[Paleopsych] CHE: In the Lab With the Dalai Lama

Todd I. Stark thrst4knw at aol.com
Tue Jan 10 02:46:23 UTC 2006

I think of Kuhn visiting us in spirit when I hear stories like this. 
That is, I suspect that the main problem is that it is very hard for 
experimentalists to understand each other when they study the same 
domain from such different perspectives.  This seems to parallel a lot 
of the flutter of "science wars" that largely dissolve the more closely 
you look at them (mostly because you discover people addressing 
different things).

People who get their hands dirty playing with the tools and methods of 
experimental science often come away with different ways of thinking 
about their topics depending on the tools they are using.  And different 
from people who view theories without doing experimental work. 
Experimentalists have by neccessity a realist sense of the specific 
things they use in their experiments, because they rely on them in their 
daily work and build on them and engineer with them to create new 
experimental situations.

Hence, experimentalists studying meditation are often going to take a 
lot of things about meditation for granted that theorists (who are 
mostly trying to interpret the data) and other experimentalists are 
going to view with skepticism.   It makes no sense to be skeptical of 
the very concept of meditation when you are taking as your goal to study 
its effects.

If you define the object of study as meditators and take it for granted 
that they have something special in common, then you will be much more 
willing to step into the culture of meditators than someone who is for 
example wondering whether meditation is "just relaxation" or "just 
self-hypnosis" and so on.

A similar culture gap resulted in very different ways of looking at 
hypnosis at one time (e.g. the "state" vs. "non-state" models), although 
in that case it was more like two different communities of experimenters 
than experimenters and theorists.  Some experimenters for a long time 
assumed rom our historical and popular culture understanding there was a 
hypnotic state and that their goal was to discover its properties and 
what made it special.  Ernest Hilgard famously defined the "domain of 
hypnotic phenomena" that needed to be studied.  Others like Nicholas 
Spanos and Theodore Sarbin assumed instead that there was no such state 
and rather constructed experiments to try to demonstrate the same 
behavioral results in other ways.  The non-state model led to an 
enormous amount of productive results that went way beyond just the 
situation of hypnosis. It led to general new and evolving theoretical 
constructs like "role taking," "suggestion," "fantasy proneness," 
"amnesia proneness" and "imaginative involvement" that rendered the 
older state view (almost) obsolete except for convenient shorthand.  For 
example when we choose an experimental subject for their imaginative 
talents and suggestibility and then set their expectations in an 
experimental condition, it is still common to speak in shorthand of 
"hypnotizing" them, even though it is the experimental protocol that we 
are referring to more than some special state of mind.  "Relaxation" 
doesn't cover it adequately.

"Meditation" involves similar problems with a vengeance, since it is far 
more diverse in its forms and traditions and has some enormous and 
influential lobbies that dwarf the "hypnotists" and "hypnotherapists." 
The way we study it has a big impact on what sorts of assumptions we are 
willing to make.  It is probably unavoidable that some people will be 
quite willing and feel justified in taking aspects of Buddhist or other 
traditions for granted as part of the domain of their study, while 
others will find these to be absurd trappings and at best irrelevant to 
the real work they feel they want to do.

I think of Herbert Benson as having originally dealt with this in a 
model that said meditation per se was largely irrelevant; that it was a 
simple behavioral response (thus "relaxation response") that could be 
triggered  by simply repeating an arbitrary phrase.  Benson almost 
certainly only captured the part of the story that interested him and 
which he could test and explain.  But it was the right start, a narrow 
but workable scientific model for studying phenomena that are typically 
captured more in poetry and autophenomenology than in scientific terms.

Now we have a broader understanding and more sophisticated models of the 
global psychological processes involved in meditation and other sorts of 
conditions (for example, see Austin's wonderful "Zen and the Brain"), 
but we still sometimes differ on the proper way to conceptuallize 
meditation, and whether it can be removed from its cultural trappings 
and still be the same object of study.

Not that any of this justifies bad behavior or sneering contempt on 
anyone's part, just by way of an attempt at partial explanation.

kind regards,


Buck, Ross wrote on 1/9/2006, 10:29 AM:

