Recently, Western neuroscientists have flocked to study Buddhism. The attraction? Meditation, that introspective inquiry into the workings of the mind that Buddhists have practised for millennia. A key player in this quest is the Mind and Life Institute, created in the 1980s by businessman Adam Engle and the late neuroscientist Francisco Varela.
In this article, Marcia Barinaga reports on how the institute’s two-day conference at Massachusetts Institute of Technology has furthered this unusual meeting of minds. More than 1,000 Western neuroscientists and Buddhists, including the Dalai Lama, focused on attention, emotion and mental imagery – subjects of interest to both.One of the most fruitful areas explored was how Buddhist monks foster positive mental states through meditation, a technique of great interest to Western psychologists. Some of the scientists gave other phenomena short shrift. What ultimately emerged, however, was that both groups are fired by a very similar spirit of inquiry.