The better we understand human psychology and neurology, the more we will uncover the underpinnings of religion. Some of them, like the attachment system, push us toward a belief in gods and make departing from it extraordinarily difficult. But it is possible.
We can be better as a species if we recognize religion as a man-made construct. We owe it to ourselves to at least consider the real roots of religious belief, so we can deal with life as it is, taking advantage of perhaps our mind’s greatest adaptation: our ability to use reason.
—J. Anderson Thomson, a psychiatrist at the University of Virginia and a trustee of the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science, and Clare Aukofer, a medical writer, have struck a nerve with their op-ed "Science and Religion: God Didn’t Make Man; Man Made Gods" in Monday’s Los Angeles Times.
Like the authors, I marvel at the advances and insights brought about by recent DNA research and neuro-imaging studies. How these findings help us better understand the psychological and physiological underpinnings of our predilections of religious belief is of great value. Perhaps this could help us understand people of other cultures and religious traditions better.
But, I thought we were past the “God is dead” argument. So why do the authors insist that people can “make departing” from innate religious impulses “possible” rather than embracing our physical and mental adaptions. Our ability to use reason may be a wonderful complement to ask the spiritual questions that elevate our transcendent natures rather than ground them all the time in practicality.
And, perhaps, Thomson and Aukofer’s use of divisive statements such as “religion hijacks these traits” makes religious believers the “out-group” and atheists who rely on reason the “in group.” Even as this non-believer writes this post, I sense that the dichotomy of the two poles is a false one that ignores all the other wonderful adaptations that may make us mere mortals and extravagant beings. Let’s have a more inclusive conversation that uses science as an instrument of understanding rather than a blunt object to make others wrong.
~Trent Gilliss, senior editor
Danish Filmmaker Spends Year in Wisconsin Documenting Contemplative Neuroscience Research with Children and Vets in “Free the Mind”
by Nancy Rosenbaum, producer
For the past year, Danish filmmaker Phie Ambo has been trailing neuroscientist Richard Davidson at his lab in Madison, Wisconsin. Best known for studying the brains of Tibetan Buddhist monks, Davidson’s research has shown that meditation can literally change the brain.
He’s the featured guest in our show titled "Investigating Healthy Minds." While producing it, we were looking for sound that would illustrate some of his point and discovered Ambo’s yet-to-be released documentary, Free the Mind, contained a few audio clips that would help bring Dr. Davidson’s work to life.
In 2010, Ambo set out with her family from Denmark to document Davidson’s newest research with pre-school children and war veterans. We emailed her to learn more about her film, and her motivations for making it.
I met Richard Davidson for the first time in 2009 when he was in Massachusetts for a conference on mindfulness. I was there to look for a scientist who would be a good main character for my film, so I sat through four days of talks given by different experts in the field, and I immediately knew that Richie would make a great character when I saw him on stage. He is a very playful and curious scientist, and it’s easy to tell that he is very visionary.
What inspired you to make a film about him? How and why is Richard Davidson’s work personally meaningful to you?
The reason why I wanted to make a film on Richie’s work is that he is personally invested in his research. He is a meditator himself, which to me makes him interesting as a researcher on a very deep level.
Richie knows that meditation works for him, but he really wants to know how and why it works. He has his own bodily experience with meditation, which I believe gives him the tools to ask the relevant questions on a scientific level. To me it’s also crucial that Richie works with rigorous scientific methods and that he also publishes studies that show that meditation does not work for everyone. This makes him reliable and trustworthy to me.
Another good trait in Richie is that he is not afraid to ask some of the questions that may not be popular in meditation research like: How many of the people who take a mindfulness class actually stick to the training one year or 10 years later?
Do you have a meditation practice? If so, what kind of practice do you do? How has meditation shaped your own life (and brain)?
About six years ago I suddenly started to have panic attacks and it was very scary and disturbing. I went to my doctor and she wanted to medicate me, but I had a strong feeling that medication was not the right treatment for me. I felt that I had to find a way to work my way through this crisis with all my senses open, not closed.