 > Herbert Benson in "The Relaxation Response" suggested decades ago that
 > disciplines such as meditation and prayer share the quality of promoting
 > deep relaxation, which has the opposite effects of the fight-or-flight
 > response.  That is, they lower autonomic and endocrine arousal, and
 > promote immune system functioning.
 > Cheers, Ross Buck
 > Ross Buck, Ph. D.
 > Professor of Communication Sciences
 >     and Psychology
 > Communication Sciences U-1085
 > University of Connecticut
 > Storrs, CT 06269-1085
 > 860-486-4494
 > fax  860-486-5422
 > Ross.buck at uconn.edu
 > http://www.coms.uconn.edu/docs/people/faculty/rbuck/index.htm
 > -----Original Message-----
 > From: paleopsych-bounces at paleopsych.org
 > [mailto:paleopsych-bounces at paleopsych.org] On Behalf Of Premise Checker
 > Sent: Friday, January 06, 2006 1:03 PM
 > To: paleopsych at paleopsych.org
 > Subject: [Paleopsych] CHE: In the Lab With the Dalai Lama
 > In the Lab With the Dalai Lama
 > The Chronicle of Higher Education, 5.12.16
 > http://chronicle.com/weekly/v52/i17/17b01001.htm
 >     Even the Dalai Lama's harshest critics at the Society for
 >     Neuroscience meeting last month, in Washington, would have
 >     to concede this much: Choosing the exiled Tibetan Buddhist
 >     leader to inaugurate the professional association's series
 >     on neuroscience and society certainly got people talking.
 >     Who would have thought that an announced lecture on "The
 >     Neuroscience of Meditation" would set off a protest petition
 >     gathering about 1,000 signatures, a counterpetition of
 >     support boasting nearly as many names, substantial coverage
 >     in The New York Times and on National Public Radio, as well
 >     as ample chatter in the blogosphere? In a culture that likes
 >     its battles between science and religion to be loud,
 >     colorful, and Christian -- another nasty squabble, say,
 >     between evolutionists and creationists -- this controversy
 >     seemed unlikely to gain much traction. Yet as the dispute
 >     built momentum in the months leading up to the event, it
 >     soon became clear that the prospect of the red-robed Dalai
 >     Lama's urging the study of an ancient spiritual practice
 >     upon white-coated lab scientists would provide a newsworthy
 >     angle on the usual wrangling.
 >     Playing upon tensions far less noticed than those that have
 >     plagued relations between science and conservative
 >     Christianity, the latest dust-up reveals the spirit wars
 >     that divide the knowledge class itself. How purely secular
 >     and naturalistic do the members of that class imagine
 >     themselves to be, and how committed are they to keeping
 >     religion at bay in their conference gatherings, university
 >     laboratories, civic institutions, newsrooms, and think
 >     tanks? In turn, is "spirituality" a back door through which
 >     religion gets to enter the conversation, now dressed in the
 >     suitably neutralized garb of meditation as a universalistic
 >     practice of inward peace and outreaching compassion? Or does
 >     religion, even when soft-peddled in the cosmopolitan
 >     language of spirituality and the contemplative mind,
 >     inevitably remain an embarrassment to those elites who stake
 >     their authority on secular rationality? The dispute roiling
 >     the neuroscience society over the past six months has
 >     brought such questions front and center.
 >     Inviting the Dalai Lama to speak at the meeting created two
 >     major border disputes. The first, of modest consequence to
 >     religion-and-science debates, was the conflict over the
 >     "political agenda" of the exiled Tibetan leader. In an
 >     international professional association that includes many
 >     Chinese scientists, some members were offended at the
 >     implied endorsement that the event gave to the Dalai Lama's
 >     larger cause of freedom for Tibetans. The second dispute,
 >     more insistently debated, was over religion's showing up --
 >     so visibly, to boot -- at an annual meeting of
 >     neuroscientists. The almost visceral response by critics was
 >     to declare a total separation of religion and science, to
 >     wave the flag for the late-19th-century warfare between the
 >     two domains. "A science conference is not [an] appropriate
 >     venue for a religion-based presentation," a professor of
 >     anesthesia from the University of California at San
 >     Francisco remarked on the petition. "Who's next, the pope?"
 >     That sign-off question pointed to a second part of the
 >     strict separationist logic: Even if the Dalai Lama seemed
 >     pretty irenic as religious leaders go, he nonetheless
 >     represented a slippery slope into a mire of superstition and
 >     authoritarianism. (How else, some critics asked, were they
 >     to interpret his known affinities with reincarnation and
 >     monasticism?) "Today, the Dalai Lama; Tomorrow,
 >     Creationists?" wrote a professor of medicine at the
 >     University of Toronto, capturing perhaps the most
 >     commonplace anxiety given voice among the critics. Keep the
 >     society free of all religious discussion, or else the
 >     esteemed body might slide into the hell of a Kansas
 >     school-board meeting.
 >     More interesting than the purists' boundary monitoring is
