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Eastern Brains

Probing the partnership between Buddhism and the brain sciences


Click here to watch Anne Harrington on BUniverse. Download available on iTunesU.

Harvard Professor Anne Harringtondiscusses the relationship between neuroscience, cognitive science, andBuddhism in the first lecture of the Religious and PsychologicalWell-Being Project series sponsored by the Center for the Study ofReligion and Psychology at the Danielsen Institute. She recalls a 2005 Society for Neuroscience conference, where the Dalai Lamaspoke on The Neuroscience of Meditation. He talked to the 13,000attendees about his curiosity about the world, his affection forscience, its benefits for happiness and health, and his belief thatscience and Buddhism have a lot of constructive things to say to eachother. Harrington then asks a key question, “What in the world doesTibetan Buddhism have to do with brain science?”

The rest of her talk attempts to answer the question. Harringtontraces the history of U.S. interest in Tibetan Buddhism, talking aboutthe fascination with the eastern brain and transcendental meditationduring the1960s and 1970s counterculture. She refers to the research ofthe University of Wisconsin’s Richard Davidson on the brain functionsof Buddhist monks during long periods of meditation. She touches onstudies done by scientists and neuroscientists over the years, fromRobert Keith Wallace’s research on meditation as a “fourth major stateof consciousness” to the research on stress and its relation to health,in particular cardiac health, of Harvard Medical School’s Herbert Benson.

Many scientists have attempted to study the physiology of advancedmeditation, she says, but it wasn’t until the late 1990s that with thehelp and influence of Buddhist monk and scientist Matthieu Ricard andauthor and scholar Robert Thurman there was progress in the field.Because of America’s love affair with Tibet, because Buddhism isfriendly to science, and because of the encouragement of the DalaiLama, a partnership between Tibetan Buddhism and brain science is notso anomalous as it may first appear, according to Harrington.

About the Speaker:
Anne Harringtonis a professor and chair of the history of science at HarvardUniversity and a Harvard College Professor. She specializes in thehistory of psychiatry, neuroscience, and the other mind sciences. Sheis also Visiting Professor for Medical History at the London School ofEconomics, where she coedits the new journal Biosocieties.

Harrington received her Ph.D. in the history of science from OxfordUniversity and has held postdoctoral fellowships at the WellcomeInstitute for the History of Medicine in London and at the Universityof Freiburg in Germany. Currently she serves on the Board of the Mind and Life Institute, an organization dedicated to cross-cultural dialogue between Buddhism and the sciences.

She is the author of Medicine, Mind and the Double Brain, Reenchanted Science, and The Cure Within: A History of Mind-Body Medicine and has published many articles and several edited collections.


One Comment on Eastern Brains

  • Margot Suettmann on 10.11.2008 at 10:03 pm

    Re: Eastern Brains - Probing the partnership between Buddhism an

    Dear Professor Dr. Harrington,

    I was enjoying the article in BU news which I happened to see at Google about your interest in meditation and the brain and scientific research about it.

    Practising Transcendental Meditation now for over 35 years (I learnt TM in Dec. 1972 during my first year of study at the University of Tuebingen in Germany) I have been taking notice of scientific research on meditation since the first studies were being done, e.g. the Keith Wallace study you were refering to.
    It still IS an exciting field of research as the ability to rise to higher states of consciousness in which cognitive abilities are growing rather than diminishing (which has been discovered to generally affect the ordinary man /woman from quite an early age) giving rise to more profound meditative experiences over the years and this way also the emotions becoming more “field-independent” and stable, established in contentment, is definitely something that is of great practical benefit for everyone – especially also for those who are in charge of decision making and solving problems which affect our global society as such.

    I also think of Wallstreet and Mainstreet managers in this regard. The often these days quoted “greed” and lack of foresight, ego-centeredness and the persuit of short-termed interests at the cost of a stable long-term evolution of our societies and economies is due to a lack of higher consciousness, more expanded cognitive functioning.

    Maharishi Mahesh Yogi spent his life-time to make meditation acceptable in our Western societies and show its scientific basis and value. It was in fact him who urged scientists already early in the 70ies to study the effects of meditation for this reason. (To be precise – if I remember it correctly – it was actually as early as in 1959, when in Sequoia Park Maharishi met with meditating scientists and started to inspire them to look into meditation and study it from a scientific point of view. It was from there that he launched on the plan to do research on TM. One study in Germany I remember to have seen published as early as in 1960 studying the peripheral blood flow and changes in temperature during Transcendental Meditation. Then a British doctor monitored his breath rate during TM and took it to the Lancet, but they said it wasn’t possible and didn’t publish it. And then Dr. Keith Wallace did his ground breaking study, published in Science in 1970, followed by further studies published then in Scientific American in 1972 and so on.) The research branch of meditation is still alive since those early days and becoming more mainstream now which is definitely a very necessary thing to happen as we are transitioning from an information-based to a knowledge-based era according to how many thinkers and writers see it and have acknowledged it.

