Saturday, January 27, 2007

The research that the Dalai Lama initiated

A blogger (alas, I forget who) had linked to this fascinating article, that made me hold the Dalai Lama in high esteem. The Dalai Lama alone, among religious leaders, seems to possess the open-mindedness to question old beliefs and subject them to the rigour of scientific scrutiny. Every now and then, he invites a group of scientists to his home in Dharamsala, to discuss their work and how Buddhism might contribute to it.

In 2004, when discussing the subject of neuroplasticity with some visiting scientists, the Dalai Lama asked them a question. Scientists have explained, he said, that mental experiences are a result of chemical and electrical changes in the brain. But something had always bothered him about this explanation. Could it work the other way around? That is, in addition to the brain giving rise to thoughts and hopes and beliefs and emotions that add up to this thing we call the mind, maybe the mind also acts back on the brain to cause physical changes in the very matter that created it. If so, then pure thought would change the brain's activity, its circuits or even its structure. Something as intangible and insubstantial as a thought would rewire the brain.

While some neuroscientists summarily dismissed the suggestion as absurd, there were some who took up further research on Buddhist monks, to check if meditation and mental training produced enduring changes in the brain. Experiments under controlled conditions showed that as the volunteers began meditation, gamma waves of a fairly high intensity could be detected. In each case, monks with the most hours of meditation showed the most dramatic brain changes. That was a strong hint that mental training makes it easier for the brain to turn on circuits that underlie compassion and empathy.

"This positive state is a skill that can be trained," the scientists concluded. "Our findings clearly indicate that meditation can change the function of the brain in an enduring way."

If only some of our indigenous religious practitioners and scientists would collaborate in a similar manner, displaying the same degree of open-mindedness- maybe we could distill some ancient wisdom out of the plethora of myths and superstitions.


Unknown said...

Very interesting article. Minor quibble though: "gamma rays" should imho read "gamma waves".

Raj said...

yhac, thanks for pointing out the error. I have made the correction.