 >     the way the Dalai Lama and his defenders imagine through
 >     meditation an emerging meeting point for science and
 >     religion in contemporary culture. The headline study that
 >     served as the immediate source of intrigue surrounding his
 >     recent lecture was an article published last year in the
 >     Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and produced
 >     by researchers at the Waisman Laboratory for Brain Imaging
 >     and Behavior, at the University of Wisconsin at Madison.
 >     That group, led by the psychology professor Richard J.
 >     Davidson, has been studying long-term Tibetan Buddhist
 >     practitioners of meditation, comparing their brain-wave
 >     patterns with those of a control group. Davidson himself has
 >     been working in the science-religion borderlands for more
 >     than two decades and has been a leading collaborator with
 >     the Mind and Life Institute, in Boulder, Colo., one of the
 >     principal organizations encouraging the
 >     neuroscience-meditation dialogue.
 >     Shifting the focus of research from altered states of
 >     consciousness or momentary experiences of ecstasy, which so
 >     often concerned inquirers in the 1960s and 1970s, the
 >     Davidson group has been looking for evidence that sustained
 >     meditation causes actual neural changes in everyday patterns
 >     of cognition and emotion. In other words, they want to know
 >     if the brain function of long-term contemplatives is made
 >     demonstrably different through years of "mental training."
 >     And not just different, but better: That is, does the
 >     well-developed meditative mind sustain higher levels of
 >     compassion and calmness than the run-of-the-mill American
 >     noggin? Well, after testing eight long-time Tibetan Buddhist
 >     practitioners and 10 "healthy student volunteers," the
 >     researchers discovered that the 10,000 to 50,000 hours that
 >     the various monks had devoted to "mental training" appeared
 >     to make a real neurological difference. As the study's title
 >     put it, "Long-term meditators self-induce high-amplitude
 >     gamma synchrony during mental practice." Davidson and
 >     company, careful not to overreach in their conclusions, did
 >     suggest that practices of meditation, and the accompanying
 >     compassionate affect, were "flexible skills that can be
 >     trained." Did that mean contemplative practice could be
 >     abstracted from its religious context and then applied as a
 >     kind of public pedagogy? Were hopeful supporters wrong to
 >     read this as a tantalizing suggestion that meditation might
 >     prove beneficial not only for the mental health of Americans
 >     but also for the very fabric of society? Where, after all,
 >     couldn't we benefit from a little more "pure compassion,"
 >     altruism, lovingkindness, and "calm abiding"?
 >     As novel as it may sound to monitor the brain waves of
 >     Tibetan Buddhist monks in university laboratories or on
 >     Himalayan hillsides (Davidson has done both), it is
 >     certainly not the first time that American psychologists
 >     have sought to re-engage the spiritual through the
 >     healthy-mindedness of meditation. At Wisconsin, Davidson
 >     occupies a research professorship named for Harvard's
 >     William James, the pioneering psychologist, psychical
 >     researcher, and philosopher of religion, and it is in the
 >     tradition of James that the current turn to the
 >     contemplative mind is best understood. Counter to the
 >     popular image of Americans as endlessly enterprising,
 >     agitated, and restless -- all busy Marthas, no reflective
 >     Marys -- James discerned a deep mystical cast to the
 >     American psyche and pursued that strain with uncommon
 >     intellectual devotion. Yet when it came to "methodical
 >     meditation," James saw little of it left among American
 >     Christians and turned instead to homegrown practitioners of
 >     various mind-over-matter cures. He particularly accented
 >     those "New Thought" metaphysicians who were pushing forward
 >     a dialogue with far-flung emissaries of yoga and Buddhist
 >     meditation in the wake of the World's Parliament of
 >     Religions, held in Chicago in 1893.
 >     Among James's favored practitioners of these newly
 >     improvised regimens of meditation was Ralph Waldo Trine, a
 >     Boston-based reformer with a knack for inspirational
 >     writing. In The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902),
 >     James used Trine's blockbuster In Tune With the Infinite
 >     (1897) as an epitome of the emergent practices of
 >     concentration, mental repose, and healthy-mindedness then
 >     percolating in New England and elsewhere across the country.
 >     Though an unabashed popularizer, Trine was not a
 >     lightweight. With an educational pedigree that ran from Knox
 >     College to the University of Wisconsin to the Johns Hopkins
 >     University, he moved easily in Harvard's wider metaphysical
 >     circles and energetically engaged various progressive
 >     causes. In much the same way that current studies promote
 >     the clinical applications of meditation, Trine emphasized
 >     the healthful benefits that accrued from cultivating a calm
 >     yet expectant mind. He had no scanners or electrodes, but he
