Early last November, His Holiness the Dalai Lama—spiritual leader of the Tibetan people—participated in a 1-day medical conference hosted by the Neuroscience Institute at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California. This event included a panel comprising neuroscience researchers, Buddhist scholars, monks, psychologists and a physicist, in addition to the Dalai Lama.
Stanford University medical school dean, Philip Pizzo, told the San Jose Mercury News, “The conference is an effort to build a bridge between two very different traditions of studying the brain and the mind.”
Research initiated as early as the 1970s confirms that meditation affects the body, reducing heart rate and blood pressure and lowering levels of blood cortisol. Results from contemporary studies on the mind show that meditation can also affect the brain. In particular, certain styles of meditation seem to stimulate more brain activity in the part of the brain related to positive thoughts; and, in more experienced meditators, this impact is stronger and results in long-lasting feelings of well-being and positive mood.
At the Stanford event, many of the neuroscientists and psychologists, as well as the Buddhist scholars, welcomed the opportunity for a more expansive discussion on how best to study the workings of the mind. The Dalai Lama was able to pose questions that could broaden the way in which neuroscientists frame inquires for research investigation. At the same time, the Buddhist leader and other monks present were equally interested in understanding the latest scientific discoveries pertaining to measurements of activity in the brain and how practices such as meditation affect these processes.
Later in November, amid considerable controversy, the Dalai Lama addressed the 2005 annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience in Washington, DC. More than 500 scientists protested his appearance by signing a petition, while others supported the opportunity to share perspectives with him on the science and nature of the mind. Yi Rao, who drafted the petition, is a neurology professor at Northwestern University.
“The criticism is politically motivated,” said William Newsome, a Society of Neuroscience board member and a professor of neurobiology at Stanford University. He remarked that the protest was driven by Chinese professors who disliked the Dalai Lama’s opposition to the Chinese occupation of Tibet.
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