Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Research: Can monks contribute to neuroscience?

An article at by Daniel Engber notes the controversy over an appearance by the Dalai Lama at the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience. His Holiness believes that the Buddhist discipline of meditation can offer much to the study of consciousness, but more than 600 members signed a petition to keep the DL out of the Society's meeting. It's an interesting take on the science-vs.-religion thing:
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.


1 comment:

Beth said...

So researchers who study the monks are allowed in the talks, but the monks themselves aren't allowed? I don't get it.

There are several labs who are working on the mechanism of the placebo effect- it is a real change in brain chemicals when the person is anticipating pain relief. Our mind certainly influences our neurochemistry- there is lots of work on that.