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The brain of the benevolent

“If science proves some belief of Buddhism wrong, then Buddhism will have to change. In my view, science and Buddhism…

By Kevin Sauve , in Grey matter: A blog about the brain and behaviour , on January 27, 2009 Tags: , , , ,

If science proves some belief of Buddhism wrong, then Buddhism will have to change. In my view, science and Buddhism share a search for the truth and for understanding reality. By learning from science about aspects of reality where its understanding may be more advanced, I believe that Buddhism enriches its own worldview.– Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama

What can neuroscience tell us about the brain of the benevolent? The Dalai Lama is donating $150,000 to Stanford University to find out.

His largest financial contribution to a scientific endeavour was in sponsorship of the Centre for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education (CCARE). Under the direction of neurosurgeon Jim Doty and neurologist William Mobley, this multimillion dollar prject will use brain imaging technology to investigate the neurobiology of altruism.

Jim Doty knows about Altruism. As a former multimillionaire entrapenuer he has donated over $25 million to charity, $5.4 million of which he gifted to Stanford.

His research will test the hypotheses that compassion has a biological basis and that meditation can rewire neural networks to enhance altruistic behaviour.

Research at the University of Wisconsin studying experienced and amateur meditation practitioners has given insight into brain activity during mediation. Using electroencephalography (EEG) they have found that meditation produces high frequency neuronal activity in the prefrontal cortex, an area of the brain associated with positive emotions.

Amateur practitioners demonstrate increasing left prefrontal activity and report increased relaxation and contentment during meditation. Buddhist monks who have extensive practice in meditation show a permanent increase in neuronal activity in this cortex.

Dotty and Mobley suggest that mediation techniques could benefit social health and clinical practice. Understanding how the brain produces compassion during meditation could lead to techniques that could improve clinician’s bedside manner, lower criminal recidivism, and benefit social education in schools.

Although meditation may achieve these results, the benefits of practice take time and patients, something few of us can afford.

Could the research of CCARE lead to the development a compassion drug? Perhaps in the future we will use deep brain stimulation to cure psychopathic and antisocial behaviour.

For the Dalai Lama, his reletively small contribution will be well spent if observing a physical link between mediation, compassion, and happiness can lend credibility to the teachings of Buddhism.

Work in theoretical physics is already beginning to bridge this metaphysical gap.

In Buddhist belief, the cosmos and its components are “empty” of substance and self. Buddhist philosophy suggests that the basic nature of reality is sentience and that the world is ultimately a product of consciousness.

According to quantum physicists, the elementary particles that make up the universe are only packets of energy, nothing more than parcels of probability that float in an ocean of potential. Hence Einstein’s famous equation E=MC2 that suggests that all matter is ultimately energy.

What turns this potential energy into the substantial reality we see? According to some theroretic physicists it is the mind of the observer.

In the mind of both the Buddhist and the physicist, consciousness and the material world are inextricably linked.

I am curious as to whether other members of the scientific community will be as willing to support spiritual endeavors in the name of science in the future.

The religion of the future will be a cosmic religion. It should transcend personal God and avoid dogma and theology. Covering both the natural and the spiritual, it should be based on a religious sense arising from the experience of all things natural and spiritual as a meaningful unity. Buddhism answers this description. If there is any religion that could cope with modern scientific needs it would be Buddhism.” – Albert Einstein