Neuroscientists protest Dalai Lama at SfN

Looks like some SfN members are not happy with the Dalai Lama’s proposed lecture at the upcoming annual SfN meeting, according to an article in Nature. I can’t say I agree with the critics:

Some of the critics believe that the Dalai Lama’s lecture should be ruled out because of his status as a political and religious figure. “One of the reasons for inviting him is that he has views on controlling negative emotions, which is a legitimate area for neuroscience research in the future,” says Robert Desimone, director of the McGovern Institute for Brain Research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. But “the SfN needs to distance itself as much as it can from the Dalai Lama and his beliefs”, adds Desimone, who opposes the lecture but has not yet signed the petition.

Um, OK, but what’s the point of having a series of “neuroscience and society” lectures if we’re not going to be talking with religious, political, and other non-neuroscience areas? Even those who have signed the petition don’t seem to have very compelling reasons:

[…] they insist that their concerns are purely scientific. Yi Rao a neuroscientist at Northwestern University in Chicago, Illinois, helped to draft the petition, which says that the science of meditation is “a subject with hyperbolic claims, limited research and compromised scientific rigour”.

Regardless of what you think about meditation and any neural impact it may or may not have, this seems at little preemptive. Stopping dialogue is never necessary when trying to debunk bad science — dialogue, if anything, helps! Unless the Dalai Lama is persuading people to do bad science (and it certainly didn’t seem that way during his symposium at MIT on neuroscience), these scientists need to be a little more accepting. How cool would it be if President Bush — or any major political/religious leader, for that matter — cared enough about a scientific subject to actually come to a professional society’s annual meeting?

17 thoughts on “Neuroscientists protest Dalai Lama at SfN

  1. I’m the author of RaBlissBlog. I’ve been meditating for about twenty years. Don’t believe in anything I don’t know. Don’t believe in believing. The Science of meditation? Scientific method I assume is based on the repeatablity of results and experiments. Take two different people and place their minds under the cosh of a certain number of mantras and see who gets to the bliss first? If our minds are essentially the same, they should reach it together. But how could you control that? Also, hyperbolic claims? Last year I managed to connect breath with bliss i.e you breath in a certain way and your mind goes into a state of bliss. Pranayama. Now I’ve started to raise inner heat. Are you familiar with (Benson/Harvard/Tummo (for google))vajaryana buddhism and the 6 Dharmas of Naropa? Yogis living in the cold have to be able to raise inner heat. Well, I’m starting to be able to do that. I’m just back from a retreat when I was meditating ten hours a day.
    Can anyone in the scientific community tell me what the hell is going on here? Where the hell is the heat coming from? What is bliss? It is compounded because it changes. But what is made up of?I would be very interested to know. If anyone of you guys want someone to experiment on, be my guest. you can find out more about me at http://www.geocities.com/madyamika2000/index.html. I’m a 54 year old Scottish writer by the way. Hope to get some response to this.

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  2. Yeah, I agree with Neville. Maybe if this was a small or new conference, there would be a need to protect it’s reputation by avoiding not just flakiness but also the appearance of flakiness. But SFN’s reputation is in no danger.

    And I suppose that some people might argue that, as members of the society, they shouldn’t spend the society’s money on worthless lectures. But if the lecture is so worthless, then it will be underattended. We’ll see 🙂

    I think it’s ridiculous that someone would be threatening to cancel their own lecture over this. If everyone at SFN canceled their presentation every time that they noticed another presentation at SFN that they thought was not sufficiently rigorous, we’d have a big problem.

    Any interest in starting a counter-petition?

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  3. This is very sad. I would have thought that the Neuroscience community would be able to keep an open mind on such a controversial topic. As a SFN member I am looking foward to hearing the Dalai Lama speak. It is such a platform that allows open debate and freedom of speech, a concept the instigators of the peitition are perhaps fearful of.
    More and more, Neuroscience is seeping into the mainstream of our daily society, this is the first step in creating an inclusive learning environment. The link between religion and the brain is a very old one. For example, people who suffer from Temporal lobe epilepsy can in some cases experience very strong religious auras at the onset of the seizure. This has led some people to believe that the “God” or religion centre (or a part of the brain which allows one to manifest religious feeling, belief etc) is located in this part of the brain. I think that discussions of such topics and examination of them in a scientific way is crucial.
    To be honest the threat of cancellation of one’s lecture is an empty one.

