Rewind: The Dalai Lama Speaks to Neuroscientists

The 2006 Society for Neuroscience Meeting is approaching (in October), and I just wanted to repost this about the Dalai Lama's speech at SFN last year, from the "archives."

First, this post is a summary of online accounts from people that heard the Dalai Lama's speech at the Society for Neuroscience; I was unable to attend his talk (blame my laptop!). The Lama's speech was entitled "The Neuroscience of Meditation," it was one-hour long and was followed by a question and answer session.

A blog run by Neurodudes posted a 'blow-by-blow' account of the talk. This writeup in Science 'Dalai Lama Speaks at Neuroscience Meeting' is a another analysis of the talk.

The really interesting part was the questions, which gave a lot of insight into his thoughts on drugs, animal research, and electrical stimulation to induce "positive feelings." A few highlights:

He became interested in science after noticing body hair in some places and not others!
He wants chemical or electrical ways to change negative emotions (But is against tranquilizers).
"I spend a few hours in meditation every day, [if we get neuroscience-based englightenment] then no need for these things."

Questions and the Lama's Answers (note: All posed questions were approved by some kind of intermediary):

1) How do you reconcile your ideas about compassion to all beings with animal research? He is for animal research! Is for doing the minimum experiment necessary and try to minimize pain."I am exploiting this poor animal to bring greater benefit to greater number of beings." Feels compassion for the suffering of the animal but its potential to save greater numbers is more important.
2) Do you think the states attained by meditation should just be available without practice? He thinks it should be available.
3) Should everyone be on antidepressants, even if they don't need it? He's against tranquilizers because they possuppressupress intelligence and decision-making abilities.
4) The mind-body problem. What's your take? What is the definition of consciousness? Through neuroscience, we will find neural correlates of those things that make up consciousness. Consciousness is the surface and obvious-to-us level representing hundreds of neural events.
5) What's the best way to overcome addiction? "I hate the word, cheapest, quickest." He admits that addiction is not really his field and that given the differences in individuals and brains themselves, best to treat case by case.
6) What about the co-existence of religion and science, esp. with the controversy in American education. What are your views on intelligent design? I don't know. [Big laugh.] Pretty much that's our problem! (Ok, a cop-out here).
7) If you were to enter the field of neuroscience, what would your PhD thesis be? "I need at least a few more days to think very carefully."

The overall impressions were that the Lama was very articulate and good-natured but a little vague and evasive on specifics. Given, he himself is not a scientist, and just because he's a religious guru doesn't mean he knows all the answers. It was encouraging to see that the head of a major religion had the guts to take a stand as to the compatibility of the missions of religion and science. I hope others will take notice.


Going back over this post, nearly a year later (9-28-06), I think I was a little too lenient on him. Re-reading all his answers to questions, well they were all pretty much permutations of "I don't know" or "I'm not qualified." That left me with the feeling of 'Why the heck did he come speak at a *science* conference?' Did we scientists get a little starry-eyed at the prospect of a world-wide political figure taking note of neurostuff? (I guess this one did.)

(A bit of light Monday blogging, my apologies!)

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I think the benefit to involvement of persons such as the Dalai Lama, is that we need to keep in mind the important of different perspectives on neuroscience. It is easy to get wrapped up in the minutiae and loose the big picture.

I would like to see what he says, though, if pressed on the issue of antidepressants. Does he think that we are not aware of the potential for adverse effects? Balancing the costs/risks vs. the benefits is an everyday part of medical practice. If we have a risk-free path, obviously that would be the path to take. But often, there is no such path; or at least, there is no such path that we know of, at present.

I also appreciate other perspectives, and believe that since neuroscience is such a multi-displinary field the integration of many voices makes sense. I'm just worried that we are listening to *loud* voices rather than well-informed ones.

Hmm. Well, in one sense, the first "true" step to understanding is, "I don't know." Its the best I could manage as well, and I probably know more than he does about most of it. The only statement that annoys me is the one with ID. And I dislike the interviewers response more, "Who exactly is *we* and on what grounds is the interviewer making such a claim for anyone but themselves?" The answer itself isn't so much a problem because its a bad answer for someone speaking from a position of ignorance, but because it makes no statement as to danger of those who migth claim certainty, while having no grounds to do so. Basically the other side of the same coin of groundless statements as the interviewers, "we don't either."

I believe the Dalai Lama (or some of his monks) have been involved in some brain imaging studies involving meditation, which could be a somewhat good reason to have him at the conference. In addition, the Dalai's philosophy and mind state is quite interesting and rather foreign in the west; always good for our PHD's to consider other viewpoints.

As for science and religion, the Dalai Lama is a Buddhist and that is a very different case than with the Western religions. I see no incompatibility in the doctrines of Buddhism with science; if anything science and Buddhism are complimentary as it helps them to see the way that things are (Buddhism's ultimate goal).

If you read this section of the wikipedia entry on Buddhism (and feel free to read more) I think that the connection between mind states and the Dalai Lama's religion is apparent and why he would be interested in science and neuroscience.

By Eric Irvine (not verified) on 29 Aug 2006 #permalink

(Coming at this about 8 months later)

"What are your views on intelligent design? I don't know. "

The Buddha's stand on creation was, basically, "Who cares! That won't help you break the cycle of rebirth. Now start meditating!"

Which seems pretty reasonable to me - and maybe that's why he responded that way.

Given that Intelligent Design is just Judeo-Christian creationism wearing a Groucho mask, it's really a pretty silly question for a Tibetan Buddhist. Tibetan cosmology is pretty close to the Hindu, and assumes an old universe, and a preceeding series of universes.

(Aside: I have a theory that Judeo-Christian religion uses such short timespans because of a sorely deficient number system, whereas the Hindus were better equipped to handle vast timespans. There's a timespan concept in Buddhism defined, roughly, as the time it would take to wear a mountain down to nothing if a bird brushed it with its wing once every hundred years. )

I think the main problem with his answers was probably the questions. Given the importance of concentration in Buddhism (Right Concentration is one of the 8 major tenets) it would be interesting to ask questions related to ADHD. Would it prevent enlightenment? Are stimulant meds permissible for such a person?

Some of the meetings between the Dalai Lama and scientists have been published as books. Those probably give a much better idea of the interaction. You might get a better idea reading the questions he asks of scientists, rather than reading his answers here. Be prepared for a certain degree of mystical verbiage. There's some navigation of terminology mismatch, and spots where the Dalai Lama describes something in traditional terms. I'm prepared to cut some slack for that, as Lhasa was notably short of fMRI machines and Science subscriptions in the 1500s.

As noted above, even saying "I Don't Know" is pretty remarkable for a religious leader. That he makes such an effort to educate himself, and asks questions of working experts rather than a cadre of party-line Buddhist scientists, is pretty impressive, really.