Neuroscientists see red over Dalai Lama

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Researchers petition against meditation lecture.

A growing number of neuroscientists are calling for the cancellation of a special lecture to be given by the Dalai Lama in November. The Buddhist leader is due to speak at the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience (SfN) in Washington DC, but a petition against the talk has already gathered some 50 signatures.

The Dalai Lama has lived in exile in India since he fled Chinese troops in Tibet in 1959. Over the past decade he has increasingly encouraged researchers, sometimes at gatherings at his home, to study whether Tibetan Buddhist meditation can reshape the brain and increase mental well-being (see Nature 432, 670; 2004). It was during one of these meetings that he was asked by a member of the society's executive committee, to give an inaugural lecture on ‘the study of empathy and compassion, and how meditation affects brain activity’.

Some of the critics believe that the Dalai Lama's lecture should be ruled out because of his status as a political and religious figure. “One of the reasons for inviting him is that he has views on controlling negative emotions, which is a legitimate area for neuroscience research in the future,” says Robert Desimone, director of the McGovern Institute for Brain Research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. But “the SfN needs to distance itself as much as it can from the Dalai Lama and his beliefs”, adds Desimone, who opposes the lecture but has not yet signed the petition.

Food for thought: the Dalai Lama is interested in the biological effects that meditation may have on the brain. Credit: CANADA PRESS/EMPICS

Many of the scientists who initiated the protest are of Chinese origin. But they insist that their concerns are purely scientific. Yi Rao a neuroscientist at Northwestern University in Chicago, Illinois, helped to draft the petition, which says that the science of meditation is “a subject with hyperbolic claims, limited research and compromised scientific rigour”.

The letter singles out one of the key publications in the analysis of meditation, in which Richard Davidson, a psychologist at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and his colleagues claim that neural networks are better coordinated in people who are practised in meditation (A. Lutz et al. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 101, 16369–16373; 2004).

Rao says that the study is flawed, especially in terms of the controls it used, because it compared practising monks in their thirties and forties with much younger university students. “Davidson is a respectable scientist,” he says, “but he has put his respectability on the line with this.”

Davidson defends his work as the first step in a new field. “Meditation research is in its infancy,” he says. He helped to arrange the Dalai Lama's talk at the SfN meeting, to be held on 12–16 November. He says that criticism of the lecture on scientific grounds is misplaced, because the Dalai Lama is not claiming to be a scientist. “He merely wants to increase scientific attention on the topics that he thinks are important for human welfare,” Davidson says.

The lecture is the first in a new series organized by the SfN, billed as “dialogues between neuroscience and society”. The controversy has ensured that dialogue is already off to a rocky start.

The SfN's president, Carol Barnes, says that she is trying to find a resolution to the protest that will not involve cancelling the lecture. But one of the petition's organizers, Jianguo Gu of the University of Florida, says that he and several other scientists will cancel their lectures if the Dalai Lama's talk goes ahead.

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Society for Neuroscience

Richard Davidson's homepage

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Cyranoski, D. Neuroscientists see red over Dalai Lama. Nature 436, 452 (2005) doi:10.1038/436452b

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