    Meditation research in fact by now has grown or matured – in part also due to technological advancements, e.g. in the field of brain research – to really deal with the distinctive features of the state of enlightenment, i..e. higher states of consciousness orcognitive functioning, in terms of neurophysiological and physiological parameters (see: Travis F., Arenander F., 2006; Travis F, Arenander A, DuBois D., 2004, Travis F, Tecce, J, Arenander, A, Wallace RK, 2002). Experiences in long-term meditators have also grown since the beginning days and enlightenment has definitely become a concrete reality in the lives of so many advanced meditators, whether in glimpses or alread fully established as a higher, more expanded state of neurophysiological functioning.

    But another aspect has become quite noticed of by now – the importance of meditation for helping to make global peace a permanent reality and as a way to promote more fruitful inter-relations between nations and its value in diffusing ethnic, religious, and social tensions that fuel terrorism, conflict and other untowards negative social tendencies, e.g. the effectiveness of meditation to reduce high levels of the crime rate and trends that harm the quality of life in societies (see scientific research using time series analysis and other sophisticated methods in different intervention studies on groups practicing the advanced programs of the Transcendental Meditation and TM Sidhi program in different crisis ridden regions and on different scales of social life, i.e. on city and metropolitan levels, on state and provincial levels as well as on the national level and influencing international relations in our global family , e.g. Hagelin, J. S., Orme-Johnson, D. W., Rainforth, M., Cavanaugh, K., & Alexander, C. N. (1999); Hatchard, G. D., Deans, A. J., Cavanaugh, K. L., & Orme-Johnson, D. W. (1996); Assimakis, P. D., & Dillbeck, M. C. (1995); Davies, J. L. (1988); Dillbeck, M. C., Banus, C. B., Polanzi, C., & Landrith III, G. S. (1988) and more). .

    Meditation opens the field of unity amidst diversity and this way nourishes the unifying value in social life while supporting the diversity of cultures in the same stroke.

    Maharishi, the founder and promoter of the Transcendental Meditation and its advanced programs, has used the tool of collective meditation several times during very volatile states of world affairs. Find a list below (not totally comprehensive of all of his activities, just indicative of the long history of his activity of using meditation as a tool for social improvement and peace), showing of how meditation has been used since decades to bring more harmony to the family of nations and societies.

    Please excuse deficiencies in my letter due to my lack of mastership of the English language.

    With sincere regards,

    Margot Suettmann, Bremen, Germany

    Some milestones of Maharishi’s global endeavours to secure and make World Peace permanent

    1944: Maharishi helps organize a 10-day Global Yagya performance by 2000 Vedic Pandits with the intention to bring an end to World War II.

    1957: Maharishi states that if one percent of the world’s population practiced the Transcendental Meditation technique, there would be no more war.

    1963: During the Cuban Missile Crisis, Maharishi asks Meditators attending a course on Catalina Island, California, to extend their periods of meditation, helping avert the danger to America and the world.

    1974: The “one-percent effect” or Maharishi Effect, predicted by Maharishi in 1957, is verified by significant crime reductions in cities where one percent of the population has learned the Transcendental Meditation technique.

    1978: Maharishi’s World Peace Project sends 1400 Yogic Flyers to the five most troubled areas of the world to calm the violence through their group practice of the Transcendental Meditation and TM-Sidhi® programs.

    1980: More than 3000 Yogic Flyers assemble in India for the International Vedic Science Course, creating a timely influence of coherence for India and it’s neighbors.

    1983: During a two-month period, 2000 Yogic Flyers gather in the Middle East, reducing war intensity and fatalities in the region.

    1984: During the Taste of Utopia conference in Fairfield, Iowa, 7000 Yogic Flyers create the Global Maharishi Effect, producing a wide range of positive effects worldwide. These positive trends were reversed when the assembly ended.

    1988: 7000 students from the Vedic families of India are assembled at Maharishi Nagar near New Delhi to practice Yogic Flying and perform Vedic Yagyas for peace. During this time, the Berlin Wall falls and the Cold War ends. But when the group cannot be maintained financially, new tensions arise in the world.

    1993: 4000 Yogic Flyers dramatically reduce violent crime in Washington, D.C., during a demonstration project monitored by an independent review board.

    1999: Maharishi Universities of World Peace are founded for every time zone to maintain a wave of coherence circling the globe.

    2000: Maharishi establishes the Global Country of World Peace to open the world of Unity Consciousness to people of every nation.

    2001: Maharishi warns the U.S. government against taking the “path of failure” by responding to terrorism with violence, and offers permanent world peace to every nation through 40,000 Yogic Flying Vedic Pandits in India

    2006: There are Katyusha rockets falling in villages and towns all around them, but for the squadron of 30 Israeli Yogic Flyers assembled at a hotel in Israel all is quiet. That’s because they have managed to create a shield of invincibility around their gathering place. Now they are calling for another 235 Flyers to come and join them to create a shield that would, they say, cover all of Israel.

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