In one sense, Buddhism can be seen as what Religion's Robert Thurman has called an "inner science," applying sophisticated methods to probe the nature of the mind. Buddhist monastic scholars and practitioners have used exacting methods to analyze centuries of cumulative investigations.
This inner science has been until lately little-known among Western scientists, and few opportunities have existed for the two bodies of expertise on the mind -- Buddhist and Western -- to collaborate. At the urging of the Dalai Lama, and with his active participation, that gap has been closing, as a growing circle of investigators within cognitive science, neuroscience, psychology and medicine have engaged Buddhist thought and methods.
Overcoming skepticism about the subjectivity of using the mind to investigate the mind, biobehavioral scientists have begun to recognize that introspective methods can complement state-of-the-art methods such as brain imaging. Richard Davidson, director of the Laboratory for Affective Neuroscience at the University of Wisconsin, has been at the forefront of this active collaboration with Buddhist practitioners.
In a symposium on Tuesday, January 28, at 5:30 p.m., Davidson will report on an ongoing program of research on neuroplasticity, exploring the extent to which the systematic and sustained mind training found within Buddhism may reshape the brain. With the Dalai Lama's help, Davidson's laboratory has been studying highly trained Tibetan lamas. Early results suggest, for example, that during the generation of compassion, brain regions are activated that previously have been linked to positive affect -- enthusiasm, positive engagement, and a sense of purpose in life -- and well being. Other results, with beginners, suggest that mindfulness meditation may shift the neural setpoint for moods toward the positive range.
Goleman, whose recent book "Destructive Emotions: How Can We Overcome Them?" chronicles this research and the dialogue with the Dalai Lama that catalyzed it, will report on findings from other laboratories, and their implications for the assumptions that underlie psychological theory. These findings may prove of compelling importance in what they say about our ability to train important attributes of attention, cognition and affect which have until now been little-studied in psychology or cognitive science.
Thurman, who holds the first endowed chair in Buddhist Studies in the West, the Jey Tsong Khapa Chair in Indo-Tibetan Buddhist Studies at Columbia, will engage this data from the perspective of Tibetan Buddhist inner science, suggesting avenues for future research. Having studied for almost 30 years as a personal student of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Thurman's special interest is the exploration of the Indo-Tibetan philosophical and psychological traditions, with a view to their relevance to parallel currents of contemporary thought and science.
The Center for the Study of Science and Religion (CSSR) at Columbia presents the symposium, "Destructive Emotions: Neuroscience, Psychology, and Buddhism," as the first in its 2003 Seminar Series, an annual academic seminar series that addresses topics at the intersection of science and religion. The event will be held on Tuesday, January 28, at 5:30 p.m., in the Davis Auditorium of the Schapiro Center. for a complete list of CSSR's 2003 seminars.