Monk-y Brains

The Dalai Lama phones it in.

His Holiness holds forth …

Who doesn’t like the Dalai Lama? It must be hard to organize a protest against someone as cuddly-wuddly as the spiritual leader of Tibet. He’s little and bald, and he has a propensity for fits of public giggling. He sits cross-legged on his chair, preaches peace and compassion, and he gives everyone he talks to a long white scarf. But when the Society for Neuroscience invited the Dalai Lama to speak last Saturday at its annual meeting in Washington, D.C., more than 600 members signed a petition to keep him out.

As newspapers and science journals (subscription only) explained in the weeks leading up to the conference, Lama-haters argued that a scientific society shouldn’t play host to a religious figure who believes in reincarnation and hints at hidden causality in the history of life. The Dalai Lama’s speech, they warned, could cause “significant divisions among SFN members.”

By the time the meeting started on Saturday, a half-dozen scientific presentations had been withdrawn in protest—not many considering that nearly 17,000 others were going on as planned. And, as far as I could tell, there was only one sign of opposition: A fierce-eyed young woman outside the press room scrawled something in light pencil on one of the canvas tote bags being handed out free to all participants. I couldn’t quite make out what the pencil scrawl said—either “Dalai Lama not quality to speak here” or “Dalai Lama not qualify to speak here.”

It’s hard to be controversial in another language, and the Dalai Lama wasn’t much more articulate than his lone protester. He hobbled through his talking points in broken English. His slo-mo exposition seemed all the more excruciating after a day of fast-moving 10-minute presentations. “Neuroscience is a really, really important field!” he announced. And then: “I want to express appreciation for great scientists—really remarkable.” A prelude to his final point: “You are really making great, important, contributions.”

For those who had heard His Holiness speak about neuroscience in the past—or who read his op-ed in Saturday’s New York Times—the talk offered nothing new. The Dalai Lama’s stump speech begins with a halting account of how he got interested in science as a young boy in the Potala Palace. He found a brass telescope belonging to his predecessor and trained it on the moon. The shadows and craters he saw convinced him of a scientific fact that violated a long-held Buddhist belief: The moon is illuminated by the sun.

According to the Dalai Lama, a good Buddhist should embrace clear-cut scientific evidence; if a religious dictum is proven wrong, it must be amended. Monks, like scientists, study the world through investigation and experience and revise their beliefs to accommodate what they find. All religious teachings—even those based on the Buddha’s own words—are subject to skeptical inquiry. Where scientists rely on the objective study of the external world, Buddhist monks engage in a rigorous science of introspection. Meditative experiments on the nature of consciousness proceed like peer-reviewed studies: Results must be replicated and debated by practicing monks.

The notion of Buddhist monks as “contemplative scientists” sounds great to a secular audience. But how seriously should one take it? The Dalai Lama presented the same idea to a Stanford panel on “Spiritual and Scientific Explorations of Human Experience” a few weeks ago, to mixed reactions. The Buddhist scholar Carl Bielefeldt argued that Buddhist monks don’t use the scientific method at all. A student who makes an unexpected discovery through introspection might be told by his master that he made a mistake. “It looks like creation science,” he said. “There are certain norms that cannot be questioned.”

The similarities between Buddhism and neuroscience that the Dalai Lama sees, however, extend beyond methodology. Practitioners of both disciplines—whether they’re monks or psychiatrists—aim to replace sad feelings with happy ones. In this regard, he says, Buddhist inquiry has advanced far beyond Western mind science. Over a hundred generations, monks have used meditation as way of controlling their bad emotions. If neuroscientists really want to reduce suffering, they should study the effects of meditation on the brain and test it as a clinical tool.

A few presentations at the conference showed off the latest research in this area. A lab in Wisconsin used electrodes to measure brain activity in meditating monks and showed an increase in Gamma waves, which are associated with focused attention. A Harvard researcher suggested that regular meditation could thicken the cortex in certain parts of the brain. Another scientist found surprising perceptual abilities among Indian monks.

These findings show that meditation has a demonstrable neurological effect. But that doesn’t make them particularly interesting. We already know, for example, that practicing a musical instrument can increase the size of your cerebellum and that playing video games can increase performance on visual-attention tasks. After a meeting with the Dalai Lama two years ago, neuroscientist Steven Kosslyn told the New York Times: “If you do something, anything, even play Ping-Pong, for 20 years, eight hours a day, there’s going to be something in your brain that’s different from someone who didn’t do that. It’s just got to be.”

The effect of meditation on the brain becomes more exciting if you can first show that meditation has clinical benefits. Does it really make people happier? Perhaps, but clinical trials have so far produced mixed results. (Another alternative therapy—hypnosis—has had a similar history: Brain-imaging studies have shown distinct neurological effects associated with the hypnotic state, which seems to be useful for treating pain. But hypnosis research remains well outside the mainstream; the Society for Neuroscience has never invited the Amazing Kreskin to give a keynote lecture.)

None of this is grounds for outrage. It’s all to the good if the Dalai Lama’s publicity tour invigorates a minor field, or if the hubbub surrounding his speech inspires more skeptical research into a promising alternative therapy. (Up until now, most of the researchers involved are themselves meditators or practicing Buddhists.) But is that really all a major spiritual leader has to offer Western science? When His Holiness did venture into more contested territory—the ethics of biological research—his argument became so vague as to be virtually meaningless. “Ethics are important,” he said, before stumbling through a half-comprehensible paragraph about global responsibility and frustrated scientists in need of compassion. His Times op-ed offered only a bit more guidance, pointing out that the “long-term consequences” of genetically modifying organisms are unknown.

What did the Dalai Lama think of animal experimentation, he was asked during the Q&A? “That’s difficult,” he responded. “Always stress the importance of compassion. … In highly necessary experiments, try to minimize pain.” What about intelligent design—should religious ideas be taught in school? “I don’t know,” he said, to much applause. “That’s your problem. You have to carry out more research and discussion.” What if we could surgically remove a patient’s negative emotions, and it worked better than meditation—should we do it? “Yes.” The follow-up question produced the most interesting exchange of the evening: What if the patient didn’t want us to surgically remove his negative emotions? “Use force, with good intentions.”

Some of these questions seemed designed to bait the Dalai Lama into saying something really religious. But he managed to giggle his way out of every awkward moment, never saying anything that might offend his audience. After all, he wasn’t at the conference to teach neuroscientists about Buddhist ideology or ethics—he was there to push a research agenda.