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"We Tibetans are looking for a legitimate and meaningful autonomy, an arrangement that would enable Tibetans to live within the framework of the People’s Republic of China."

Eastern Brains

October 16, 2008

Probing the partnership between Buddhism and the brain sciences

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

Harvard Professor Anne Harrington discusses the relationship between
neuroscience, cognitive science, and Buddhism in the first lecture of
the Religious and Psychological Well-Being Project series sponsored
by the Center for the Study of Religion and Psychology at the
Danielsen Institute. She recalls a 2005 Society for Neuroscience
conference, where the Dalai Lama spoke on The Neuroscience of
Meditation. He talked to the 13,000 attendees about his curiosity
about the world, his affection for science, its benefits for
happiness and health, and his belief that science and Buddhism have a
lot of constructive things to say to each other. Harrington then asks
a key question, "What in the world does Tibetan Buddhism have to do
with brain science?"

The rest of her talk attempts to answer the question. Harrington
traces the history of U.S. interest in Tibetan Buddhism, talking
about the fascination with the eastern brain and transcendental
meditation during the1960s and 1970s counterculture. She refers to
the research of the University of Wisconsin's Richard Davidson on the
brain functions of Buddhist monks during long periods of meditation.
She touches on studies done by scientists and neuroscientists over
the years, from Robert Keith Wallace's research on meditation as a
"fourth major state of 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 advanced
meditation, she says, but it wasn't until the late 1990s that with
the help and influence of Buddhist monk and scientist Matthieu Ricard
and author and scholar Robert Thurman there was progress in the
field. Because of America's love affair with Tibet, because Buddhism
is friendly to science, and because of the encouragement of the Dalai
Lama, a partnership between Tibetan Buddhism and brain science is not
so anomalous as it may first appear, according to Harrington.

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

Harrington received her Ph.D. in the history of science from Oxford
University and has held postdoctoral fellowships at the Wellcome
Institute for the History of Medicine in London and at the University
of 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.
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