Buddhism - A meeting of minds
by Swati Chopra
This year, His Holiness the Dalai Lama once again hosted the Mind and Life Conference at his residence in Mcleodganj in Dharamsala, from October 18 to 22, as he often has over the past 15 years. This was the 12th conference in this series, which has fostered an ongoing dialogue between Buddhism as represented by the Dalai Lama, and scientists from various branches and specialities of modern science.
This journey into finding a common, mutually beneficial ground between the ancient and the modern began in the early 1980s when scientist Francisco Varela and businessman Adam Engle joined hands to found the Mind and Life Institute, with the blessings of the Dalai Lama. Their aim was “to establish a powerful working collaboration and research partnership between modern science and Buddhism—the world’s two most powerful traditions for understanding the nature of reality and investigating the mind”.
The conferences, first of which was held in 1987, have till now examined topics such as sleeping, dreaming and dying; altruism, ethics and compassion; the new physics and cosmology; destructive emotions; nature of matter, nature of life, among others. The findings of many of these conferences have become accessible to the general public through books published by the Mind and Life Institute—a blessing since the meetings are semi-private and the media is mostly kept out.
Spread over five days, the Mind and Life conferences are carefully structured to nurture a building of understanding between the two traditions. Mornings are given over to presentations by participating scientists and the afternoons are reserved for discussion. These are not rigid though, and often an interesting point made during the presentation is picked up by His Holiness and used as a point of discussion. Tea breaks punctuate the sessions and provide opportunity for participants and observers to interact informally.
This year, the conference’s theme was Neuroplasticity—the term used in neuroscience to denote the ability of the brain to change in response to experience. Western science’s acknowledgement of the brain’s dynamism is fairly recent, having held for long the vision of the brain as a computer, essentially fixed in its computing functions once it has matured. Recent developments have forced scientists to move towards a more vibrant view of the brain, since it has been found that our brains have the ability to give birth to new neurons (brain cells) throughout our lives.
That the self and mind have the ability to transform has for centuries formed the basis of eastern contemplative traditions including Buddhism. This led psychologist Richard Davidson, co-ordinator of this conference, to remark: “Of all topics in modern neuroscience, this is one that has significant capability of interaction with Buddhism.”
Fred H. Gage, who is Adler Professor in the Laboratory of Genetics at Salk Institute, made the first presentation that gave evidence for neuroplasticity—how exactly changes occur in the brain, in the form of birth of new neurons, new synapses (connections) between them through which they pass information, and even the strengthening of existing synapses.
The most important aspect of this research is the finding that new neurons were found even in 70-year-olds, and the recognition of the part of the brain that gives birth to them—the hippocampus. Said Dr Gage: “The hippocampus works as a novelty detector and isolates the new element in every experience, which it then uses to make new neurons. In depression and stress, the hippocampus becomes smaller and birth of neurons stops.” Depression thus may be in part the inability to find newness in experience.
French monk Matthieu Ricard felt that the brain’s dependence on experience lent credence to the Buddhist view that “the mind can override external situations”, which was based on Buddhism’s “2500-year-old experience” rather than it being just a theory. His Holiness spoke of the three levels of understanding—intellectual, contemplation and meditation and integration—which mirror the process of picking up of information by neurons.
That experience not only transforms the brain but also modifies how genes become expressed in us was another significant aspect of the conference. Till recently, the gene was God of modern biosciences. Now, the position stands revised and in the ‘nature vs. nurture’ debate, the role of environment has come to have equal rating, which means we are not rigidly pre-wired for anything; there is always scope for change and renewal.
Michael J. Meaney, professor of medicine at Douglas Hospital Research Centre, McGill University, said: “Neither genes nor experience can influence development independent of context. Experience requires translation through processes associated with bodily function that commonly includes brain activation…inevitably influenced by the genome. Likewise, genes operate within cells, the activity of which is constantly regulated by external events. Alas, gene and experience are inseparable.”
Dr Meaney connected this with the passing of traits from parents to children, not only through genes but also through behaviour. “Parental behaviour affects genetic expression,” he said. “For instance, when the parent has been exposed to stress, the offspring will show increased response to stress in adulthood.” Such stress responses make the body utilise sugar and break up fat chronically, thus increasing their concentration in the system, leading to sickness. Dr Meaney outlined an interesting experiment where two sets of baby rats were studied—one set had been licked and groomed to a greater degree by their mothers than the other. The ones that had been licked more showed an appropriate degree of stress response, as opposed to less licked babies, who displayed high stress responses.
His Holiness found in this validation for his own belief in the tremendous power of “genuine love and warm heartedness”, and the effect of the mother’s state of mind from the moment of conception on the baby. Dr Meaney agreed: “Stressed mothers produce more glucocorticoids (stress hormones) which can impact the embryo adversely.”
