The Dalai Lama, revered spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhists, is at the center of a scientific controversy. The exiled leader is an enthusiastic collaborator in brain research on the intense meditation practices of Buddhist monks. He is scheduled to speak about the research at this month’s Annual Meeting of the Society for Neuroscience. But 544 brain researchers have signed a petition urging the society to cancel the lecture. According to the petition, “it will highlight a subject with largely unsubstantiated claims and compromise scientific rigor and objectivity,” which translates into their thinking it makes them look silly in academic circles.
We need to talk about the rigorous standards of scientific certainty. Remember Dr. Benjamin Spock, the childcare guru of 20th-century? He told us to start infants on bland, mild foods (no peanut butter or seafood until after their first birthday, it’s too potentially allergenic). He frowned on ethnic and highly spiced foods; he taught that if you offered fruits before vegetables, it would breed a sweet tooth. These were scientific certainties of the time, but they are all myths.
Today’s pediatric researchers say starting kids on rice and highly processed grain cereals could actually be the worst food for infants, leading to later obesity problems. They say bring on the spices. If the mother likes oregano the baby might like it too; start them on hardier, more flavorful foods. If you live in Africa eat meats, fish and radishes in Japan, and artichokes in France
So much scientific certainty about diagnoses, diseases and drugs are not certainties at all. Most of what we’re sure about, is either going to be wrong or outdated in a decade. Drugs once touted as cure-alls, (Vioxx, calcium-channel blockers, hypnotics, anxiolytics) all have deadly side-effects that we didn’t know about. For the last several years, my psychiatric colleagues have suggested that we are dramatically under-diagnosing childhood depression and that we need to be medicating kids earlier. Now we find out that those drugs actually increase suicidal risk in children. So when 554 neuroscientists believe their credibility is threatened because the spirit is not easily subject to the rigors of scientific examination, it makes me want to gag.
We need to be doing more brain research into spiritual matters. Wouldn’t you like to know if, as a species we are wired for mystical experience? If we are, can we train the brain to generate compassion and positive thoughts? The Dalai Lama thinks so, and my colleague at the University of Arizona, Dr. Carol Barnes, who is the President of the Society for Neuroscience, says there is no way she’s going to cancel his talk. Bravo!