Since 1987 the Dalai Lama has met biennially with small groups of Western scientists to talk about the nature of mind and reality, and to plan collaborative research between science and Buddhism. These sessions, organized by the Mind and Life Institute, are designed to explore not only what Buddhism and modern science can learn from each other but also what they can learn by working together. Studies sponsored by Mind and Life are beginning to unravel the brain mechanisms underlying contemplative practice, providing scientific validation of the beneficial effects of meditation practice.
Tricycle checked in with the Mind and Life Institute for an update on these studies. Seven board members (see box below) took a break from a planning session at Princeton University to sit down with Tricycle’s James Shaheen and Joan Duncan Oliver. The conversation ranged from the institute’s recent findings on the demonstrable effect of meditation on brain function to the potential of Buddhism to advance the efforts of modern psychology. As Mind and Life board member Daniel Goleman explains: “His Holiness said, ‘Take the methods of Buddhism and test them rigorously and scientifically. If you validate them, share them widely. If they can help alleviate suffering, they shouldn’t just be for Buddhists—they should be everyone.’”
R. Adam Engle, J.D., M.B.A., chairman and cofounder of the Mind and Life Institute
Richard J. Davidson, Ph.D., director of the Laboratory for Affective Neuroscience and the W.M. Keck Laboratory for Functional Brain Imaging and Behavior at the University of Wisconsin, Madison
Daniel Goleman, Ph.D., psychologist and author of such books as the best seller Emotional Intelligence, and two works based on Mind and Life proceedings, Destructive Emotions and Healing Emotions
Jon Kabat-Zinn, Ph.D., professor emeritus at the University of Massachusetts Medical School and founder of the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health, Care and Society
Matthieu Ricard, Ph.D., cellular biologist and a Tibetan Buddhist monk at Shechen Monastery in Kathmandu
Bennett M. Shapiro, M.D., former executive vice president of Merck Research Laboratories and former chair of the biochemistry department at the University of Washington
B. Alan Wallace, Ph.D., president of the Santa Barbara Institute for Consciousness Studies and a former Tibetan Buddhist monk
What are the results of the Mind and Life studies so far, and where do you plan to take them from here?
Richard Davidson: Our initial work certainly indicates that meditation changes brain function. One of our hopes now is that a broader range of scientists will be inspired to examine the potential impact of contemplative practice on different behavioral domains. One of our goals is to launch studies that look at the impact of meditation on attention and the brain systems that support it.
Which aspects of attention will you be looking at, and how would you measure them?
Richard Davidson: We’ve been talking with experts who do experiments in which, for example, a person is required to focus on a specific object and ignore distractions. One question is whether training in meditation facilitates one’s capacity to do this, and, if it does, which parts of the brain are being affected.
There are well-developed procedures in cognitive psychology for exploring such questions. The classic one is the Stroop Test. In one version of this test, the word “green” might be printed on a card in red, and the subject’s task would be to name the color in which the word was printed (red), ignoring the meaning of the word (green). Classically, people are slower in responding when the color of a word is inconsistent with the name of the word than when the two are the same: when the word “green” is printed in green, people are able to say “green” faster than when they’re looking at the word “green” printed in red. What this requires is that we inhibit our automatic response and focus our attention on the instructions given by the experimenter.
Is there a certain kind of meditation that would enable one to respond faster?
B. Alan Wallace: Shamatha [a meditative practice of calming the mind] is specifically aimed at controlling attention. When the word pops up, if you’re able to control your attention, you can say to yourself, “I’m not going to see the whole word. I’m going to focus on the middle of the word and ask only one question: What is its color?” If you’re looking at the whole word, the meaning of the word will compete for your attention, and you’ll be slowed down.
What would be some practical applications of developing that kind of attention?
B. Alan Wallace: Attention training has broad applications. It would be helpful in the fields of education, mental health, and athletics as well as increasing individual creativity and problem-solving skills. And attention practice is crucial for cultivating the profound virtues of the heart and mind—lovingkindness, compassion, bodhicitta [awakened mind], and the realization of emptiness.
Bennett Shapiro: Could attention training also help in dealing with destructive emotions?
Matthieu Ricard: Yes. In the same way we can learn to see only the colors of words and not their meanings, cultivating focused attention can help us become much quicker at recognizing what type of emotion is arising without being distracted by context or story line.
B. Alan Wallace: If, when anger or another afflictive emotion arises, you can say to yourself, “Never mind the object of my anger and the context; isn’t this interesting?” and investigate your own emotional state instead of merely reacting, you can also cultivate greater emotional balance and mental health.
Jon Kabat-Zinn: That kind of mind training allows you not to take things personally but instead to cultivate equanimity.
Daniel Goleman: All the techniques we’ve been discussing, Buddhists have known about and have been practicing for thousands of years. What’s interesting is that now scientists at places like Princeton are doing research on methods such as shamatha, asking questions like, “Does it refine attention? Does it make attention more flexible?” The aim is to see if there’s something in the wealth of methods offered by Buddhism that would be useful for the general population, Buddhist or not.
Richard Davidson: In the scientific community, attention span and emotional regulation have been regarded as static abilities, which can’t be improved upon. The dialogue between science and Buddhism is helping to reframe our understanding of those processes as skills that can be trained.
What other innovations might develop out of the diaogue between science and Buddhism?
B. Alan Wallace: It would be interesting to look at the treatment of personality types within Buddhism from the perspective of modern psychology. Both the Visuddhimagga [a seminal fifth century C.E. Theravada text composed by Buddhaghosha] and the Tibetan Buddhist texts say, “For this personality type, this practice will be most beneficial.” To translate that into personality types as defined by modern psychology would be fascinating, not only as an area of pure scientific inquiry but also pragmatically: You could select the contemplative practice that is likely to be most effective for each individual.
