Studying religious and meditative practices may help neuroscientists understand the neurological indicators of happiness, panelists argued this weekend in a symposium in McCormick 101 sponsored by the Center for the Study of Religion.
"Happiness can be conceptualized as a skill, not fundamentally different from learning to play the violin or learning to play golf," University of Wisconsin psychology professor Richard Davidson said, describing his research into whether meditation and other contemplative practices can cultivate positive states of mind.
Examining brain images of subjects during meditative exercises has shown that "even relatively short-term strategies to train the mind in this way can produce beneficial effects that are observed in the brain," Davidson explained. "It seems like certain positive qualities of the mind, like happiness and compassion, may be benefited by training."
In recent years, neuroscientists have attempted to use brain images to find an objective marker of mental wellbeing, Princeton's Program in Neuroscience Director Jonathan Cohen said. If such a marker can be found, he said, perhaps people could be trained to be happier.
"Imagine, if along with the gross national product every year we had a gross national happiness index," Cohen said.
In one ongoing initiative discussed at the symposium, neuroscientists have consulted with the Dalai Lama to develop experiments that integrate Buddhist practices and Western scientific techniques. Panelist Margaret Kemeny, a professor of psychiatry at the University of California, Davis, described one study in which a group of 80 female schoolteachers attended an intensive training program that included Buddhist teachings such as meditation and mindfulness, as well as Western-style instruction about neurological triggers and emotional responses.
Kemeny said the program appears to have helped both the teachers and their students. One teacher, she said, realized after finishing the training program that the behavior of a particularly disruptive student in her class was really an indication of the student's own unhappiness. Once the teacher stopped taking the student's behavior personally, she was able to help the student improve his behavior.
Other recent experiments have used brain imaging to examine how meditation affects the brains of Tibetan monks — who have spent years meditating — compared to those of individuals who were recently trained in the technique. Clifford Saron, a researcher at the University of California, Davis, said the monks use a larger portion of their brains when they meditate, just as practiced pianists exhibit greater brain activity than individuals who are simply taught to play a scale.
Panelist Wayne Proudfoot, a religion professor at Columbia University, suggested that an explanation for Saron's work might be the difference between two levels of meditation: calming and discernment. "Traditional Buddhist texts distinguish between calming meditation and meditative discernment, or insight, and generally consider calming to be preparation for the state of discernment," Proudfoot said, suggesting that the meditation novices in Saron's study may have only achieved calming.
"It is misleading to think that religious experiences can be explained exclusively in biological terms because personal interpretations of these experiences are very important," Proudfoot added.
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