Neuroscience - His Holiness the Dalai Lama Participates in the 26th Mind & Life Meeting at Drepung - Day 3

January 20th 2013

Drepung Lachi, Mundgod, Karnataka, India, 19 January 2013 - While the presenters from the Mind & Life Institute are meeting with His Holiness the Dalai Lama in the Drepung Lachi Temple, in the presence of about 900 monks, nuns, school students and invited foreign guests, another 5000 or so monks are gathered down the road in the Drepung Loseling assembly hall. The presentations are largely being given in English and translated simultaneously into Tibetan, which those who need to are listening to on FM radios. There are plenty of video screens to provide a close view of the proceedings for those who cannot see them directly, as well as displaying the speakers’ accompanying visual presentations. Proceedings are being webcast live, attracting a steady audience of more than 1100 viewers.

The overall heading for today’s discussions was Neuroscience and the theme for the morning was Changing the Brain. Soon after His Holiness had arrived, greeted Lamas and presenters and taken his seat, Richie Davidson, who has participated in Mind & Life meetings for more than twenty years, began,


His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Richie Davidson during the third day of the Mind and Life XXVI meeting at Drepung Monastery in Mundgod, India, on January 19, 2013. Photo/Tenzin Choejor/OHHDL
“These two, attention and emotion regulation, are relevant to contemplative practice. I’ll focus on the relevant neural circuits and the effects of mental training.”

He quoted William James’s insight into attention. James suggested that when we see a tiger, the information goes up to the cortex, down to the viscera, the heartbeat increases, and fear arises after that, when the signal goes back to the brain. The brain detects that the body is agitated. His Holiness questioned this series of events because he has heard that along with fear blood rushes to the legs enabling us to run and along with anger blood rushes to the hands to enable us to fight. Richie Davidson explained that tests were done after eliminating the visceral pathway that showed that James was partly correct. After him James Papez was the first to identify the circuits in the brain associated with emotion.

The classic view had been that emotional function was processed outside the cortex. Studies of men injured in the Second World War showed that those whose frontal lobes had been damaged also suffered emotional impairment. This demonstrated that the cortex, particularly the frontal cortex played a role in emotion. The modern understanding now is that the capacity to regulate emotions is in the frontal cortex.

Richie reminded his audience of the experiment of offering 5-6 year old children a sweet with the proviso that they could eat it immediately, but if they could wait five minutes they would be given three sweets. Those able to exert restraint tended to grow into successful adults.

“This important insight suggests that if we could teach children to exercise discipline when they are young, it will benefit them and society as they grown older.”

His Holiness wondered if the experiment would as successful if, instead of offering a reward, the children were warned that they would be punished if they failed to wait.

Richie declared that neuroplasticity is neither good nor bad, it’s neutral, but being exposed to positive influences, leads to positive change. His Holiness asked whether, despite this, neuroplasticity can be explained in terms of negative influence; it can.

“There are neurons that only fire with respect to positive situations or even positive people, and others that fire in connection with negative circumstances.”

Three types of attention were mentioned: alerting, orienting and executive control, which were studied in connection with children undertaking vipassana meditative training over a period of 3 months. There was improved performance resulting in stiller minds and greater attention.

Tania Singer reported on work running a training programme for the cultivation of compassion. She said that they have to identify what it is they want to test with regard to plasticity, because different processes have different circuitry in the brain.

“If you ask, how do I know how you feel? There are different routes: the affective route involving empathy and compassion and another route, the perceptive, through knowledge based on inference.”

His Holiness the Dalai Lama talking with Tania Singer during her presentation at the Mind and Life XXVI meeting at Drepung Monastery in Mundgod, India, on January 19, 2013. Photo/Tenzin Choejor/OHHDL
The affective includes loving kindness, gratitude, concern and warmth, while perceptive responses, which she speculated accord more with what Buddhists might call view, include memory and meta-cognition, or mental awareness of what you are doing. She also mentioned examining subjects’ genetic background and environmental traits. Different parts of the brain can be clearly identified with these different responses. She said,

“We have a lot of evidence that observing others’ emotions activates corresponding emotional areas in us. We tested Mathieu Ricard in a real-time scanner and asked him to enter into different mental states, different compassion states, non-referential compassion, loving kindness, and compassion. I could see from the brain scan when he was cultivating empathy with the suffering of others, and we got a different signal for compassion.”

