What he can teach us about the brain

September 15, 2006

The engagement of the Dalai Lama and other Buddhist scholars and practitioners with Western science has opened doors into the mind's inner workings and to new interest in 'poetic perception', writes Arthur Zajonc.

In 2003, more than a thousand scientists and scholars - including Charles Vest, president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Nobel laureate Philip Sharp - gathered for a landmark conference on the nature of the mind. On stage among the scientists sat the Dalai Lama and a collection of Buddhist monks and scholars. The conference marked the culmination of nearly 20 years of conversation and collaborative research between Western scientists and Buddhist practitioners and scholars.

Next month sees the publication of a book on the conference, which presents the substance of that meeting to the general public. The book, however, is only the latest in a series of developments in the dialogue between contemplative/spiritual traditions and sciences such as cognitive neuroscience and quantum physics, my own field.

The interaction between long-term practitioners of meditation and neuroscientists has yielded especially significant fruits in recent years. This is due to several factors. Extraordinary developments in non-invasive research methods have taken place - such as functional magnetic resonance imaging - but joint research has also benefited from more "expert" contemplatives and open-minded researchers who have agreed to collaborate.

Two studies in particular demonstrate the benefit of such collaboration: one at the University of Wisconsin's Keck Lab for Brain Imaging, the other at Harvard/Massachusetts General Hospital's Neuroimaging Programme. In the first study, neuroscientists Antoine Lutz and Richard Davidson worked with the monk-scientist Matthieu Ricard and others to demonstrate convincingly that meditation by experts with more than 10,000 hours of practice caused unprecedented changes in high-frequency (gamma band) oscillations and that these became phase-synchronised over extensive regions of the brain. The second study, done at Harvard/ MGH by Sara Lazar and collaborators, found that changes in brain structure - cortical thickening, to be specific - occur in those who meditate regularly (in their study, on average 40 minutes a day for nine years). This result supports the view that the brain is "plastic" and can be developed even in adults by repeated experience, in this case the experience of meditation. Taken together with other studies, we are beginning to gain a scientific understanding of the transformative effects of meditation on brain structure and activity.

While of great interest, the neuroscience of meditation is not, in fact, the sole or primary focus for the interaction between cognitive science and the contemplative traditions. Meditative introspection offers a direct method of investigating the mind. More than a hundred years ago, psychologist William James famously declared that "introspective observation is what we have to rely on first and foremost and always".

Successful introspective observation has, however, remained elusive for Western psychology. James was well aware that sustained voluntary attention was a rare event in the human psyche. The meditative traditions of Asia and the West have placed great emphasis on training the attention, a possibility that Jonathan Cohen, a Princeton University attention researcher, is studying.

In Buddhism, the schooled capacity for attention is directed on the mind itself. When joined with a phenomenologically oriented philosophy, meditative introspection can offer a remarkably detailed taxonomy of mental states, traits and training strategies. Building on the work of William James and the Paris neuroscientist Francisco Varela, Evan Thompson, the University of Toronto philosopher of mind, has argued persuasively for inclusion of a first-person perspective in research on the mind.

Increasingly, cognitive scientists are developing research strategies that integrate conventional third-person neuroscientific methods with first-person reports by expert introspective observers, who are often long-term Buddhist contemplatives. Many Western researchers are surprised that Buddhist contemplatives not only contribute precise mental observations but also well-developed, empirically grounded theoretical schema for the classification and understanding of mental states. In addition, they offer practices designed to reduce mental suffering due to afflictive emotions and suggest ways of cultivating attention and emotional stability.

This last observation led Paul Ekman, the well-known researcher on emotion, to propose a research project, Cultivating Emotional Balance, to the Dalai Lama. That multi-year project has been performed at the University of California, San Francisco, by psychologist Margaret Kemeny and Buddhist scholar/practitioner Alan Wallace and colleagues. Final analysis of the data is nearly complete.

In recent years, my own interest and that of many academic colleagues has grown to include the pedagogical significance of contemplation for higher education. As a professor, I am interested in developing a way of teaching that addresses the whole student. I wish to ensure that students not only master a field of knowledge and its analytical methods but also develop the capacity for close observation, sustained attention, a mind that perceives relationships and can even work with ambiguity, be it wave-particle duality or a literary metaphor. In my view, school and university education have long emphasised analytical skills and brute facts while allowing students'

basic attentional skills, and their synthetic and creative capacities, to go unaddressed. As Ralph Waldo Emerson once remarked, no scientific discovery was ever made except by "poetic perception". Secularised contemplative practices offer one means for redressing this imbalance and cultivating careful observation, sustained attention and perhaps even poetic perception.

For some years, many hundreds of academics in the US and Canada have been turning to secular contemplative practices as a pedagogical method. In collaboration with the Center for Contemplative Mind in Society, the American Council of Learned Societies has granted 120 contemplative practice fellowships to professors over the past ten years, supporting them in designing courses that include contemplative practice as a pedagogical strategy. At conferences and summer schools at Columbia University, Amherst College and elsewhere, hundreds of professors have gathered to share their experiences with the emerging area of contemplative pedagogy. Their efforts range from simple silence at the start of class to exercises that school attention and, most recently, to innovative contemplative practices that relate directly to course content.