Parenting and its long-term impact on children was a recurring theme during the conference, with more than one scientist taking it up as the field where they would like their research to be applied. Helen J. Neville, professor of psychology and neuroscience at the University of Oregon, Eugene, who has researched human developmental plasticity and found that “stimulating environments lead to enhanced brain growth, learning and intelligence”, spoke about intervention experiments where parents belonging to the low economic strata were given books when a child was born and asked to talk to the child. “This made a huge difference in the kids’ language scores later in life,” she said.
Other experiments included training children with poor language skills, which led to marked improvement. Thus one way to optimise human development, concluded Dr Neville, was to provide attention training to children, something that child lamas in Tibetan monasteries are automatically provided from a young age.
This led to a discussion on the methods employed in monastic training, such as memorisation, repetition, debate, and attention training, or samadhi training. His Holiness said: “Various faculties are involved in training attention. Interest is a key factor, and only those monks who are interested will cultivate shamatha separately.” Matthieu Ricard exemplified memorisation as part of attention training for young lamas, saying: “It may seem mechanical but you cannot recite a text if you are daydreaming! And you are supposed to do this from seven in the morning to eight at night. So this is actually constant attention training.”
Child development was also the focus of social and personality psychologist from the University of California, Davis, Philip R. Shaver’s presentation that explored the ‘attachment theory’ and its implications on adult behaviour.
Attachment theory refers to emotional bonding between the infant and the primary caregiver (mostly the mother). “Depending on parental sensitivity and responsiveness to an infant’s distress signals, children can become relatively securely or insecurely attached to their mothers, and if insecurely attached, can exhibit anxious, avoidant, or disorganised attachment behaviour,” said Dr Shaver.
Emotional response patterns thus generated have been found to persist later in life, though now it has been found that these can be altered using mind interventions called ‘priming’, in which subliminal messages are relayed to the subject thus altering his normal response to a stressful situation. The latter, said His Holiness, did have a parallel in Buddhism, where deities are visualised and their qualities awakened in oneself. Mindfulness is remembering your priming, which could be instructions and teachings from the master.
His Holiness saw the very premise of the attachment theory as being aligned with taking refuge in the three jewels of the Buddha, dharma and sangha in Buddhism. “Seeking refuge is modelled on a natural instinct of looking for a safe haven when faced with a threat. When this refuge is sought consciously, as in the case of Buddhism, it is an internal state. Of the three jewels, the dharma is the true object of refuge since it implies freedom from fear.” Remembering his own childhood, His Holiness said: “I come from a simple village where the level of both secular and Buddhist education was low. Though she hadn’t read the texts on compassion, my mother was full of affection and created a true atmosphere of compassion. At an early stage, appreciation of good qualities is pronounced within us, as these are necessary to survive. Later in life, we lose these. I believe we must be more childlike in many areas of life—for instance children fight and then make up as quickly.”
One of the more engaging presentations from the point of view of the spiritual seeker came right at the end—in Richard Davidson’s account of his experiments with meditators. Prof. Davidson began from the premise that voluntary emotional regulation, in the form of “down-regulation of negative emotions and intentional cultivation of positive emotions” has a definite impact on mental health—the replacement of the negative with positive being key. This is part of contemplative practice in Buddhism, where compassion and other positive mind-states are activated through single-pointed concentration.
Prof. Davidson recounted the testing of eight adepts, monks including Matthieu Ricard from Shechen Monastery in Nepal who had spent between 10,000 to 60,000 hours each in meditation, and comparison with a control group who learned meditation shortly before the experiment. In one experiment, the monks were asked to generate a meditative state followed by a neutral state, so that changes in the brain could be studied. “The monks showed greater signal in every part of the brain compared to the control group, especially in parts of the brain related to attention. Over time, the signal in adepts remained elevated through rest and meditation,” said Prof. Davidson.
The next part of the experiment had to do with the voluntary cultivation of compassion. About this practice, Ricard said: “We try to generate a state in which love and compassion permeate the whole mind, with no other consideration, reasoning or discursive thought.” Ricard was himself the subject of this experiment, and as he generated a mind state of compassion, it was found that gamma activity, which shows recruitment of neural resources and occurs with mental effort and motivation, gradually began increasing. In fact, so large was this increase in gamma signal that it had “never been seen before” said Prof. Davidson. Interestingly, the part of the brain linked to motor activity also became activated, which could be seen as the intention to act upon the feeling of compassion. His Holiness suggested that the effect of meditation eight to ten hours later must also be tested.
With this discussion, Mind and Life XII drew to a close. In his concluding remarks, His Holiness said that the conference had “revealed the detailed nature of scientific enquiry” and had corroborated his “personal conviction in the value of compassion and lovingkindness and the need for their active cultivation”.
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