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  4. The focus on religion vs. science seems a little bit misplaced in this case, because there isn’t much religious content in Buddhism’s focus on developing concentration. Religion only enters when you start talking about rebirth, or the stories of meditators with supernatural abilities – but those aren’t universal across forms of Buddhism.

    It’s entirely possible to practice Buddhist meditation without buying into all the more typically religious trappings; likewise, it’s possible to study the effects of Buddhist meditation scientifically.

    Also, it’s important to note that Buddhist meditation is not prayer. It’s not passive, it’s an activity which requires mental effort. If the brain is plastic, if new connections can form, and if old connections can be pared back through disuse, then years of meditation practice may produce changes in brain structure similar to what is seen in, say, musicians. Only instead of spending hours and hours working neurons related to music, coordination, and physical movement, a meditator would be working neurons related to concentration. And where else would you find people who’d spent years focused on developing that?

    Why would this not be worth studying by neuroscienctists?

    Imagine if there were a religious group whose practices placed a great emphasis on a healthy diet, aerobic exercise and weight training, and had been developing related techniques for 2,500 years. It would hardly be objectionable for such practices to be studied by people who do research on the cardiovascular system, and for a scientifically-engaged spiritual leader to be invited to give a lecture on the topic at a scientific meeting.

    If you replace “healthy diet, aerobic exercise, and weight training” with “mental development” you would basically have the situation with the Dalai Lama.

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  5. Jon H: I agree with you entirely. The analogy with the recent fMRI studies of auditory cortex in musicians is apt. This meditation practice (regardless of any religious basis) is an activity that, like other human activities, could result in serious brain changes and thus merits serious study.

    In fact, based on my own experience having difficulty sitting still for more than a few minutes, I’d be shocked in the expert meditators’ brains did *not* have clear structural or functional changes.

    Let’s hope SfN doesn’t cave to the pressure. I think a lot of interesting science will be coming out of this…

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  6. This “debate” has very little to do with scientific rigor, although a few of the petition signers seem to think it does. SFN has had several celebrity neuroscience advocates including Christopher Reeve and (I think) Michael J. Fox speak at previous meetings.

    The real issue is political: many Chinese people have been taught that the Dalai Lama is a sort of feudal dictator. So this controversy is just communist propaganda (really!) It’s unfortunate that scientists who are uninformed about world affairs are falling for it.

    A quote from a spam email I received supporting the petition is suggestive: “It is worth noting
    that Dalai Lama’s legitimacy relies on reincarnation, a religious doctrine
    against the very foundation of modern neuroscience.”

    Actually, his legitimacy, in Western eyes, rests on his insight into meditation, peace, and the human condition, which is why he’s being invited to speak.

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  7. I totally agree with theo: the problem is political, not scientific. The Chineese government is ALWAYS trying to prevent the Dalai Lama from making important public appearances. This is just another attempt.

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  8. It seems to me that those of us who support having the lecture at SfN (I am a member) are not doing our part to SUPPORT the lecture, whereas the close-minded few (a few hundred out of about 35,000 members) are making a lot of noise. If you really do support having the lecture, let SfN know. SfN will only cave to the pressure if there is no way to justify having the lecture (ie that some support it). Contact info is available on their website (www.sfn.org).

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  9. I’m pleased to see so many people clearly supporting Dalai Lama’s upcoming lecture. I wholeheartedly agree with nerfbrain … we must let SfN know that there are at least equal numbers of people who support his lecture. Also, thank you to JohnH and markc for their comments. You points about diet and seizures, respectively ring true for me. I’ve discovered that, in addition to medication, that daily stretching, breathing and relaxation exercises and a careful (ketogenic-esque diet) have reduced my seizure frequency remarkably. I *feel* my brain awaken, releasing itself from the haze of an impending seizue, whenever I practice my form of meditation. The effects of meditation have been just as reliable, and faster, than the medication. I believe in the power of self-healing and look forward to attending the lecture on Neuroscience and Meditation.