His Holiness commented,

“Generally speaking, if you look at qualities like compassion, loving kindness, there is an aspiration or yearning for them to be more effective, so they have to be directed by intelligence, understanding and positive motivation.”

In the afternoon, Richie Davidson told His Holiness that he wanted to address a question he had asked about intelligence.

“In current neuroscientific understanding, the mainstream view of intelligence is that it is what is measured by an IQ test, which includes 6 sets of verbal and 6 sets of non-verbal tests. What you mean by intelligence, how to respond in different situations, is so much richer. With regard to the neural correlation of intelligence, the frontal area of the brain is genetically influenced.”

His Holiness asked about trained intelligence and Richie replied that you can train someone in working memory tasks, remembering numbers and so on. He said that that is about memory rather than intelligence, but Christof pointed out that a quick memory is an accepted indicator of intelligence. Tania added that there are different words used: crystallized intelligence referring to memorization and fluid intelligence referring to coming up with ideas and putting them to use. His Holiness remarked that there do seem to be people who understand fast, but are not good at debate; others who get to the bottom of things; those who have swift intelligence, penetrating intelligence and so on.

Richie explained that many human problems involve ‘emotional stickiness’. In experiments involving meditation on compassion, normal people with no previous meditative experience recovered from stickiness better. He concludes that some of the Western subjects were more anxious to begin with. On the other hand participants in mindfulness based stress reduction showed not only reduced stress, but also a smaller amygdala, the part of the brain associated with controlling the duration and intensity of negative emotion. 

He recalled an occasion in 1992 when he was talking with colleagues about neuroscience to a group of monks. They decided to give a demonstration of how they measured the brain activity of compassion. Francisco Varela was the guinea pig who was wired up with electrodes. When they stood back and the monks could see him, they burst out laughing. It turned out the laughter was not at how funny the monks thought Francisco looked, but at the idea that you could measure compassion by wiring up the head.

Tania Singer talked about how we use cognitive processes when we talk about compassion and behaviour. Every cognitive process has a correspondence in the brain involving not only neurons, but also genes that produce neurons and neurotransmitters. She discussed three types of human motivational systems, the motivation that drives behaviour: a seeking or averting system; a threat system and a caring or affective system. She discussed the release of hormones like oxytocin that reduces amygdala activation and said that the question is - can focussing on compassion have the same effect? Her findings so far suggest that compassion training does bring about observable changes in brain networks and increases well-being.


Geshe Dadul Namgyal gestures during his presentation at the Mind and Life XXVI meeting at Drepung Monastery in Mundgod, India, on January19, 2013. Photo/Tenzin Choejor/OHHDL
Geshe Dadul Namgyal completed the day’s very rich presentations with a Buddhist response touching on neuroscience and neuroplasticity, which he defined as the ability of the brain, neurons, circuits, etc., to form new structures and even functions. He began quietly as he reviewed the field, remarking that happiness is not something fixed that you either have or do not, it’s a skill, something we can learn. Looking at neuroplasticity from a Buddhist view point, he referred to the mind-body entanglement and suggested that it is karma that binds the mind and body together. Among other observations he mentioned a quotation he had found in a Buddhist text that listed eight bodily essences concluding with the startling remark that the brain is the essence of the mind.

Instead of giving prime attention to the brain, he spoke of the mind as non-material luminous and knowing in nature. All consciousness events can be sensory or mental. Every event at a given time is composed of a mind and mental factors, basic awareness and secondary awareness. He illustrated this with vivid coloured diagrams depicting the main mind, not so much surrounded by as incorporating the five omnipresent mental factors, the factor of the event, be it compassion or hatred, and factors of virtue or non-virtue. He showed the complexity of what goes on in the mind with such determined enthusiasm that as he concluded, for the first time during this meeting, a wave of spontaneous applause swept through the audience.
 
 

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