By coincidence I heard about mindfulness meditation and I took an eight-week course in Copenhagen. It helped me a lot to just accept things as they were and not try to shove down all the uncomfortable emotions. But I also felt very strongly that something was physically changing in my brain as I practiced. I got very curious about what was actually happening to me on a scientific level, so I decided to look into this through my work as a filmmaker.
I still meditate every day. I practice different kinds of meditation -– lovingkindness, open awareness, body scan, and sound meditations. It’s funny because in my work as a documentary filmmaker I often struggle with accepting reality as it is; I can’t control what happens when I shoot and this is both the best and worst about working with reality. But the way I see it, meditation is very much about being in the present moment and experiencing it fully without wanting to change it -– and this is really helpful to remember in my job. In many ways my meditation practice helps me to stay open towards any changes that may occur during shooting and just go with whatever happens.
You traveled inside this emerging world of contemplative neuroscience during the filming process. How did your understanding of contemplative neuroscience deepen or change?
In the beginning of my research process, it was very important to me that the meditation form being studied was mindfulness, so I was a bit thrown off when I found out that one of the experiments that I was following for the film had changed into being about a specific breathing technique and yoga, which was not Buddhist based.
This was an experiment with vets who suffer from PTSD and they go through a seven-day workshop. I was worried that just sitting down breathing would be too subtle to make interesting cinematic scenes with the vets, but it turned out that the breathing activated all kinds of emotions that came out during the workshop. This made the study very suitable for the documentary film, and I realized that the contemplative practices all stand on a pretty similar ground so they produce some of the same effects too. It’s not so important whether it’s Buddhist or not.
Tell us a little bit about the filming process. How long did you document Richard Davidson and his research? What aspects of his research did you look at? What’s the story you’re trying to tell?
I went to Madison three times to prepare for the shooting and make sure that we were all on the same page and then I brought my husband and two kids for six weeks in the fall of 2010 where I did almost all of the scenes for the film. I was in India briefly with Richie to see His Holiness the Dalai Lama and then back again in Madison in the spring of 2011 to do the very last scenes for the film.
I had decided to make a film that would appeal to a wide audience because I think it’s important for everyone to know about these alternative ways to work with our health. I think that a lot of people get turned off if they feel that this film is too academic for them so I chose to make it a case-based story where we follow three characters that go through studies set in Richie’s lab.
Two of them are vets and one is a five-year-old child. What I really like about the studies that these two extremely different groups go through is that they are very similar; they all learn to concentrate and become more aware of themselves and their surroundings. So the story that I would like to tell is that essentially all human beings are alike even though we seem very different on the surface. We are all just trying to achieve happiness. The good news is that we can work intentionally towards that goal because our brains are plastic and we have the potential to change all through life.
What did you see on the ground while filming that made a lasting impression on you? Is there a particular story or experience that stands out?
I really like some of the more poetic moments in the film. One of the vets sits in his own thoughts halfway through the workshop and then he says, “I’ve just come to the realization that I haven’t really lived since I’ve been back. I’ve just been kind of here.” This guy has stopped making plans for his life, but at the end of the workshop he starts to talk about running a marathon!
Another moving moment is when a vet says that he used to be a kid who was smiling all the time for no reason and now he’s grown cynical and closed off and he never smiles. At the end of the workshop, he has a smile on his face during a meditation.
The little kid in the film, Will, also has a wonderful scene in the film when during class the kids are talking about how to make a plant grow. The other kids say “sun, soil, and water” but Will says “love” in a clear voice “because if you don’t love it, it won’t grow!” These are all little steps that the characters take on their journey that I feel incredibly privileged to be witnessing through my camera.
Free the Mind is slated for release in the spring of 2012.
A Twitterscript of Richard J. Davidson Interview
by Susan Leem, associate producer
The Dalai Lama and Dr. Richard Davidson trade smiles during the first day of the Mind Life XIV Conference at the Dalai Lama’s residence in Dharamsala, India on April 9, 2007. (photo: Tenzin Lhwang/AFP/Getty Images)
Richard Davidson is best known for peeking into the brains of Tibetan Buddhist monks. With brain neuroimaging, he is trying to understand how their contemplative practices change a human brain — functionally and structurally. We’ve wanted to speak with the neuroscientist for several years now, but it wasn’t until Krista spoke to him at Emory University last fall that we were able to schedule an interview.
