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Dalai Lama Attends Debate on Human Mind

By Brian Loux


Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th dalai lama, met with leading neuroscientists and Buddhist scholars at a well-attended two-day conference, “Investigating the Mind,” in Kresge auditorium last weekend.

For a total of 14 hours on Saturday and Sunday, the scholars discussed the starkly contrasting approaches of Western science and Tibetan Buddhism to understanding the human mind.

President Charles M. Vest was one of three speakers to kick off the event. Other speakers paid tribute to Francisco J. Varela, a Buddhist who co-founded the Mind and Life Institute, which organized the conference with MIT’s McGovern Institute for Brain Research. Varela died in 2001.

The Dalai Lama also spoke before the discussion started. All civilizations have an “enthusiasm to investigate” the world around them, he said, but Buddhists’ and neuroscientists’ knowledge of each other were “like a baby’s.”

Collaboration minimal at talk

The format was for one Buddhist scholar and one neuroscientist to present each side’s views on the topics of attention, mental imagery, and emotion, in each of the three sessions. The final minutes were left for discussion by both sides.

Much of the discussion, however, did not delve into the incongruities between the two sides. Many of the presenters’ questions to each other sought only to clarify points made in the talks.

The Dalai Lama, who listened to both sides through a translator, appeared often to have trouble following the scientists’ presentations.

At other times, the panelists could not find ways to compromise the opposing views.

John Duncan, a neuroscientist from the University of Cambridge in England, said the Buddhists presented “interesting ideas,” but wanted to understand “what [Buddhist scholars] think we should measure to verify the claims.”

Frequently mentioned by many scientists was the need for what Biology Professor Eric Lander called “third-person confirmation of first-person introspection.”

One of the broader topics debated throughout the seminar was the “adaptability of the human mind,” or the idea that humans could develop basic mental functions such as attention or mental imagery far beyond the brain’s physical predisposition.

There was no explanation offered by the scientists as to how this adaptation could occur, but Buddhist scholars often mentioned cases in which these phenomena occurred.

Alan Wallace of the Santa Barbara Institute for the Interdisciplinary Study of Consciousness, a consistent contributor, detailed what Buddhism calls the sixth sense.

“It is essentially being aware of being aware,” Wallace said, describing the sense of mental activity one has inside a sensory deprivation tank. The example was frequently mentioned as a situation in which the mind could be trained to improve its faculties.

Often, the Buddhist scholars received a round of applause from the audience after offering their view on a topic.

The Dalai Lama went through the talk in good humor, often throwing jokes.

He started off the conference by peering into the solemn audience and waving to people.

“Every human being,” the Dalai Lama said, is “part of humanity. If humanity is happy, then individual beings are happy.”

Later, as Princeton Neuroscience Professor Jonathan Cohen described how humans could mentally force themselves to resist scratching an itch, the Dalai Lama nodded in understanding while scratching his nose.

Kanwisher remains optimistic

Nancy G. Kanwisher, an MIT professor of brain and cognitive sciences, said that the results of the conference were “mixed.”

“There were high points and points where we just talked over each other,” she said. “It was an interesting and promising beginning, though it will require a lot of work to see whether any results will come from this collaborative effort.”

“In science, you focus on the points you have,” she said. “I didn’t learn until after the meeting that Alan Wallace will begin a year-long study training non-Buddhist students to see if improvements ... can be observed,” she said.

The Dalai Lama ended the conference by declaring he had faith and confidence in science. “Science is a way to bring more comfort to society,” he said. The 14 hour discussion, he said, “has made me refreshed, alert, and joyful.”