Jon Kabat-Zinn: The condensed version is: What works for whom, and in which circumstances? These are nuanced questions that go beyond the meditation technique itself to who’s teaching it and under what circumstances. All sorts of elements could make a technique powerful for one person in one situation and not powerful for the same person in another situation. It’s very interesting from a medical point of view to try to design meditation-based interventions that take advantage of this specificity.
B. Alan Wallace: If we relate this individualized approach to developmental psychology, we could determine what types of meditative practices would be best for preschoolers, adolescents, for people in midlife, and for older people. This hasn’t been done in Buddhism, but why not? We have a strong tradition of developmental psychology in the West, so “when” becomes a skillful means.
Mind and Life’s scientific studies seem to support the Buddhist view that the processes of the mind can be reliably observed first-hand through meditation practice. The scientific community has traditionally been dubious of this type of subjective investigation. Are Mind and Life’s results changing the outlook of the larger scientific community?
Richard Davidson: In some scientific fields there is certainly skepticism about the validity of subjective experience. Psychologist Daniel Kahneman won the Nobel Prize in economics for research in which he discovered the powerful biases people tend to show in describing their own experiences. If you ask a person to think back over an experience he just had, he will tend to emphasize events that occurred at the very end of the experience. But there’s a testable hypothesis: Individuals who’ve undergone meditation training will be less subject to these biases.
Jon Kabat-Zinn: We tend to dismiss subjective experience as if there’s no objectivity within subjectivity. But there is actually a tremendous amount of objective self-observing in meditation practice. And the more you cultivate that discipline, the less likely you will be to filter your experience through internal biases.
B. Alan Wallace: In Buddhist training, we’re working on the human tendency to immediately identify with a mental state when it arises: “I’m happy, I’m sad, I’m agitated.” How can there be any kind of objective report when you’re completely fused with what you’re experiencing? In mindfulness training, shamatha, and Dzogchen, what’s explicitly cultivated is a space of awareness that is larger than its content, so that an emotion arises and we’re able to say, “Aha! There is an emotion of feeling upset, disappointed, frustrated, anxious.” You become aware of the emotion without being fused into it. You develop a type of objectivity within the domain of subjective experience.
Daniel Goleman: That’s big news for science, which has largely dismissed subjective observation as a reliable source of data. But Buddhists, on the other hand, have recognized its usefulness for centuries.
Buddhist practices, such as lovingkindness meditation, incorporate the cultivation of positive mind states. Does this emphasis differ significantly from that of Western psychology?
Richard Davidson: From the Buddhist view, optimal mental health or well-being is not simply—as Western medicine defines it—the absence of disease or anxiety. It involves the active cultivation of certain kinds of positive mental states. With some notable exceptions, however, Western psychology and medicine have not studied these, and bringing these mind states to the attention of the scientific community is one contribution Mind and Life can make.
B. Alan Wallace: There’s a distinction there that might still be too subtle for scientific research to investigate. What does “positive” mean? Is it simply feeling good? Which emotions and mental states are “positive” in the sense of being conducive to overall well-being and genuine happiness, as opposed to episodic highs?
Richard Davidson: This is a very important question. Neuroscientists are starting to take this issue more seriously, because data from the brain using conventional definitions of so-called positive and negative mind-states have not been particularly crisp in yielding strong differences. One possibility is that if we use a Buddhist taxonomy of mind states, it may actually help to clean up the evidence and make better sense of what’s going on.
Can you elaborate?
Matthieu Ricard: Pathologies, or negative mind-states, have attracted most of the attention in psychology because they are characterized by such intense suffering. But from a Buddhist perspective, so-called “normal” is still characterized by pervasive suffering. The emerging field of positive psychology represents a shift in focus to this ongoing, “normal” suffering.
B. Alan Wallace: The big innovation of Buddhism is not in recognizing the suffering of a normal life, but in pointing out that mental afflictions are not intrinsic to the human psyche. Recent scientific research has shown that these afflictive tendencies of mind can be measurably lessened through Buddhist practice. But Buddhism is making a much stronger claim: that the mind at its deepest level has the nature of luminosity, of innate bliss, and is altogether free of mental affliction. That’s a big hypothesis. We can’t test it now, but we can head in that direction.
What sort of changes, then, have you observed in the brains of subjects who meditate?
Jon Kabat-Zinn: Richie [Davidson] and I did a study of mindfulness in which we observed a shift from right activation of the prefrontal cortex to more activation of the left prefrontal cortex, which is interpreted as a positive shift in how one is processing afflictive emotions The subjects were inexperienced meditators who met once a week for two-and-a-half hours, then practiced for an hour a day on their own. We were able to show that a shift of this kind is maintained up to four months after the end of the intervention. This shift correlates in a positive way with a positive immunological marker.
An immunological marker?
Jon Kabat-Zinn: Yes. We gave people flu vaccine and found that the greater the leftward shift in brain activity, the more flu-fighting antibodies the body produced. This is a preliminary study, but it suggests that even naive subjects, given attentional practices that involve refining self-awareness around issues of emotional affliction, in a relatively short time show physiological changes that indicate greater emotional intelligence.
What are the implications of Mind and Life’s scientific research in terms of dharma view?
Matthieu Ricard: I don’t see the scientific research Mind and Life is doing as much different from Buddhist practice itself. It’s part of the ongoing process of refining meditation practice and trying to understand it better. For Buddhist practitioners, the motivation is to get rid of afflictive emotion; for scientists, it’s to reach a better understanding of the processes of suffering and how relief of suffering might take place.
Start your day with a fresh perspective
Thank you for subscribing to Tricycle! As a nonprofit, we depend on readers like you to keep Buddhist teachings and practices widely available.