Dalai drama at SfN

The Dalai Lama is known for supporting peace, as his 1989 Nobel Peace Prize attests.

By | September 12, 2005

The Dalai Lama is known for supporting peace, as his 1989 Nobel Peace Prize attests. But he is finding himself at the center of a skirmish over his invitation to speak at this November's Society for Neuroscience (SfN) meeting in Washington, DC. Last month, a group of neuroscientists organized an online petition to cancel the Dalai Lama's talk on the neuroscience of meditation, and many of them plan to boycott the meeting.

The petition says that the Dalai Lama's talk – one of 11 featured lectures – will "highlight a subject with hyperbolic claims, limited research, and compromised scientific rigor." Yi Rao, an originator of the petition at the Northwestern University Institute for Neuroscience, says via E-mail that "the Dalai Lama has no more qualification to lecture on 'the Neuroscience of Meditation' than the Pope to lecture on 'the Neuroscience of Sex': one based on meditative experience and the other on exemplary abstinence."

The Dalai Lama "does not deserve to be invited" because "an honored guest either needs to have a major contribution in [an] area we all believe in" or to financially support research, says Min Zhuo, of the University of Toronto, who also helped draft the petition. He says he looked up the Dalai Lama in a PubMed search and "found n = 0 citations." But the Dalai Lama has long been interested in science, and particularly in the positive biological effects of Buddhist practices. Since 1987, he has been bringing together leading neuroscientists to discuss this connection, through the Mind and Life Institute in Boulder, Colo., and universities such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Johns Hopkins. Matthew Wilson, of the Department of Brain and Cognitive Science at MIT, points out that the meeting is a forum for scientists to "present work that is unfinished" or "not yet accepted," that is "nonetheless of interest" to other researchers.

The talk comes out of a growing interest in neuroplasticity, which Wilson calls a "central issue in neuroscience." Last November, Richard Davidson, a psychologist at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, who helped arrange the Dalai Lama's talk at the conference, published a study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences comparing the brain activity of college students and trained Tibetan monks. He found that long-term practitioners of meditation had more gamma wave activity, which is associated with perception and consciousness. The petition criticizes Davidson's methodology and conclusions, primarily on the basis of differences between the study groups.

There's another twist, this one political: Choosing the exiled Tibetan leader as the first speaker in the new "Dialogues between Neuroscience and Society" series would promote Buddhist religious views and favor "those wanting separation from China," according to the petition. The Dalai Lama has lived in India since escaping a failed anti-Chinese uprising in 1959. Many of the petition's organizers are of Chinese origin, but Zhuo maintains there are no such motivations – we just "know the Buddhists more than Western people do," he says. The petition further argues that giving legitimacy to his talk creates a "slippery slope" of mixing science and religion. But SfN president Carol Barnes says, "It has been agreed that the talk will not be about religion or politics."

After it was e-mailed to all members of the SfN, the petition garnered 568 signatures, but many of them seem to be using the forum to express support for the Dalai Lama or argue against the petition. It was presented to SFN on August 15, but the Society says there are no plans to cancel the talk. The petition "makes me embarrassed to be a Western scientist," notes Duke University psychiatrist Aaron White, who signed the online petition in order to write a comment against the protest. "This whole issue is ridiculous," White says: The protestors should "stop taking themselves so seriously, or don't go [to the lecture.]... Go to your room and rent a movie."

Still, Brian Salzberg, professor of neuroscience and physiology at the University of Pennsylvania, says he goes to a neuroscience conference only to hear scientists speak. "I don't think it's harmful, just irrelevant," says Salzberg, who signed in favor of the petition. He admits, however, that he "would probably be curious to attend."

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