The Dalai Lama is scheduled to talk about how meditation can help people think more positively at the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience, and a bunch of brain researchers are trying to ban him from the event.
Why? Well, they say that not enough research has been done into the links between meditation and creating new pathways to happy thoughts.
From the NY Times:
“As the public face of neuroscience, we have a responsibility to at least see that research is replicated before it is promoted and highlighted,” said Dr. Nancy Hayes, a neurobiologist at the Robert Wood Johnson Medical School in New Jersey who objects to the Dalai Lama’s speaking. “If we don’t do that, we may as well be the Flat Earth Society.”
Fair enough. With all the talk of Intelligent Design lately, these fears are certainly founded.
But what passes for replication? Possibly multiple recent studies over a number of years.
In one widely reported 2003 study, Dr. Richard Davidson of the University of Wisconsin-Madison led a team of researchers that found that 25 employees of a biotechnology company showed increased levels of neural activity in the left anterior temporal region of their brains after taking a course in meditation. The region is active during sensations of happiness and positive emotion, the researchers reported.
In a 2004 experiment supported by the Mind and Life Institute, a nonprofit organization that the Dalai Lama helped establish, and also involving Dr. Davidson, investigators tracked brain waves in eight Tibetan monks as they meditated in a state of “unconditional loving-kindness and compassion.”
Using an electronic scanner, the researchers found that the monks were producing a very strong pattern of gamma waves, a synchronized oscillation of brain cells that is associated with concentration and emotional control. A group of 10 college students who were learning to meditate produced a much weaker gamma signal.
Taken together, the studies suggest that “human qualities like compassion and altruism may in some sense be regarded as skills which can be improved through mental training,” said Dr. Davidson, who is director of the Laboratory for Affective Neuroscience at the University of Wisconsin.
Ahh, but certainly not enough to have the Dalai Lama speak, right?
Yet the neuroscientists who have signed the petition say that there are several problems with this research. First, they say, Dr. Davidson and some of his colleagues meditate themselves, and they have collaborated with the Dalai Lama for years. Dr. Davidson said he had helped persuade the spiritual leader to accept the society’s invitation to speak, and was with him when he received the request.
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.
All I’ve have say is “Ohhhhhhmmmmmm.”