Scanning the Dalai Lama’s Brain

Ryan Foley has written an intriguing article about the collaboration between the Dalai Lama and Richard Davidson, a neuroscientist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.  Like so many brain scientists these days, Richardson uses imaging techniques to investigate various aspects of mind, including those which may be peculiar to Buddhists who meditate:

Davidson’s research has used brain imaging technology on Buddhist monks and other veteran practitioners of meditation to try to learn how their training affects mental health.

His team’s findings suggest meditation and other “contemplative practices” can improve compassion, empathy, kindness and attention. They support the concept that even adult brains can change through experience and learning.

I have not read Davidson’s studies, but have my doubts that brain scans or images can tell us much about what is actually occurring inside the brain or whether the alleged variables under consideration are causes or effects.  For those interested in brain scans and their dubious uses, I highly recommend Matthew Crawford’s elegant piece (“The Limits of Neurotalk“) which appeared in The New Atlantis.

Regardless of one might think about brain scans, the Dalai Lama’s stance towards science is refreshing: “Davidson said the Dalai Lama’s commitment to science is remarkable for a religious leader of his stature, and notes that the Dalai Lama has said he is prepared to give up any part of Buddhism that is contradicted by scientific fact.”

I am not familiar with the Dalai Lama’s particular brand of Buddhism or his views on the many different forms of Buddhism that are practiced around the world, so can’t say how much of it is amenable to scientific investigation.  It is difficult, however, for science to disprove the existence of anything that cannot be empirically measured.

What could be measured — with potentially interesting results — is the Dalai Lama’s brain wave activity while meditating.  A good working hypothesis would be that meditation alters wave activity, especially in the medially situated thalamocortical region, which plays a major role in conscious thought.  My guess would be that meditation slows wave activity in this area, thus allowing practitioners — while ostensibly “awake” — to relax and temporarily derail conscious bombardment.

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