For example, art historians Joanna Ziegler and Joel Upton have independently developed a practice called, respectively, "contemplative seeing" or "beholding", in which students patiently and systematically study a few works of art for the entire semester. They thereby consciously develop essential capacities for "seeing" a painting's light, colour, organisation, style and theme at increasingly sophisticated levels.

Literature professors are selecting short passages for contemplative reading and free writing exercises. Following the model of primatologist Jane Goodall, ecology students are practising patient contemplative observation of natural and urban ecosystems to bring the fullness of these complex systems into experience. These are but a few of the courses offered that range from theatre to economics, from philosophy to cosmology, in which university teachers are experimenting with contemplative ways of teaching. I have become convinced that contemplation benefits both students and faculty, and that secular contemplative practices should assume a significant place on our educational agenda.

The important role of the Dalai Lama in fostering such developments was clear to me as I sat with more than 10,000 neuroscientists as he addressed the Society for Neuroscience's annual meeting last year. I realised then that only someone of his stature could overcome the centuries of distrust between science and religion and successfully convene a collaboration between science and Buddhist philosophy at the highest levels.

Key to his success has been his open, even sceptical attitude towards dogma, including that of his own tradition. He has no interest whatsoever in advocating for Buddhism. His only interest is knowledge that can lead to the mitigation of suffering. In this way, his motive is not curiosity or a new patent but the welfare of all sentient beings. At its best, I see science as embodying similar values.

I should say that I write as a non-Buddhist, but also as someone who has long sought appropriate ways of working in science that are open to the philosophical dimensions of my discipline, and even to the ethical and spiritual issues that may pertain to it. This is a complex stance, but we should remember that the data and theories of science do not mandate a particular metaphysics. The Dalai Lama is right to distinguish between materialism, which is a metaphysical position, and science itself. While he rejects the former, he delights in the latter.

Science is at its best when it stays close to the phenomena of nature and the mind. Then science can travel anywhere and safely pursue all questions, even those that challenge conventional views. The compelling experimental evidence of quantum physics demands non-locality. Yet the entanglement of quanta can now be harnessed for quantum computation, a technical achievement that rests on data and ideas that are still beyond our full comprehension.

In 1998, Anton Zeilinger, the distinguished Austrian physicist, and I took real pleasure in our three days of private conversations with the Dalai Lama concerning quantum physics and philosophy at Zeilinger's Innsbruck labs. The subtle analysis of reality offered by Buddhist philosophy as described by the Dalai Lama was an exhilarating stimulus complementing our own study of reality by experimental and theoretical methods. Moreover, we discovered a shared commitment to empiricism. To paraphrase William James, experience is "what we have to rely on first and foremost and always".

Yet experience can be deepened by training. Goethe, whose approach to science emphasised the contemplative, once remarked that "every object, well-contemplated, opens a new organ in us". The object of our attention may be a natural phenomenon or a mental one, but if we contemplate it long and well, then new capacities for knowing develop in us. These are essential for productive research and good teaching.

Long before neuroplasticity, the contemplative traditions of Asia knew that the human being was malleable and that capacities of mind could be cultivated. As a corollary, they prized a form of knowing called "direct perception" and contrasted it with "valid inference". The new organs of which Goethe wrote were and are capacities for insight. They provide for knowing as immediate experience, as epiphany. Analysis alone cannot produce insight, nor can the accumulation of data spontaneously yield a discovery. The eureka moment is a kind of theoretical seeing. How appropriate that the Greek word " theoria " meant "to behold". True theoretical physics is indeed a kind of seeing through the experiments and the equations to the subtle patterns of the universe, and the schooling of that ability is perhaps the greatest challenge of physics education.

The Dalai Lama's steadfast engagement with science has helped enormously in establishing an active dialogue between science and other philosophical schools of inquiry. Neither he nor I have any interest in joining science to religion; I think that such a union can lead only to profound and intolerable difficulties. But when a philosophical or spiritual tradition is based on experience and reason, on contemplative training of the mind and careful intellectual analysis, then collaboration can be profoundly fruitful for both parties.

Buddhism and the Dalai Lama have captured the spotlight, but numerous individuals and other contemplative traditions also adopt an empirical orientation and a reasoned approach to the mysteries of nature and the mind. They, too, have much to offer to an integrative approach to science and higher education. I look forward to the exchange and the epiphanies.

Arthur Zajonc is Andrew W. Mellon professor of physics at Amherst College.

He is co-editor with Anne Harrington of The Dalai Lama at MIT , to be published next month by Harvard University Press, £16.95. The Dalai Lama is speaking in Denver, Colorado, on Sunday, see www.mindandlife.org .

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