A meeting of the minds
Buddhists and behavioral scientists compare notes on the workings of the mind
| 05 November 2003
Recently, the Dalai Lama, leader of Tibetan Buddhism, joined 23 scientists, academics and Buddhist scholars from around the world for two extraordinary days of presentation and dialogue at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge, Mass.
The conference, “Investigating the Mind: Exchanges Between Buddhism and Biobehavioral Science on How the Mind Works,” sought to identify common ground between two powerful empirical traditions — Tibetan Buddhism and biobehavioral science. Topics discussed by the panels included attention and cognitive control, emotion, and mental imagery.
Among the scholars invited was Dacher Keltner, a Berkeley professor of psychology and co-director of the campus’s Center for the Development of Peace and Well-being. The Dalai Lama participated in all sessions, and Keltner was part of a panel of nine for the discussion on emotion.
The Office of Public Affairs asked Keltner about his experiences at the conference and with the Dalai Lama.
What was it like sharing the stage with the Dalai Lama?
It was truly amazing. I’ve always been an admirer of Buddhism, the Dalai Lama, and the message he conveys, but meeting him in person was an incredible experience. What was most striking was the utter humanity of the man — he was very playful, very funny, but he took the conference’s intellectual message very seriously. When you meet him, there’s this strong sense of connection. He is full of deep affection. I felt that as well with the monks who work with him. Some of them have been studying with him for 25 years.
Tell us about the session on emotion.
The Dalai Lama and his followers have three big ideas surrounding emotion.
First, as you undertake your meditation, your breathing exercises, you become free of your emotions. It’s an interesting concept, and one about which I think they are probably right.
Second, they don’t see any role for anger. They even believe if someone is victimizing you, that person is an object of compassion because he or she is misguided.
Third, the Dalai Lama believes that compassion is at the core of human nature. This is an unpopular view in western thought. Westerners generally believe that we are selfish by design, and that compassion is a social construct. In our panel, Richard Davidson [director of the Laboratory for Affective Neuroscience at the University of Wisconsin] presented information about his study with Buddhist monks. He found you can startle a Buddhist monk, and he won’t show the startle response, and that was unimaginable. The startle response is more like a reflex — it goes into the brain stem. But with the monks, he reported, there was no facial response, no heart-rate response. He also studied their brains when they were meditating on compassion. A monk’s brain response is qualitatively different than other people’s. There is less hemispheric difference, as opposed to you or I, who would show more activity in the left hemisphere. They are different human beings. And when you are around them, you really feel it. You really feel like these guys are arriving at some states we may never feel here in the West.
How do you think studying these monks and Buddhism will affect your research and the field in general?
I think one of the things that’s happening in psychology right now is that we are turning to other cultures for hypotheses about human nature, and this is really the flowering of cultural psychology. You have someone like [Associate Professor of Psychology] Kaipeng Peng in our department, who has taken a close look at how East Asians think about the mind and how they think about social reality. Coming out of Daoism and Confucianism are other ways of looking at human nature. There’s really no stable self: we are a product of our human situations, and multiple truths, even contradictory ones, can be plausible. He is showing that is true of East Asians, and even some European Americans think that way. That is a new, novel insight about human nature.
For me, the Dalai Lama’s theme that rings out very loudly is that humans are compassionate, and happiness and peace are found in doing things for other people. That turns our basic assumptions on their heads, and our lab is very interested in that orientation. What is the biology of compassion? What are its nonverbal characteristics? Does it make you healthier? More generally, who are these people in our own culture who really feel this pronounced commitment to other people? What are their lives like? We know that being happy makes you live longer, and I bet you it’s the compassion component that adds to that effect.
What did you take away from this conference?
That one person can have an effect on so many people is remarkable. It’s interesting how his work dovetails with what many behavioral scientists are doing. I think there is such a powerful response to [the Dalai Lama] right now. A lot of what we do, as humans, is about building up our material and physical well-being. It’s very physical and materialistic. We devote little time to spiritual matters and being good to other people. But in the well-being literature, through rigorous science, we’re finding it’s not your salary, it’s not how big your house is, it’s not fluctuation of the stock market or levels of inflation that influence happiness, it’s how good your relationships are. Once you’re out of poverty, those findings hold. When you’re not meeting your basic needs, it’s a different story.
What type of studies are you working on now at the Center for the Development of Peace and Well-Being?
We have a lot of work coming out on compassion and gratitude and benevolent emotions. We’re studying whether compassion has the same neuroscientific correlative as love. We’re studying how we can communicate compassion through touch; we’re looking at signals in the face. This is all part of building an evolutionary science of compassion. It can look at reshaping how we look at human evolution — that part of our design is to help others.
Anything you’d like to add about your experience at the MIT conference?
We’re learning that positive emotions involve neural structures that are more mutable and subject to change. The preliminary evidence suggests that our propensity for positive emotion is inherited, but less so than negative emotions. That’s an amazing message: you can cultivate these things. If you’re 65, and you suddenly have this insight about life, you probably can shift gears. That’s what the Dalai Lama is trying to teach us.
For information about Berkeley’s Center for the Development of Peace and Well-Being, visit ihd.berkeley.edu/newspeace.htm.