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  10. The Dalai Lama had participated as an advicer in what seems to be serious research (see note on PNAS, 2004, 101, 46 p. 16369-16373). This is a difficult study but show different types of controls for muscle artifacts, age differences between practitioners and controls etc. I am particularly skeptical but since there is a serious effort to employ the scientific method, philosophical or religious believes are irrelevant (they are impossible to avoid in science anyway). Any scientist, as human being, need to accept epistemological believes that can not be ignored (“Philosophy might be ignored, but not escaped; and those who most ignore escape last” D. Hawkins). Consequently, it is not ethical discriminate somebody who honestly apply the scientific method but have unconentional believes or life style. Science is not a matter of social agreements, but on hard and painful controversies. If the Dalai Lama is an honest person -as I think he is- he should be tolerant and open to questions from the public and possible hard critics.
    Hw must avoid political views. Since Science is based on democracy and not authority, I respect his right to talk, considering that he is the representant of one of the more under-represented, pacific and non-violent societies.

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  11. Only a small number of “scientists” out of the total SfN roster are signing the
    petition. Most of the people who signed are Chinese
    nationals who are faculty or students at American and
    European Universities (and some chinese). Their organizer and petition
    author and spammer of the email asking for people to
    sign is very likely Dr Jianguo Gu, Associate Professor at the
    University of Florida (jgu@dental.ufl.edu; ip addy
    159.178.232.137.;if you’ve recieved the spam email inviting you to protest the Dalai Lama, just check the last ip addy of the FULL header, do a “swhois.com,” and you’ll find that the network ID and IP addy the of computer this spam was sent from just happens to match Dr. Gu’s UFL internet account ID and email addy. A mere coincidence? More googling shows that a character with the same name has been attracting some press coverage with his activities.) What about the validity of a petition that’s been illegaly advertised this way? What are his motives? Trying to earn brownie points with PR China government by acting as an agent for their agenda? I know I would never sign such on offensive spammer’s document. Dr. Gu and other petition organizers are also
    keeping a doctored copy of the petition on a chinese language bbs site. Anyway. Gu and his comrades are using some very unethical tactics in waging their
    smear campaign. They even registerd the petition under a throw-away yahoo email account under a fake name.
    To my point. I’m also a scientist and a member
    of SfN and look forward to hearing his talk. HH takes
    neuroscience very seriously and regularly attends high
    profile international conferences on the subject.
    There have been several interesting, significant
    papers published in prominent scientific journals
    based on experiments and ideas the Dalai Lama has suggested.
    Sorry for my rant. The whole thing is very upsetting.

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  12. Pingback: neurodudes » Blog Archive » Pro-Dalai Lama petition

  13. I am a computational neuroscientist (modelling spiking neurons) and keenly interested in models of emotion, attention and other neurobiological phenomena. I do agree that inviting the Dalai Lama is a bit controversial, considering his religious and political position. However I do believe that investigation of meditation and its effects on the brain is a legitimate topic for neuroscience study, as are other psychical and so far unexplained phenomena. I have read a book on destructive emotions by Daniel Goleman, author of emotional intelligence, in which he speakes of interviews by a team of scientists with the Dalai lama. It cannot be denied that the Dalai lama has been quite open and encouraging of scientific research on the mind, despite his religious upbringing. The brain and mind has been considered the last frontier of science, and Eastern religions (esp. Buddhism) have theories of consciousness, volition etc. which I think would be worthy of examination in the light of scientific findings.

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  14. Pingback: neurodudes » Blog Archive » NYT article on Dalai Lama, SfN controversy

  15. The real issue is political: many Western people have been taught that the Dalai Lama is a sort of freedom fighter. So this controversy is just western propaganda (really!)
    Chinese people don’t care if Dalai Lama is a sort of feudal dictator or not. He is a sort of separarist.

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  16. The increase in body heat is neither new nor even remotely novel. At least some of the allegedly “autonomic” body functions can in fact be brought under mental control. The precise degree such control can be employed is pure speculation and apparently highly individualistic.

    Tons of relevant medical evidence showing that the Human Condition is far less understood than the demi-god wannabes with M.D. after their name. Simply take your heart beat & respiration rate immediately after dreaming you are running away from danger or falling. In “reality” (whatever the Hell that is) you were not running nor falling. Yet, your body reacts on several parameters as if that was the case. The body is primarily concerned with food, sleep, comfort & sex. For discriminating sensory input it relies on the mind. As far as I know, precisely what the mind is continues to be a subject of much debate.

    With regard to your elevated body temp., don’t worry about it. It’s a transitionary phase and you will soon pass through it with your “normal” body core temp returning to baseline. Life is for experiencing, not a vehicle for endless circle jerk intellectual piffle.

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