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The Dalai Lama, neuroscience (and a plug for meditation)

NPR : The Links Between the Dalai Lama and Neuroscience

Morning Edition's Jon Hamilton on The Dalai Lama's new-ish book and some controversy regarding his addressing a meeting of neuroscientists on the topic of meditation:

Richard Davidson, Ph.D., of the University of Wisconsin, is one of several scientists who will present research on meditation at the neuroscience meeting. He says there's nothing flaky about the idea of studying whether a mental activity like meditation alters the brain's circuitry.

"Most Americans now realize that if they go to the gym or exercise several times a week, they will observe systematic changes occurring in their body," Davidson says. Meditations, he explains, is "exercising the mind in a particular way."

Some small studies have suggested that meditating on compassion can affect parts of the brain associated with positive thoughts. The Dalai Lama's talk will discuss meditation as a way to promote well-being and compassion.

My own experiences with meditation are recent, relatively shallow, and would yield little to contribute to the world of science, but I do know it can bring remarkable effects -- even in fairly short-term use. Looking forward to seeing where it takes me, and I'm not surprised at all to hear anecdotes of its effect on thinking over longer-term practice.

I really love Jon Kabat-Zinn's Wherever You Go, There You Are (yeah, it's an unfortunate title), which is plain-spoken, readable, and makes a great case for the intrinsic value of trying to "be in the moment." A very approachable and inviting introduction to mindfulness -- even if you're the sort of person who thinks this stuff is just for goofy people from Northern California.

For a free (and excellent) intro to give yourself the flavor of mindfulness meditation, start with "Mindfulness in Plain English."

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The critics also point out that there are flaws in the 2004 experiment that the researchers have acknowledged: The monks being studied were 12 to 45 years older than the students, and age could have accounted for some of the differences. The students, as beginners, may have been anxious or simply not skilled enough to find a meditative state in the time allotted, which would alter their brain wave patterns. And there was no way to know if the monks were adept at generating high gamma wave activity before they ever started meditating.

"This paper has not tested the idea whether meditation promotes compassion or any kind of positive emotion," Dr. Yi Rao, a neuroscientist at Northwestern University who helped draft the petition and was one of the sharpest critics, said in an e-mail message.

"Nonetheless, advocates of Buddhism and meditation have confused the public with the claim that this idea has received scientific proof," Rao said. "If one reads the published scientific literature, it is not difficult to see that this claim is far from being proven. It will not hurt if the public also realizes that some researchers are declared believers playing dual roles as advocates and researchers."




An Oblique Strategy:
Honor thy error as a hidden intention


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