Early in his career, Davidson was discouraged from doing this work by his advisors, who feared he wouldn’t find any results. His research has implications not just for practitioners of Buddhism, but also for improving the learning and social behavior of school children. His most thrilling finding is that our brain is more flexible than we realize, even in adulthood.
We live-tweeted highlights of this 90-minute conversation, which we’re aggregating and reposting for those who weren’t able to follow along. Follow us next time at @BeingTweets:
- As we get set for interview w/ neuroscientist Richie Davidson, enjoyed @SmithsonianMag's “Top 10 Myths about the Brain”http://bit.ly/kqRdG7 24 May
- Krista is now interviewing neuroscientist Richard Davidson (of @DalaiLama fame)! We’ll be live-tweeting for the next 90 mins. #meditation 24 May
- You might know Davidson for peeking into the brains of Buddhist monks http://bit.ly/kLdczm 24 May
- @Wisc_CIHM he studies “healthy qualities of mind such as kindness, compassion, forgiveness and mindfulness” http://bit.ly/jrMxc4 24 May
- As a kid he was a ham radio operator. And now he studies “contemplative neuroscience.” 24 May
- Davidson’s been on our radar ever since speaking during HHDL’s visit to Emory last year http://bit.ly/izyTdE 24 May
- His friends and colleagues call the Professor “Richie.” 24 May
- "What modern neuroscience is teaching us is that there is a lot of neuroplasticity (in the brain), and change is possible." -R. Davidson 24 May
- "It’s not the genes are unimportant, it’s just that they’re much more dynamic than we previously understood." -R. Davidson 24 May
- "Contemplative Neuroscience—the study of the impact of contemplative practices on the brain." -Professor Davidson 24 May
- "The Dalai Lama challenged me, he said why can’t you use technological tools to study kindness and compassion?" -R. Davidson 24 May
- "I committed to doing everything I could to put compassion on the scientific map." -Richard Davidson. 24 May
- 6 emotions studied: Happiness, Fear, Anger, Disgust, Sadness, and Surprise. “This is the best you can do with Western Psychology?”-Davidson 24 May
- RT @FullContactTMcG: I’d be curious to know how we are re-wiring our brains with being becoming multitaskers with an inability to focus. 24 May
- @FullContactTMcG Will forward to Krista in the booth. Thanks. 24 May
- "The best way to teach compassion is to embody it. Through being that the individuals in the vicinity of that person will learn from it." 24 May
- "That’s what’s so delicious about being in the presence of His Holiness the Dalai Lama." -R. Davidson 24 May
- "The word ‘meditation’ in Sanskrit comes from the word ‘familiarization.’" As in familiarization with one’s own mind. -R. Davidson 24 May
- "There are literally hundreds of different kinds of meditation practices, understood to produce different effects." -R. Davidson 24 May
- "Mindfulness—moment to moment non judgemental attention and awareness." -Richard Davidson 24 May
- "Based on everything we know in neuroscience, change is not only possible, it’s the rule rather than the exception." -R. Davidson 24 May
- "Our brain is continuously being shaped, we can take more responsibility for our own brain by cultivating positive influences." -R. Davidson 24 May
- "Most people still don’t think of qualities like happiness as being a skill, that can be enhanced through training." -R. Davidson. 24 May
- "(We need) a different conception of happiness, more enduring and more genuine, not dependent on external circumstances." -R. Davidson 24 May
- "In the Buddhist tradition there’s tremendously rich detail in the description of the mechanics of these (contemplative) practices"-Davidson 24 May
- "I think the messiness and embodied nature of modern life just produces an enhanced signal for our attention." -R. Davidson 24 May
- "In many ways my life has objective signs of busyness and stress, it creates more opportunities for kindness and compassion." -R. Davidson 24 May
- "(We have) no idea how the subjective quality of consciousness emerges from the physical stuff of the brain." -R. Davidson 24 May
- "The idea of transformation meshes perfectly well with conventional scientific understanding." -R. Davidson 24 May
- "The key to a healthy life is having a healthy mind." -R. Davidson 24 May
- "The best way I can mentor and lead those around me is to embody these (mindful) qualities myself." -R. Davidson 24 May
- "In meditation you experience time slowing down because you can notice more things per discreet moment and you’re more open." -R.Davidson 24 May
- ”(Re: the value of presence) If we’re multitasking, it’s being present with the multiple tasks before us.” -R. Davidson 24 May
- That concludes our interview with Professor Richard Davidson! Thank you for retweeting. 24 May
New research reports a key part of the brain apparently atrophies more rapidly in Catholics and born-again Protestants, the result of the cumulative stress that comes with being a member of a religious minority.
