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Buddhists, Neuroscientists Come to a Meeting of the Minds
Thupten Jinpa, Tibetan Buddhist scholar and translator for His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama. (Todd Cheney/UCLA Photo)

Buddhists, Neuroscientists Come to a Meeting of the Minds

The symposium brought researchers from UCLA’s Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior together with eminent Buddhist scholars for a two-hour conversation about their distinctive yet complementary understandings of compassion, creativity, mental flexibility and attention, as well as the role mindfulness meditation may play in cultivating these qualities.

Neuroscientist Susan Bookheimer studies the brain mechanisms behind empathy.

Neuroscientist Susan Bookheimer studies the brain mechanisms behind empathy.

By Judy Lin for UCLA Today

For UCLA neuropsychologist Susan Bookheimer, research shows that the human brain comes wired for empathy — we "feel" another person’s physical or emotional pain via our brain’s mirror neuron system, which sends electrochemical messages that stimulate pain centers in our own cerebral cortex when we witness another person’s suffering.

For Buddhist scholar Robert Thurman, Buddhist practices going back thousands of years associate compassion with our sense of personal identity and our connection to others. The more agile and flexible our sense of self, the more open and empathic we are with fellow travelers in this human incarnation.

Robert Buswell, director of the Center for Buddhist Studies.

Robert Buswell, director of the Center for Buddhist Studies.

Both perspectives found voice at "Buddhism and Neuroscience: a Discussion on Attention, Mental Flexibility and Compassion" at Royce Hall on May 2, sponsored by the Center for Buddhist Studies, the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior, and the International Institute. The symposium brought researchers from UCLA’s Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior together with eminent Buddhist scholars for a two-hour conversation about their distinctive yet complementary understanding of compassion, creativity, mental flexibility and attention, as well as the role mindfulness meditation may play in cultivating these qualities.

Sitting mid-stage as moderator between the two groups was Semel Institute Director Dr. Peter Whybrow. "You could think of it as the contemplative side (Buddhism) of the human brain and the empirical side (neuroscience)," he said. "Subjective and objective awareness come together in mindfulness."

From UCLA neuroscience were Bookheimer, Joaquin Fuster Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience; research psychologist Lobsang Rapgay, director of the clinical training program for mental health professionals at the Mindfulness Awareness Research Center; and Robert Bilder, the Michael E. Tennenbaum Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences and Psychology.

Research psychologist Lobsang Rapgay.

Research psychologist Lobsang Rapgay.

Representing the Buddhist perspective were UCLA Distinguished Professor Robert Buswell, director of the Center for Buddhist Studies; Columbia University’s Robert Thurman, the Je Tsongkhapa Professor of Indo-Tibetan Buddhist Studies; and Thupten Jinpa, a Tibetan Buddhist scholar and translator to His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama.

The Dalai Lama was originally set to attend the symposium, but he cancelled due to illness. Having a longtime interest in the convergence of spirituality and science, he has written, "I am convinced that a close collaboration between our two investigative traditions, Buddhism and science, can contribute significantly to developing an understanding of the complex inner world of subjective experience that we call the mind."

Bookheimer’s research on the brain’s hard-wiring for empathy and compassion has uncovered some troublesome findings: The ability to feel for others can be short-circuited in people who experience an overload of pain or other negative input.

"The brain is really an instrument of balance," Bookheimer said, "between emotional arousal and control." If, for example, a person repeatedly experiences situations that provoke fear, the brain protects itself by suppressing response. Over time, such a person becomes less sensitive to feelings – one’s own as well as those of others.

Robert Thurman, Buddhist scholar at Columbia University.

Robert Thurman, Buddhist scholar at Columbia University.

Meditation can help with this, said Thurman, by challenging the suppressive mechanisms and allowing the more discretional aspects of the brain to express themselves — in short, changing habits of mind. In Buddhism, he said, "The role of the mind is so important … in creating the brain."

Psychologist Rapgay, who was a Tibetan Buddhist monk for 18 years, has been exploring the therapeutic value of mindfulness for the relief of anxiety. Many of us, Rapgay said, have the mental habit of placing our "selective attention" on insidious worries like finances or health problems — worries that, in many cases, are more imaginary than imminent.

In anxiety," Rapgay said, "we narrow our focus on the perceived threat. The visual-processing portion of our brain focuses on the threat and sends signals to the amygdala, our brain’s ‘fight or flight’ response center."

Training the mind to broaden that narrow focus can help relieve anxiety, but no western therapies accomplish this, said Rapgay. He is exploring solutions in classical forms of mindfulness meditation, referring to ancient texts in which the Buddha taught the discipline of controlling attention.

Bilder, in his studies of creativity, examines what he calls the "action-perception cycle," a pattern of brain waves that cycle through every 300 to 400 milleseconds. "Creativity is at the edge of chaos," he explained, describing how this cycle occurs over and over again as a person perceives and processes new information and decides what new action, if any, to take in response. This creative process is a dualistic balance between novelty and utility, flexibility and stability — a duality, he noted, that has been illustrated throughout the ages in such concepts as the Taoist principle of yin yang.

Bilder’s concept of duality, said Buddhist scholar Jinpa, reminds him of the Dalai Lama’s teachings on two types of meditation practices: stabilizing meditation, which trains the mind to be calm and steadfast, and discursive meditation, which trains the mind to see things from different angles. Both mental disciplines come into play in creativity, he said. "Without stability, you don’t have the ability to apply your mind. But (if you are) too stable, you don’t have creativity, because creativity requires an ability to see things from a more impersonal perspective."

Dr. Peter Whybrow, director of the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior.

Dr. Peter Whybrow, director of the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior.

Buswell added that one form of discursive meditation is "something we would call visualization, where the person has realized that all structures of attention are in some sense relationally created, and there is no exact rigid thing." Using visualization, he said, "a person can creatively conceptualize a new type of self-image," the same way athletes will visualize a complex physical movement to prepare for competition.

"Many of the qualities of mind that we seek," said Jinpa, "can be harnessed through deliberate cultivation." Meditation can help us cultivate a new way of thinking or being and can also help us unlearn patterns that no longer serve us. Neuroscientists describe this, Jinpa noted, in the concept of "neuroplasticity," the brain's lifelong ability to reorganize itself by forming new neural connections as a result of new experience.

"Buddha didn’t have a clue about the brain," Jinpa said, "but he did have some understanding of how the process of transformation occurs."