Plan for Dalai Lama lecture angers neuroscientists

David Adam, science correspondent
Wednesday July 27, 2005

The Dalai Lama is at the centre of an unholy row among scientists 
over his plans to deliver a lecture at a prominent neuroscience 

His talk stems from a growing interest in how Buddhist meditation may 
affect the brain, but researchers who dismiss such studies as little 
more than mumbo-jumbo say they will boycott the Society for 
Neuroscience annual meeting in November if it goes ahead.

Jianguo Gu, a neuroscientist at the University of Florida who has 
helped to organise a petition against the Dalai Lama's lecture, said: 
"I don't think it's appropriate to have a prominent religious leader 
at a scientific event.

"The Dalai Lama basically says the body and mind can be separated and 
passed to other people. There are no scientific grounds for that. 
We'll be talking about cells and molecules and he's going to talk 
about something that isn't there."

Dr Gu and many of the scientists who initiated the protest are of 
Chinese origin, but say their concern are not related to politics. 
The Dalai Lama has lived in exile in India since he fled Chinese 
troops in Tibet in 1959.

"I'm not against Buddhism," said Dr Gu, who has cancelled his own 
presentation at the meeting. "People believe what they believe but I 
think it will just confuse things."

The Dalai Lama has long had an interest in science and once said that 
if he had not been a monk he would have been an engineer. Over the 
past decade he has encouraged western neuroscientists to study the 
effects of Buddhist meditation, originally through meetings at his 
home and more recently by attending conferences at major US 

Buddhist monks typically spend hours in meditation each day, a 
practice they say enhances their powers of concentration.

Trained meditators claim to be able to hold their attention on a 
single object for hours at a time without distraction, or to shift 
attention as many as 17 times in the time it takes to snap your 

Both claims go against current scientific thinking, which says 
attention cannot be held as long or switched so quickly, and some 
neuroscientists have started investigating whether they have a 
biological basis. Some believe the monks' skills could be down to 
plasticity, the ability of even fully formed adult mammalian brains 
to change and adapt.

The research peaked in November last year when a team led by Richard 
Davidson, a psychologist at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, 
published research in the US journal Proceedings of the National 
Academy of Sciences that suggested networks of brain cells were 
better coordinated in people who were trained in meditation.

The scientists included Matthieu Ricard, a Buddhist monk at the 
Shechenm monastery in Nepal, who has a PhD in molecular biology from 
the Pasteur Institute in Paris. They said the brain differences they 
observed might explain the heightened awareness reported by 
meditating monks.

Mr Davidson helped to arrange the Dalai Lama's talk at the 
neuroscience conference, which is the first in a series billed as 
dialogues between neuroscience and society.

The protesters say the team's research is flawed because it compared 
monks in their 30s and 40s with much younger university students.

Their petition reads: "Inviting the Dalai Lama to lecture on 
neuroscience of meditation is of poor scientific taste because it 
will highlight a subject with hyperbolic claims, limited research and 
compromised scientific rigour."

It compares the lecture to inviting the Pope to talk about "the 
relationship between the fear of God and the amygdala [part of the 
brain]" and adds "it could be a slippery road if neuroscientists 
begin to blur the border between science and religious practices".

Carol Barnes, the president of the Society for Neuroscience, said: 
"The Dalai Lama has had a long interest in science and has maintained 
an ongoing dialogue with leading neuroscientists for more than 15 
years, which is the reason he was invited to speak at the meeting. It 
has been agreed that the talk will not be about religion or politics.

"We understand that not every member will agree with every decision 
and we respect their right to disagree."