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Dalai Lama visit provides a subject for scientists

The Dalai Lama, spiritual leader of an ancient religion, arrives in Boston today with a surprising goal: changing the field of neuroscience.

For more than 15 years, the Dalai Lama has been inviting small groups of top Western scientists to his Himalayan home for private discussions about science and its potential links to Buddhist thought. At an MIT auditorium tomorrow, the Tibetan leader will begin presiding over two days of intense discussions -- the first ones open to the public -- aimed at understanding what happens inside the meditating brain, and what it can reveal about the broader workings of the human mind.

Though many Western researchers are skeptical about working with a man who believes in reincarnation and was chosen for his position based on a vision in a lake, the MIT conference quickly sold out to an audience of about 1,200 people, mainly scientists, and racked up a waiting list of 1,600.

The conference is designed to bring scientists and Buddhists together to devise experiments that explore the unusual abilities of Buddhist monks and others trained in meditation, with the goal of better understanding what the brain can accomplish when carefully focused.

Top scientists say they have come to view meditation as an increasingly important area of research and are thrilled at the Dalai Lama's promise to send substantial numbers of Buddhist monks to Western laboratories, where their brains can be studied with the latest scanning equipment.

"This is opening a secret body of rich knowledge that we have not had access to," said Marlene Behrmann, who is speaking at the conference and is a professor of psychology at Carnegie Mellon University. "It is a watershed."

Scientists who have met the Dalai Lama say they have been struck at his openness to science. He has said he has been interested in science since he was a boy, when he took wristwatches apart and put them back together.

His presence at the conference, said scientists who have met him, seems a genuine effort to bring together science and the 2,500-year Buddhist tradition in a productive new way -- while also making a political point about his religion.

"It is too easy for people to imagine that Tibetan Buddhism is some far-off ancient religion," said Eric Lander, the noted MIT genomics researcher, who traveled to the Dalai Lama's home in exile in Dharamsala, India, for a meeting last year. "It sends a very important message to say that Tibetan Buddhists are not in the least reluctant to talk to scientists, even scientists who do not agree with them."

Prominent Western scientists have already begun to find that meditation can have a profound effect on the brain and the body. This month, University of Wisconsin professor Richard J. Davidson published a paper showing that people who meditated were able to mount a stronger fight against the flu -- suggesting that teaching the technique could help boost their immune systems.

Meditation, his study showed, appeared to moderate the activity of a part of the brain, the right prefrontal cortex, associated with negative emotions like anger and fear. The meditators who experienced the greatest reduction of activity in this area, the study showed, created the most antibodies to fight the flu.

This weekend's conference, called "Investigating the Mind," is not primarily focused on the health effects of meditation. It is organized around three broad topics -- attention, emotion, and mental imagery -- that are active areas of research in brain science and which might benefit from the participation of highly trained Buddhists.

Mental imagery is a vital question to scientists for its close links to thinking and memory. One cannot remember the location of a parked car, for instance, without such imagery.

Buddhists claim to be able to do things that directly contradict the findings of Western scientists, said Stephen Kosslyn, a leading expert on mental imagery who is a professor of psychology at Harvard University. In studies of Western subjects, Kosslyn has found people can't hold onto a detailed mental image, and take time to put the pieces of such an image together. Buddhists, however, say they are able to hold a rich image in mind for minutes at a time, and to conjure up a complex image practically instantly, a process, he said, they describe as "like a fish leaping from water."

Kosslyn, who is participating in the conference, said that he is skeptical of those claims, but that a collaboration with Buddhist monks would yield useful information about the brain.

"From my perspective, these are like the virtuosos of mental imagery," he said. "They show what mental training can achieve."

At the heart of the conference, which is cosponsored by the McGovern Institute for Brain Research at MIT, will be three sessions where the Dalai Lama, joined by a panel of prominent scientists and Buddhist scholars, will discuss ways to collaborate on future research. The goal, say conference organizers, is to devise a specific research program, including experiments. The Mind and Life Institute will help find funding for experiments from individual donors and foundations, with the hope that the National Institutes of Health will begin to fund projects as well if the research goes well.

The Dalai Lama has not made any specific promises about how many people might participate in experiments, according to Adam Engle, the chairman and co-founder of the Mind and Life Institute, which has been fostering scientific exchanges with the Dalai Lama since 1987 and is cosponsoring the conference.

Such a project could hold the potential to expand the field of neuroscience, suggesting whole new areas of study. Davidson, for example, has embarked on a research program to study compassion, an emotion that is a central concept in Buddhist psychology, but which Western science has largely ignored. If the Buddhists are correct, then Western researchers have missed an important part of the brain's emotional machinery, one whose cultivation could have profound effects on society.

"We want to place compassion center stage as a focus of legitimate scientific inquiry," said Davidson. "These guys can turn it on at will."

For the Buddhists involved in the conference, the work is partly motivated by curiosity. Understanding the true nature of the universe is a fundamental tenet of Buddhism.

"Religions as a whole are prone to ossification and dogmatism," said B. Alan Wallace, a scholar at the Mind and Life Institute and president of the Santa Barbara Institute. A lively interaction with modern science, he said, "may really help rescue Buddhism from this tendency."

The Dalai Lama has also told the scientists involved in the conference that he hopes the research will yield techniques that everyone, Buddhist or otherwise, can use to lead lives where positive emotions outweigh negative ones. Buddhists believe that humans are prone to suffering because their minds are overly focused on negative emotions.

By joining with the Buddhists, brain scientists could transform the inner world the way science and technology has already transformed the outer world, according to Tendzin Choegyal, the Dalai Lama's younger brother.

"I think this [conference] is very significant in mankind's pursuit of happiness," Choegyal said.

Gareth Cook can be reached at cook@globe.com.

Dalai Lama's visit
The Dalai Lama greeted Tsering Tsomo, 4, at the Charles Hotel in Cambridge on Sept. 12. The Dalai Lama greeted Tsering Tsomo, 4, at the Charles Hotel in Cambridge on Sept. 12. (Globe Photo / Bill Brett)
The Dalai Lama's image was projected on the FleetCenter scoreboard during his sell-out talk on Sept. 14. The Dalai Lama's image was projected on the FleetCenter scoreboard during his sell-out talk on Sept. 14. (Globe Staff Photo / Justine Ellement)
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