The Dalai Lama and Compassion Science: A Twitterscript
by Trent Gilliss, senior editor
During our trip to Emory University this past October, we sat in on several conversations between the Dalai Lama and leading scientists. We tweeted some of our favorite comments and now are aggregating them into this transcript:
- Excited to be able to tweet scientists (including R. Davidson + Frans de Waal) discussing the latest research on mindfulness with @DalaiLama
- @DalaiLama conference and had been joking about buying HHDL swag. It ends up there’s a Tibetan Bazaar setup in the lobby!
- Autistic children yawn as much as other children, but they do not have yawn contagion - Frans de Wall http://is.gd/g6N2N
- "If you look at Blair and Bush, each time Blair went with Bush to Texas he would walk like a cowboy" - Frans de Waal on human mimicry
- To get from empathy to compassion, you have to be able to get past the intense emotion empathy creates. - Frans de Waal
- Davidson shows just two-weeks of compassion practice makes someone behave more altruistically. http://is.gd/g6PZc
- Compassion is taking empathy into action. - Richard Davidson
- 6 weeks of loving-kindness meditation improves body’s vagal tone: controls heart rate + creates positive emotions to others -Dr. Fredrickson
- Science is starting to show the more we love, the healthier we become at a physical level…perhaps also at a wisdom level. -Dr. Fredrickson
- Mother crocodiles will come to defense if their babies are in trouble…but turtles are not that way - @DalaiLama
Thinking of My Past Education and of Those to Come
by Krista Tippett, host
Adele Diamond is a formative figure in the emerging field of developmental cognitive neuroscience. And she is the kind of person I love to interview — a person with an important body of knowledge who never stops growing and asking new questions and making big ideas come to life in her person. She has nurtured a lifelong love of dancing alongside her love of learning, and so she embodies the delightfully challenging story her research has to tell.
Here, in a very simplified nutshell, is that story — the piece of it that I have been able to internalize, in any case, and that has fundamentally changed the way I think about the education I received and what I want for my own children. Among other things, breakthroughs in neuroscience are helping us understand the prefrontal cortex of the brain. This is the latest part of the brain to develop in our species (“the new kid on the block,” as Adele Diamond puts it) and the last to fully mature — as late as our 20s — in every individual life.
The prefrontal cortex is vital to how we learn more than what we learn. It controls the cognitive disciplines and flexibility we need to access, apply, and creatively build on what we learn across our life spans. Such skills are a manifestation of the brain’s capacity for what neuroscientists call “executive function.” Adele Diamond’s groundbreaking research has focused on an educational approach called "Tools of the Mind" that strengthens executive function in pre-school age children. It has also shown intriguing promise for children with autism and ADHD, and for helping close the achievement gap between children of different socioeconomic backgrounds.
Serious ideas, all. Yet, wonderfully, play is at the heart of this show. Tools of the Mind and related science-inspired initiatives encourage a child’s natural inclination for dramatic play. They mine that experience for the discipline it holds: of creativity, of putting oneself in another’s shoes, of listening and yielding to others, of character and perseverance.
