Science or Faith?: Scientist Inspired by the Dalai Lama Studies Happiness

I read an interesting article on Physorg today about Richard Davidson, a neuroscientist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Apparently Davidson met with the Dalai Lama who asked why scientists always study anxiety, depression, and negative human emotions instead of happiness, compassion, and kindness, key tenants of Buddhism.

Inspired by the question Davidson started using brain imaging technology on  and other veteran practitioners of meditation to try to learn how their training affects mental health.

From the article:

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.

“He’s made some interesting discoveries about meditation, and I think he is doing very good science,” said John Wiley, who was university chancellor from 2001 to 2008 and is interim director of the Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery.

Initially, “a significant number of his colleagues around the world were suspicious and thought that it wasn’t adequately grounded in hard science,” Wiley said. “He’s proved them wrong.”

The appearance comes as the Dalai Lama has spent more time promoting research into traditional Buddhist meditative practices and urging scientists to help create a more ethical and peaceful world.”

Ok ok, but what about the conflict of interest here? You have a religious figure influencing scientific research, and a researcher who is clearly invested in study that is largely religious.

More from the article:

“Davidson’s relationship with the Dalai Lama remains controversial. When he invited the  to speak at a 2005 neuroscience conference, dozens of researchers signed a petition in protest.

Some of the criticism appeared motivated by Chinese researchers who disagree politically with the Dalai Lama’s stance on Tibet. Others said it was an inappropriate mix of faith with science.

Davidson, who meditates every morning but does not consider himself a practicing Buddhist, has also been criticized for being too close to someone with an interest in the outcome of his research.

Davidson said the Dalai Lama’s commitment to science is remarkable for a religious leader of his stature, and notes His Holiness has said he is prepared to give up any part of Buddhism that is contradicted by scientific fact.

“He also is the first one to point out the limitations of meditation and how it’s not a cure all and be all for everything and has very limited effects on health,” Davidson said.”

Ok, so a few things here: The Dalai Lama says he will give up “any part of Buddhism that is contradicted by scientific fact.” Really? Reincarnation? Enlightenment? I suspect that if science ever did find hard “proof” to discredit those religious ideas (although we know it’s nearly impossible to prove a negative), Buddhists would hardly give up their belief system, but call the research invalid or “not proof.”

That said no other religious leader has been as quick to yield to the advents of science, and all in all, the Dalai Lama himself appears to be keeping an open mind.

Despite the confluence of religion and science here, I don’t have a problem with the idea of a scientist inspired the compassion and kindness studying the positive emotions of the human brain. We spend so much time researching disorders, and coping with negative “problems” in the brain that we have hardly delved into the idea (neurologically and chemically) behind human happiness, and emotions like kindness, empathy, and compassion that I think we can pretty much agree are universal and positive.

From NPR’s article about the topic:

The Dalai Lama explores the parallels between Buddhism and science in his latest book, The Universe in a Single Atom.

In one passage he writes, “My confidence in venturing into science lies in my basic belief that as in science, so in Buddhism, understanding the nature of reality is pursued by means of critical investigation.”

“If scientific analysis were conclusively to demonstrate certain claims in Buddhism to be false,” he says, “then we must accept the findings of science and abandon those claims.”

He rejects so-called scientific materialism — the idea that consciousness, for example, is no more than a series of chemical reactions in our brains. That wouldn’t allow for reincarnation.

Davidson of the University of Wisconsin says at some point, science and Buddhism must take separate paths.

“There are certainly beliefs in traditional Buddhism that conflict with basic principles of scientific understanding,” Davidson says. “We can’t make sense of those beliefs in any kind of scientific framework.”

What I do have a problem with is what appears to be a scientific agenda driven by a religious figure. As I’ve said in other posts, as soon as a scientist does research with a specific agenda the study is instantly suspect, but I’m not sure it’s a clear cut case of agenda here. What do you think? Is Davidson taking an appropriate scientific approach? Is he being driven by a religious ideology or scientific observation and hypothesis?

And because we (I) do take a hard science approach here at Paradigm Amalgamation here are the links to his published research, so you can evaluate it’s veracity for yourself…

Mental training enhances attentional stability: neural and behavioral evidence. 2009: Lutz Antoine; Slagter Heleen A; Rawlings Nancy B; Francis Andrew D; Greischar Lawrence L; Davidson Richard J

BOLD signal in insula is differentially related to cardiac function during compassion meditation in experts vs. novices. 2009: Lutz Antoine; Greischar Lawrence L; Perlman David M; Davidson Richard J

Neural correlates of attentional expertise in long-term meditation practitioners. 2007: Brefczynski-Lewis J A; Lutz A; Schaefer H S; Levinson D B; Davidson R J

Alterations in brain and immune function produced by mindfulness meditation. 2003: Davidson Richard J; Kabat-Zinn Jon; Schumacher Jessica; Rosenkranz Melissa; Muller Daniel; Santorelli Saki F; Urbanowski Ferris; Harrington Anne; Bonus Katherine; Sheridan John F

You can check out all of Davidson’s publications here.

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~ by K. Ritcheson on May 19, 2010.

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