So the Dalai Lama walks into a room full of neuroscientists…
That sentence sounds like the revamped start of a priest-rabbi-imam joke. But it’s the reality of the Mind & Life Institute — a nonprofit aiming to combine the first person experiences of contemplative practices like meditation with scientific studies of the brain.
Mind & Life has involved the Dalai Lama since its 1987 founding, and over the years the group has brought in other spiritual leaders, committed meditators and well-respected scientists to fulfill its mission. It supports research on a range of topics, from the effects of mindfulness training on attention and working memory in children, to yogic breathing and cognition, to interdisciplinary definitions of human spirituality.
I’ll admit it: when I first read about an organization applying Western neuroscience to contemplative practice, I was a little skeptical (or paranoid, depending how you see it). It’s easy for Western cultures to appropriate traditionally Eastern practices in ways that ring superficial — case in point, the yuppie yoga boom. If this were an instance of neuroscientists trying to “validate” practices that have been around for thousands of years, I can’t say I would have been on board.
But Mind & Life is not about validation. Rather, the goal seems to be bringing together experts from both sides of the collaboration so they can finds points of overlap and learn from each other — a crucial element for any program hoping to bridge neuroscience with other fields. Sure, some of the studies have sought and confirmed scientific evidence of health benefits to meditation, like helping to treat mental illness, reduce chronic pain and generally improve bodily health. But these studies don’t seem to be conducted from a standpoint of, “Well, science has to prove that any of this works.” That kind of approach probably couldn’t fly anyway, given the central involvement of the Dalai Lama and committed practitioners of meditation, many of whom are also working scientists.
As with any collaboration, Mind & Life is continually learning and changing. In the past year, for example, it launched a humanities and social sciences initiative to give more voice to the humanities in understanding the mind. In fact, the Institute’s perhaps necessarily changing identity makes it a great case study for exploring what it even means for neuroscience to exchange with other fields.
That question has been taken on by history and sociology of science professor John Tresch, who chairs the science, technology and society undergraduate major at Penn. Tresch has studied Mind & Life on-and-off for several years, publishing a paper last year on their summer program (which CNS Managing Director Denise Clegg has twice attended). When I spoke with Tresch about the Institute, he made some interesting big-picture points. They mostly centered on the idea that no kind of science interacts with other disciplines as a purely intellectual entity. Rather, science comes embedded in a culture, which can’t help but influence the ways it relates to other perspectives.
For example, as Tresch explained, meditation plays a different role in Western conceptions of Buddhism than it does in countries with strong Buddhist traditions. This difference may affect the religious connotation of meditation across cultures and, in turn, influence its perception in scientific communities. Science and contemplative practice also have different attitudes toward introspection. While introspection has long been central to meditation, science has alternatively viewed it as an important tool (á la William James) or a dirty word (á la John Watson).
Such issues don’t have to hold back Mind & Life, but they are worth including in the conversation. It doesn’t matter whether you’re curious about science, contemplative practice, both fields or even the just big questions about the mind. Either way, all sides to this project — and its many participants — are something to keep an eye on.
Welcome one and all to a new blog run by an effusive undergraduate studying Cognitive Neuroscience at Penn! I’ll be writing about the social role of neuroscience and related issues, in particular as they are explored by Penn’s Center for Neuroscience & Society, where I work – for details, check out the ‘About’ section.
I’m starting off with a CNS event I’ll be covering regularly: the Public Talk Series, monthly lectures on neuroscience and social issues. This year’s series kicked off Oct. 4 via a special collaboration with the Penn Museum, entitled “From Skulls to Scans: How Brain Measurements Have Been Used, Misused and Misunderstood in the Study of Racial Differences.” Drawing from the Museum’s famous Morton skull collection as a starting point, anthropologist Janet Monge, neurologist Geoffrey Aguirre and Penn Law faculty member Dorothy Roberts examined the way neuroscience has historically been (mis)used in social constructions of race. The talks centered on the controversial attempts of Samuel Morton – a 19th century Philadelphia physician and Penn graduate – to align skin tone with brain profiles and intelligence ratings. The famous evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould once critiqued Morton’s work as suffering from biased measurements, but the panel came to a different conclusion: Morton’s measurements were physically spot-on. It was their interpretation that created the problem.
Monge pointed out that since Morton’s research questions were biased, preemptively assuming certain behavioral differences between races, his technically correct methodology could not be put to good use. Aguirre then put the issue in contemporary context by overviewing modern methods for studying group differences. He noted that although new technologies – particularly fMRI – are far more advanced than the tools available to Morton, they still leave room for error and are equally helpless in compensating for researcher bias. In other words, as long as researchers begin studies with already defined group differences in mind, their interpretations will be skewed, no matter how fancy or technically accurate their methodology. Finally, Roberts gave a sociologist’s insight into the sorts of biases that seep into superficially scientific studies of race. For example, she discussed the notion that biological explanations for perceived racial differences can make social inequalities seem inevitable and therefore acceptable, and how this notion might drive interpretations of data to support existing stereotypes. All this discussion made the broader point that data interpretation is not necessarily neutral to researchers’ biases, especially in a topic that can be as socially charged as group differences.
Which brings me to a study published this month in the PNAS journal on the brain and reading ability, a trait often used to sort children into groups at school. Researchers at Stanford University have reported a correlation between white matter development in children aged 7-12 and their performance on standardized reading assessments. On the one hand, this is an interesting addition to the growing body of research on child brain development that may relate to and even benefit education. If this study can shed light on when to start reading interventions, or which cognitive processes interventions should target, that could be good news for educators. On the other hand, much like with studies of brain anatomy and race, these results could be fodder for careless misinterpretations – e.g. deciding that brains scans will tell you whether or not a child should be in the advanced reading class for the rest of her time in school. The difference between those interpretations lies in an appreciation of nuance and an avoidance of pre-existing stereotypes (which in this case might include, say, the belief that “low-performing” students can never improve). And as Monge, Aguirre and Roberts pointed out, nuance and open-mindedness are crucial to keep in mind when neuroscience takes on group differences. Heavy but important fare for the Public Talk Series’ inaugural lecture – and if you haven’t yet had the chance to do so, I recommend that you ponder all this while checking out those Morton skulls.