 >     had the same hopes about improving the mental and physical
 >     health of Americans through elaborating a universal practice
 >     of meditation, one that transcended the particulars of any
 >     one religious tradition and represented a kind of
 >     cosmopolitan composite of all faiths. And while Trine did
 >     not have the Dalai Lama at hand, he did have extended
 >     contact with a well-traveled Sinhalese Buddhist monk,
 >     Anagarika Dharmapala, with whom he compared notes and
 >     devotional habits at a summer colony in Maine as he was
 >     putting together his own system of meditation for Americans.
 >     Like other inquirers then and now, Trine was all too ready
 >     to look to Asia for a practical antidote to American
 >     nervousness.
 >     The real payoff for Trine, as it is for Davidson and his
 >     colleagues, was not established simply through a calculus of
 >     productivity or cheerfulness: Would encouraging meditation
 >     or other visualization techniques make people more alert and
 >     proficient at the office or on the playing field? Would it
 >     make them feel happier and less disgruntled? Trine, like
 >     James and now Davidson, was finally more interested in
 >     saintliness and compassion than in helping stressed-out
 >     brain workers relax and concentrate. It is hard not to hear
 >     a hint of Davidson's pursuit of altruism in Trine's "spirit
 >     of infinite love," the moral imperative to "care for the
 >     weak and defenseless." And it is hard not to see that the
 >     world of William James and Ralph Waldo Trine is alive and
 >     well as American investigators wire up Tibetan Buddhist
 >     hermits in a search for the powers of the concentrated mind,
 >     the mental disciplines of harmony, compassion, and peace
 >     that might make the world a marginally kinder, less selfish
 >     place. That optimism about human nature -- that the mind has
 >     deep reservoirs of potential for empathy and altruism -- had
 >     a lot more backing among liberals and progressives in 1900
 >     than it does today. Still, the considerable hopes now
 >     invested in meditation suggest that the old romantic
 >     aspirations, spiritual and otherwise, continue to flourish,
 >     especially among members of the mind-preoccupied knowledge
 >     class.
 >     P erhaps the most important dimension of the Dalai Lama's
 >     turn to the laboratory is the notion that the
 >     religion-science wound will be salved through recasting
 >     religion as spirituality. The Nobel laureate's latest book
 >     explicitly suggests as much in its title, The Universe in a
 >     Single Atom: The Convergence of Science and Spirituality. In
 >     doing so, he expressly appeals to all those Americans who
 >     fear fundamentalist incarnations of religion and who instead
 >     cast themselves as intellectually curious and spiritually
 >     seeking. Religion, on this model, is not a domain of
 >     authority competing with science but an inward terrain of
 >     personal experience and individual probing. Spirituality,
 >     the Dalai Lama writes, "is a human journey into our internal
 >     resources." Representing "the union of wisdom and
 >     compassion," it shares with science a progressive hope for
 >     "the betterment of humanity." In those terms, religion as
 >     spirituality becomes the handmaiden of science itself,
 >     joining it in an open quest for knowledge, empirical and
 >     pragmatic, unconstrained by ancient creeds, cosmologies, or
 >     churches. In such exhortations the Dalai Lama shows a fine,
 >     intuitive feel for much of American intellectual and
 >     religious life, but he is hardly telling today's Emersonian
 >     inquirers something about the universe that they do not
 >     already affirm.
 >     A practice of meditation made palatable to scientists,
 >     secularists, and seekers would no doubt look pallid to all
 >     those monks, hermits, and saints who have taken it to be an
 >     arduous and ascetic discipline. Still, the American pursuit
 >     of "spirituality," reaching a crescendo in the past two
 >     decades, has been all too easy to dismiss as paltry and
 >     unsubstantial, labeled as foreign and threatening to
 >     more-orthodox versions of a Christian America. In this
 >     often-charged religious environment, the Dalai Lama has
 >     astutely laid hold of the science-spirituality nexus as a
 >     cultural foothold. As he has discovered in this latest
 >     brouhaha, that move has hardly lifted him above the wider
 >     debates, whether about materialism or intelligent design,
 >     but it has allowed him to connect with America's more
 >     cosmopolitan and progressive religious impulses. When
 >     William James was asked directly in 1904, "What do you mean
 >     by 'spirituality'?," he replied: "Susceptibility to ideals,
 >     but with a certain freedom to indulge in imagination about
 >     them." In mingling with neuroscientists who have warmed to
 >     his talk of spirituality, the Dalai Lama may well have found
 >     his own avatars of William James.
 >     Leigh E. Schmidt is a professor of religion at Princeton
 >     University and author of Restless Souls: The Making of
 >     American Spirituality (HarperSanFrancisco, 2005).
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