The Buddhist tradition has long pointed out that recognizing and transforming destructive emotions lies at the heart of spiritual practice--indeed, some hold that whatever lessens destructive emotions is spiritual practice. From the perspective of science, these same emotional states pose a perplexing challenge: These are brain responses that have, in part, shaped the human mind, and presumably played a crucial role in human survival. But now, in modern life, they pose grave dangers to our individual and collective fate.
Our meeting [Mind and Life VIII] explored a range of urgent questions about that perennial human predicament, our destructive emotions. Are they a fundamental, unchangeable part of the human legacy? What makes these urges so powerful, leading otherwise rational people to commit acts they later regret? What is the place of such emotions in the evolution of our species--are they essential for human survival? What leverage points might there be for ameliorating their threat to our personal happiness and stability? How much plasticity might there be in the brain, and how might we shift in a more positive direction the very neural systems that harbor destructive impulses? Most important, how can we overcome them?
The Lama in the Lab
Lama Öser strikes most anyone who meets him as resplendent--not because of his maroon and gold Tibetan monk's robes, but because of his radiant smile. Oser, a European-born convert to Buddhism, has trained as a Tibetan monk in the Himalayas for more than three decades, including many years at the side of one of Tibet's greatest spiritual masters.
But today Öser (whose name has been changed here to protect his privacy) is about to take a revolutionary step in the history of the spiritual lineages he has become a part of: He will engage in meditation while having his brain scanned by state-of-the-art brain imaging devices. To be sure, there have been sporadic attempts to study brain activity in meditation, and decades of tests with monks and yogis in Western labs, some revealing remarkable abilities to control respiration, brain waves, or core-body temperature. But this--the first experiment with someone at Öser's level of training, using such sophisticated measures--will take that research to an entirely new level, deeper than ever in charting the specific links between highly disciplined and mental strategies and their impact on brain function. And this research agenda has a pragmatic focus: to assess meditation as mind training, a practical answer to the perennial human conundrum of how we can better handle our destructive emotions.
Medicines are the leading modality in the West for addressing disturbing emotions, and for better or for worse, there is no doubt that mood-altering pills have brought solace to millions. But one compelling question the research with Öser raises is whether a person, through his or her own efforts, can bring about lasting positive changes in brain function that are even more far-reaching than medication in their impact on emotions. And that question, in turn, raises others: For instance, if in fact people can train their minds to overcome destructive emotions, could practical, nonreligious aspects of such training be part of every child's education? Or could such training in emotional self-management be offered to adults, whether or not they were spiritual seekers?
These very questions had been raised over the course of a remarkable five-day dialogue held the year before between the Dalai Lama and a small group of scientists and a philosopher of mind at his private quarters in Dharamsala, India. The research with Öser marked one culmination of several lines of scientific inquiry set in motion during the dialogue. There the Dalai Lama had been a prime mover in inspiring this research: in a real sense, he was an active collaborator in turning the lens of science on the practices of his own spiritual tradition.
It was at the invitation of Richard Davidson, one of the scientists who participated in the Dharamsala dialogues, that Öser had come to the E.M. Keck Labaratory for Functional Brain Imaging and Behavior, on the Madison campus of the University of Wisconsin. The laboratory was founded by Davidson, a leading pioneer in the field of affective neuroscience, which studies the interplay of the brain and emotions, Davidson had wanted Öser--a particularly intriguing subject--to be studied intensively with state-of-the-art brain measures.
The Neuroanatomy of Compassion
In research with close to two hundred people, Davidson's lab had found that when people have high levels of such brain activity in [the left middle frontal gyrus, a zone of the brain Davidson's previous research had pinpointed as a locus for positive emotions], they simultaneously report feelings such as happiness, enthusiasm, joy, high energy, and alertness.
On the other hand, Davidson's research has also found that high levels of activity in a parallel site on the other side of the brain--in the right prefrontal area--correlate with reports of distressing emotions. People with a higher level of activity in the right prefrontal site and a lower level in the left are more prone to feelings such as sadness, anxiety, and worry. Indeed, an extreme rightward tilt in the ration of the activity in these prefrontal areas predicts a high likelihood that a person will succumb to clinical depression or an anxiety disorder at some point in their life. People in the grip of depression who also report intense anxiety have the highest levels of activation in those right prefrontal areas.
