A Meeting of Minds

Some of the world's best thinkers gathered at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the fall of 2003 to discuss how scientists and Buddhists can collaborate to understand the nature of reality. The meeting focused on neuroscience and psychology. Here's what they had to say:

"You can't have a complete science of the mind without understanding subjectivity and consciousness. Introspection is a way of looking into the mind and reporting what you find. Psychologists took the route of objectifying the mind for 100 years. Subjectivity has been a taboo subject. It has taken psychology 100 years to find its way back." —Evan Thompson, associate professor of philosophy, York University, Toronto

"Buddhists are able to hold on to mental images for 20 minutes. How can brain science engage this? Science needs to know about that ability. Does meditation increase the recruitment of imagery in brain areas used in perception?" —Stephen Kosslyn, professor of psychology, Harvard University

"There is so much information in the environment, the brain can't process it all at the same time. Attention is the capacity to selectively process information. Buddhist training suggests a much faster timescale to attend to a percept—less than 1 millisecond, versus 1.5 milliseconds in scientific studies of people—and less effort to focus attention." —Jonathan Cohen, professor of psychology, Princeton University

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"Is there a way out of the hedonic treadmill, the Western model of craving and attachment? Can happiness be conceptualized as a skill that can be learned? Our brain-monitoring studies of monks suggest the cultivation of happiness by focusing on positive states. And through fine moments of awareness, it is possible to not let afflictive emotions like anger evolve as a chain reaction that leads to the wish to harm." —Richard Davidson, professor of psychology and psychiatry, University of Wisconsin

"Science is only one way of understanding the world. Buddhists bring to science a refined technology with specific protocols for how to train the mind. Buddhism offers a different view of what is fixed and what is changing. Buddhism sees emotion as a skill that can be trained. Maybe in 10 years there will be Surgeon General's recommendations for mental exercises five times a week." —Eric Lander, director, Whitehead Institute Center for Genome Research, MIT

"The Buddhist premises that joy and serenity are not slavishly tied to our physiology, that we are collaborators in the generation of our thoughts and emotions, are effective weapons against the dark reductionist view that we are programmed neurons over which we have no control." —Jerome Kagan, professor of psychology, Harvard University

"A lot of joyfulness and rigorous thinking go into these sessions. It's that balance, that spirit that we are going to try to re-create. How do understandings of first-person data in both traditions relate to an understanding of third-person data, and how do both relate to truth, reality?" —Ann Harrington, professor of the history of science, Harvard University

"Buddhism is a 2,500-year-old tradition of analyzing and investigating the inner world, the reality of the mind, in order to transform one's emotions and reach happiness. It seeks to understand the causal dynamics of emotions. It uses intelligence to the maximum for the purpose of developing compassion." —The Dalai Lama

"We assign values to objects and believe they are intrinsic qualities of the objects. When we believe that [an object] is 100 percent beautiful and we need to get it, we have an improper perception of reality, which leads to wanting to take and to reject. The way we see the world has a connection to the way we behave and the way we experience happiness and suffering and bring happiness to others." —Matthieu Ricard, monk, Shechen Monastery, Nepal

"The Buddhist perception of reality shatters delusions and therefore the sources of attachment. This isn't arm's-length knowledge. If I know this, it has huge possible consequences for me. Knowing is part of the project of liberation. That is a very deep statement about the nature of knowledge, different from our normal understanding of knowing and its implications from the science side." —Arthur Zajonc, professor of physics, Amherst College

"Buddhism breaks down experience in a way that undermines the idea of a unified self. The mind is a succession of intentional mental states that are dynamically interrelated. Every mental state is accompanied by some level of attention. The role of meta-attention—awareness of awareness—makes Buddhism a philosophy for the 21st century." —Georges Dreyfus, chairman, department of religion, Williams College

"The individual in the Buddhist method is the final arbiter of truth, but there's a weighing and experimental examination that goes on: Does this lead to benefit for myself and others, make life more peaceful or benevolent, or make life more difficult or harmful?" —Ajahn Amaro, co-abbott, Abhayagiri Monastery, California

"Buddhism is the cultivation of awareness. We need to think in terms of capacities beyond normal. Why settle for normal? There should be an Olympic status of mental health. Buddhists are not considered sane until they are fully enlightened." —B. Alan Wallace, president, Santa Barbara Institute

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