Cutting-edge science is bringing us back to some very traditional, intuitive, and — as it turns out — educationally savvy modes of human interaction in and beyond school. It is scientifically explaining the educational power of things like drama, music, and physical activity. It is revealing memorization as a form of exercise for the brain and demonstrating that joyful environments are also more efficacious. Stress shuts down the prefrontal cortex. And the kinds of mental discipline the prefrontal cortex enables — manifest, for example, in a child’s ability to interact with others in play at an early age — is a more definitive indicator of future thriving, academic and otherwise, than IQ.
I am also naturally drawn to the spiritual implications of Adele Diamond’s work. Her emphasis is as much on reflection as on information. The kind of science she and others are doing has led the school system of British Columbia to incorporate reflection as a part of the development of whole, healthy human beings within its educational philosophy. I hear echoes of my conversation with Malka Haya Fenyvesi and Aziza Hasan in Los Angeles, who are cultivating curiosity and listening between Muslims and Jews as a civic discipline that can enlarge our souls and our practical ability to be present to difference and possibility in ourselves and in the world.
Adele Diamond herself references Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel as well as the Dalai Lama as she reflects on the spiritual connections she uncovers between learning, doing, and being. Her robust Jewish identity flows into the way she makes sense of the larger meaning of what she does, and she has also been deeply influenced by her encounter with the Dalai Lama’s Mind and Life Institute conversations between scientists and spiritual thinkers. In fact, I met her at a conference in Vancouver, where she interacted with the Dalai Lama and other scientists, educators, and spiritual thinkers.
And next week, we’ll bring another, recent encounter with the Dalai Lama and religious leaders — the chief rabbi of the Commonwealth, the presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church, and a preeminent Muslim scholar Seyyed Hossein Nasr. I moderated that public discussion, on the subject of human happiness. It was a lively and felicitously unpredictable conversation, and I hope you’ll listen in.
HHDL in Badgers Red
Trent Gilliss, senior editor
You’ve gotta dig seeing His Holiness the Dalai Lama donning a Badgers baseball cap, despite the fashion faux pas of wearing clashing reds!
To celebrate its grand opening, the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds at the University of Wisconsin is streaming live video of His Holiness the Dalai Lama talking with neuroscientist Richard Davidson from Wisconsin! We wish they would let us embed it, but we’ll try to post the archival version here. Until then, tune in!
(photo: Trent Gilliss for Speakng of Faith, Flickr)
The brain is plastic and continues to change, not in getting bigger but allowing for greater complexity and deeper understanding.
—Kathleen Taylor, a professor at St. Mary’s College of California, as quoted in "How to Train the Aging Brain."
I rather enjoyed this observation and the additive notion of our brains growing older and not just simply deteriorating. And, by regularly jarring our brains with a “disorienting dilemma” (which I hope we accomplish with the many voices on SOF), we can probe and add to that depth and interconnectedness of knowledge.
Trent Gilliss, online editor
SoundSeen: Dramatic Play + the Developing Brain
by Nancy Rosenbaum, associate producer
For this week’s show "Learning, Doing, Being: A New Science of Education," Krista interviewed neuroscientist Adele Diamond, who studies how social dramatic play can build “executive function” (EF) skills in children’s brains. As Diamond explains it, EF is a container term for capacities like inhibitory control, working memory, and cognitive flexibility. These are skills that are lodged in the brain’s prefrontal cortex, which Diamond calls “the new kid on the block” because it’s the part of the human brain to develop most recently through evolution. As we grow from babies into young adults, the prefrontal cortex is the last brain area to mature. When we age, it is the first to falter.
While producing this show, we learned that Diamond serves as an advisor for a nearby charter school that incorporates some elements of social dramatic play into its curriculum. We visited the school a few weeks ago and one result is this narrated slideshow pairing Adele Diamond’s explanation of the nuts and bolts of EF with 5th and 6th graders demonstrating some of the principles she describes through improvisational theater games.
If you have the chance, check out Krista’s full interview with Adele Diamond or listen for more of this ambient audio in the produced show. I don’t know what brain area is responsible for creating an audio slideshow but mine certainly got a workout putting this together.
And, a special thanks to the teachers and students at Quest Academy for their participation in this project.