The implications of these findings for our emotional balance are profound: We each have a characteristic ration of right-to-left activation in the prefrontal areas that offers a barometer of the moods we are likely to feel day to day. That ration represents what amounts to an emotional set point, the mean around which our daily moods swing.
Each of us has the capacity to shift our moods, at least a bit, and thus change this ratio. The further to the left that ratio tilts, the better our frame of mind tends to be, and experiences that lift our mood cause such a leftward tilt, at least temporarily. For instance, most people show small positive changes in this ratio when they are asked to recall pleasant memories of events from their past, or when they watch amusing or heartwarming film clips.
Though usually such changes from the baseline set point are modest, Davidson reported to the Dalai Lama some striking data from the tests with Öser. While Öser was generating a state of compassion during meditation, he showed a remarkable leftward shift in this parameter of prefrontal function, one that was extraordinarily unlikely to occur by chance alone.
In short, Öser's brain shift during compassion seemed to reflect an extremely pleasant mood. The very act of concern for others' well-being, it seems, creates a greater state of well-being within oneself. The finding lends scientific support to an observation often made by the Dalai Lama: that the person doing a meditation on compassion for all beings is the immediate beneficiary. (Among other benefits of cultivating compassion, as described in classic Buddhist texts, are being loved by people and animals, having a serene mind, sleeping and waking peacefully, and having pleasant dreams.)
Öser's rather amazing brain shift during the meditation on compassion raised a question bearing on scientific method: Was this a quirk of nature unique to Öser, or might it be due, as Davidson assumed, to the intensive training he had undergone? If just a quirk, then the finding is intriguing but scientifically trivial; if due to training, then it has profound implications for the potential of human development. So Davidson immediately sought the Dalai Lama's help in finding others to test who were well trained in the same method of meditation on compassion, to be sure that the findings reflected the fruit of the practice rather than being peculiar to Öser. And, as I write this, further testing is under way with a handful of highly trained meditators.
The Bottom Line: Train Your Mind
From the scientific perspective, what does any of this matter? Davidson summed it up by referring to a book the Dalai Lama wrote with psychiatrist Howard Cutler, "The Art of Happiness," in which the Dalai Lama said that happiness is not a fixed characteristic, a biological set point that will never change. Instead, the brain is plastic, and our quota of happiness can be enhanced through mental training.
"It can be trained because the very structure of our brain can be modified," Davidson said to the Dalai Lama. "And the results of modern neuroscience inspire us now to go on and look at other practiced subjects so that we can examine these changes with more detail. We now have the methods to show how the brain changes with these kinds of practices, and how our mental and physical health might improve as a consequence."
Take the implications for research on meditation itself. Some studies, for instance, have used relative beginners (compared to Öser's level of experience) and had them meditate for long periods, during which their brain states were likely to have meandered through a range of experiences. Such imprecision makes brain imaging data difficult to interpret with certainty. What's more, some of these researchers have made questionable speculations, going way beyond what the data actually support--for instance, expounding on the metaphysical implications of their findings.
Davidson's aims in studying meditation are more modest, and grounded in well-accepted scientific paradigms. Rather than trying to speculate about the theological implications of his findings, he seeks to use skilled meditators to better understand what he calls "altered traits" of consciousness--transformations of the brain and personality that endure, and which foster well-being.
Öser, reflecting on the data reported at the Madison meeting, put it this way: "Such results of training point to the possibility that one could continue much further in such a transformation process, and, as some great contemplatives have repeatedly claimed, eventually free one's mind from afflictive emotions. The very notion of enlightenment then begins to make sense. That possibility--freeing the mind completely from the hold of destructive emotions--surpasses any assumptions of modern psychology. But Buddhism, as well as most religions (in the archetype of the saint), holds the possibility of such inner freedom as an ideal, an endpoint of human potential.
One payoff for the scientific agenda would be in inspiring people to better handle their destructive emotions through trying some of the same methods for training the mind. When I asked the Dalai Lama what greater benefit he hoped for from this line of research, he replied: "Through training the mind people can become more calm--especially those who suffer from too many ups and downs. That's the conclusion from these studies of Buddhist mind training. And that's my main end: I'm not thinking how to further Buddhism, but how the Buddhist tradition can make some contribution to the benefit of society. Of course, as Buddhists, we always pray for all sentient beings. But we're only human beings; the main thing you can do is train your own mind."