Wednesday, January 25, 2006

More compassionate through meditation?

Apparently the Dalai Lama is a science buff. For some years now he has lend out munks to Richard Davidson, an expert on emotion, who is currently studying what happens when these monks meditate. In 2004 Davidson and his colleagues published a paper in PNAS showing a difference in neural activity in buddhist monks compared to a control group when measured with EEG. Personally, I don't see this as very surprising. Tons of evidence is pointing to the fact that ekspertise in some field correlate with some change to the brain. The big question is: Exactly what kind of change are we talking about? More neurons, different connections, an elevated influx of neurotransmitters, or something else? Unfortunately, EEG can't tell us anything about what is different about the monks' brains. Also, registrering a difference in brain activity doesn't tell us much about putative functional differences. Buddhists claim that they have been able to evolve a more compasionate attittude towards other people through their meditating. Maybe. But it is surely somewhat premature to conclude that meditation actually have such power to make us all more compassionate. Although, of course, it may turn out to be true.

On it's website Wired has a story about the relation between the Lama and Davidson. It also reports on the furore surrounding the Dalai Lama's visit to the Society for Neuroscience conference in November. Get it here.


References

Geirland, J. (2006): Buddha on the Brain. Wired. Issue 14.02.

Lutz, A. et al. (2004). Long-term meditators self-induce high-amplitude synchrony during mental practice. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 101, 16369-16373.

Ekman, P., Davidson, R.J., Ricard, M. & Wallace, B. Alan. Buddhist and psychological perspectives on emotions and well-Being. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 14, 59-63.

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