetan Buddhism” by Elizabeth Napper.

And lastly, don’t you think that if buddhist meditates on shunyata, the texts claim that meditating on shunyata should lead to certain results, and it does happen, the hypothesis that shunyata is true because of that, should be considered?

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