By Tom Still
MILWAUKEE – At first, UW-Madison scientist Richard Davidson thought one of his colleagues was playing a practical joke: The fax was from the Dalai Lama, who asked to learn more about his research on emotion, particularly happiness.
It wasn’t a joke. Indeed, the exiled leader of Tibet and a revered spiritual leader to millions, wanted to meet with Davidson. Their subsequent collaboration in recent years has produced research that some scientists consider to be a promising glimpse at the untapped power of the brain – but that other researchers view as highly controversial.
The dispute will take center stage next month in Washington, D.C., where the Dalai Lama is scheduled to speak at the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience. More than 500 brain researchers have signed a petition urging the society to cancel the lecture, stating “it will highlight a subject with largely unsubstantiated claims and compromised scientific rigor and objectivity.”
Leaving aside possible political overtones – many of the scientists who signed the petition are Chinese or of Chinese descent – the controversy over the Dalai Lama’s lecture highlights the difficulties associated with research in uncharted areas. That can be true even when the research is being conducted by someone as respected as Dr. Davidson.
Davidson, who directs the Wisconsin Center for Affective Science, is world-renowned for his work on the neural substrates of emotion and emotional disorders. In a 2003 study, Davidson’s team of researchers found that 25 employees of a Madison-based biotechnology firm showed increased levels of neural activity in the left anterior temporal regions of their brains after taking a course in meditation. That brain region is active during sensations of happiness and positive emotion, Davidson’s team reported.
In another study involving Davidson, and supported by a non-profit organization founded by the Dalai Lama, investigators tracked brain waves in eight Tibetan monks as they meditated in a state of “unconditional loving-kindness and compassion.” Using an electronic scanner, the researchers found the monks produced a very strong pattern of gamma waves, a synchronized oscillation of brain cells that is associated with concentration and emotional control. A group of 10 college students who were learning to meditate produced much weaker gamma signals.
Davidson says the studies suggest that human qualities such as compassion and happiness may be skills that can be enhanced through mental training. While some scientists believe Davidson’s work needs significant validation, he is persuaded there are clear links between mental “training” such as meditation and the ability of the brain to physically respond to such stimulus, a trait known as neuroplasticity.
“The brain is the one organ of our body that is built to respond to experience,” Davidson told the international Society of Research Administrators during its annual conference, held last week in Milwaukee. “Meditation has demonstrable effects on the brain.”
Davidson argues that genetic differences between normal human brains are too small to account for the emotional ranges demonstrated by different people. Some people are simply happier, and it could be because they have learned to self-regulate their brains or have acquired more resilience to emotional stress due to their experiences.
“Humans are endowed with a capacity to regulate emotions,” Davidson said, “(yet) most people are poor at predicting what will make them happy.”
All neuroscientists appreciate the unique qualities of the brain, but some are wary of Davidson’s well-publicized experiments, which have been reported in publications such as the New York Times, Time and National Geographic. They worry about his collaboration with the Dalai Lama and about misleading people on a topic – the inner workings of the brain – that is still as mysterious in some ways as the depths of the oceans or the vast reaches of outer space.
And so it goes in science. Researchers who dare to explore are correct – and so are those who seek more evidence before drawing conclusions. Fortunately, the public benefits from the endeavors of both.