Cambridge (Massachusetts): For Americans seeking to improve their health, the US surgeon general advises putting aside one hour, several times a week, for “compassionate” meditation and the elimination of destructive emotions.
Actually, he doesn’t. He prescribes 60 minutes of physical exercise. But noted molecular biologist Eric Lander, a leader of the Human Genome Project, believes the change is coming.
“It is certainly not inconceivable that 20 years from now, the US surgeon general might recommend 60 minutes of mental exercise five times a week,” Lander told a conference of renowned scientists and Buddhist scholars at the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) this weekend.
Such a prediction from a man of Lander’s stature at a venue like MIT is an indication of mainstream science’s growing fascination with Buddhism, and especially with the preliminary but extraordinary results of state-of-the-art research into the Olympian mental athleticism of trained Buddhist monks.
Some of the data presented at the conference — attended by Tibet’s spiritual leader the Dalai Lama — pointed not only to attention spans that would make an air-traffic controller weep with envy, but also meditation techniques that could actually “re-wire” the brain’s neural pathways.
In the age of Prozac, the possible applications could leave mood-altering pills on the shelf.
Harvard-trained neuroscientist Richard Davidson showed brain-scan images of a monk who was able to push levels of activity in his left, prefrontal cortex — a part of the brain associated with positive emotions — “off the chart” by using a technique known as compassion meditation.
In a different meditative state, the same monk could do what, until then, had been thought to be impossible and suppress the “startle reflex” — the involuntary response to a loud, sudden noise like a gunshot.
Paul Ekman, one of the world’s most eminent experts on the science of emotion, described the monk’s level of control as a “spectacular accomplishment.”
“We’ve never found anyone who can do that,” Ekman said. “We don’t have any idea of the anatomy that would allow him to suppress the startle reflex.”
Another test showed advanced meditators to be capable of startlingly high speeds of cognition, correctly identifying the moods behind a series of facial expressions flashed onto a screen for just one-thirtieth of a second.
They scored far higher than groups previously identified as the best performers, such as psychiatrists, customs officials and Secret Service agents.
Alan Wallace, a former monk and president of the Institute for the Interdisciplinary Study of Consciousness in Santa Barbara, believes Buddhist practices aimed at improving emotional and cognitive balance could be powerful tools, and not just in treating depression and mental illness.
“I see no reason why some of these techniques could not be introduced into the school system,” Wallace said.
“People will do better in education and a myriad of professions because they are happier, more balanced and more attentive,” he added. “It’s a win-win situation. Not having that in the educational system is a disaster.”
One obvious problem raised by several of the scientists at the conference was that the monks involved in the studies had honed their mental skills over the best part of a lifetime, putting in tens of thousands of hours of meditation.
“It’s a wonderful achievement, but if it takes 15 years, it’s not going to help most folks,” said Daniel Gilbert, a professor of psychology at Harvard University.
“I would be very surprised if there’s a short-cut that could be developed; a sort of Buddhist pill that one could take and achieve all the same benefits,” Gilbert said.
Another objection comes from those who believe there may be a price to pay in the Buddhist practise of reducing or eliminating negative or “afflictive” emotions, in favour of their positive counterparts.
One argument suggests some of the emotions that fall in the negative camp — such as anger or fear — are important for survival and can have positive consequences.
“Martin Luther King was an angry man and a lot of good things came from his anger,” Gilbert said.
“And evolutionary biologists have a word for animals that don’t experience fear. It’s called ‘dinner’,” he added.