In his book The Universe in a Single Atom, His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama writes: “My confidence in venturing into science lies in my basic belief that as in science, so in Buddhism, understanding the nature of reality is pursued by means of critical investigation.” For 2,500 years, Buddhism has taken an empirical approach—meditation—to the exploration of mind. (“Our life is the creation of our mind,” reads the Dhammapada, the Buddha’s moral teachings). A dialogue has developed in recent years between the ancient Eastern tradition and neuroscience, the modern Western investigation of the brain. In 2005, in a ceremonial display of consilience, the Dalai Lama delivered the keynote speech entitled, “The Neuroscience of Meditation” at the 35th annual Society for Neuroscience conference in Washington D.C.
Indeed, some have taken up the oars of religion in order to steer along a new course of integrated study. Dr. B. Alan Wallace, founder of the Santa Barbara Institute for Consciousness Studies, has proposed a discipline called “Contemplative Science,” which seeks to discover the nature of reality by pursuing genuine happiness, truth, and virtue in an empirical way. (The first chapter of his book Contemplative Science: Where Buddhism and Neuroscience Converge is available here). In 2007, Dr. Wallace led one of the most extensive studies of the long-term benefits of meditation practice ever, called The Shamatha Project. Researchers examined the effects of intensive meditation on attention, cognitive performance, emotional regulation, and health. Scientists are still analyzing the data, but the work is likely to make waves.
Two earlier studies have already yielded suggestive results. One, led by Richard J. Davidson of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, showed that long-term meditators self-induce high-amplitude gamma wave synchrony. Participants—monks and novices—were asked to practice “compassion” meditation, a complete focus on loving-kindness. In the monks, activity in the left prefrontal cortex (the seat of positive emotions such as happiness) overwhelmed activity in the right prefrontal cortex (the site of negative emotions and anxiety) to an extent never before seen from purely mental activity. The conclusion, according to Dr. Davidson, is that “happiness, compassion, loving-kindness, and clarity of attention can all be regarded as the product of skills that can be enhanced through mental training and this training induces plastic changes in the brain and in the body.” (This according to an Upaya Dharma Podcast, a great resource). In another study, Harvard University’s Sara Lazar showed that meditation experience is associated with increased cortical thickness (in the prefrontal cortex and right anterior insula). More studies need to—and surely will be—performed, but the path of inquiry may have positive public health ramifications. It seems as though meditation is capable of helping an individual truly achieve well-being.
Most interesting of all, in my opinion, is the relationship of ideas across these disciplines. For example, in his book The Synaptic Self, Dr. Joseph LeDoux of New York University argues that the self is created and maintained by arrangements of synaptic connections—pathways of communication between neurons. In an episode of the podcast “Buddhist Geeks” (which I recommend), neuropsychologist and Buddhist teacher Dr. Rick Hanson essentially concurs, describing self as a “network phenomenon” that is constantly changing. The transitory nature of neurobiological identity happens to affirm the Buddhist concept of anatta, or “not-self.” According to Buddhism, there is no inherent, independent existence. This is just one interesting philosophical consequence of our growing understanding of the brain. The interaction between Buddhism and science has yielded exciting data and revolutionary ideas. I look forward to more of this dialogue in the years to come.
Ben Ehrlich is a freelance writer and a contributor to The Beautiful Brain. He graduated from Middlebury College in 2009 with a degree in comparative literature. His blog, which tracks his ongoing research into the life and work of the great Spanish neuroscientist Santiago Ramon y Cajal, can be found here.