1989 – II

Dialogues Between Buddhism & the Neurosciences

Newport Beach, California
October 5-6, 1989

Consciousness at the Crossroads: Conversations with the Dalai Lama on Brain Scince and Buddhism An edited selection of dialogues from this conference has been published as Consciousness at the Crossroads: Conversations with the Dalai Lama on Brain Science and Buddhism.

Buddhism and neuroscience have parallel but quite distinct traditions for examining consciousness and its relation to the body. These traditions go back at least 2500 years to the Buddha and Hippocrates. While both disciplines place great emphasis on experience and reason, their methods of research and verification are radically different. While neuroscience examines mind-brain processes largely objectively, using increasingly sophisticated technology, Buddhism pursues its research chiefly by enhancing stability and clarity of subjective awareness, and directs that awareness toward the exploration of cognitive events and other phenomena. Each discipline has its own clearly prescribed techniques for testing hypotheses. However, due to their radically different methodologies and isolation from one another, their views have remained quite disparate and incommensurable all these centuries.

These dialogues on Mind & Life confront the questions: Are these disciplines simply incompatible, or might they rather be regarded as complementary? Are there scientific ways of testing Buddhist theories and Buddhist ways of testing Western science? This meeting enables experts in philosophy, psychology, psychiatry, neurology, neuroscience, and Buddhist theory and practice to clarify key concepts in neuroscience and Buddhism for the purpose of improving cross-cultural understanding among Buddhist scholars and Western scientists.

Scientific Coordinator

Robert B. Livingston, M.D., Professor of Neurosciences Emeritus, University of California, San Diego


Tenzin Gyatso, His Holiness, the XIVth Dalai Lama of Tibet
Patricia Smith Churchland, B. Phil., (Oxon.) Professor of Philosophy, University of California, San Diego
Antonio R. Damasio, M.D., Professor of Neurology, University of Iowa College of Medicine
J. Allan Hobson, M.D., Professor of Psychiatry, Harvard Medical School
Lewis L. Judd, M.D., Director of the National Institute of Mental Health
Larry R. Squire, Ph.D., Professor of Psychiatry, University of California, San Diego

Geshe Thupten Jinpa
B. Alan Wallace


October 5, 1989

Presentation: Issues Concerning Mind and Brain
Dr. Patricia Smith Churchland
We have mental states such as perceptions, memories, thoughts, and intentions. We also have a physical body that has mass, grows, gets bruised and so forth. A traditional question has focused on the relation between mental states and states of the physical brain. Are there really two kinds of things, or only one, but one whose organization is very complex? Can consciousness and memory exist independently of a nervous system or are they features of the nervous system and die with it? Are other primates conscious, and is it possible that someday a machine might see and be conscious? Evolutionary biology, neuroscience, and computer modeling suggest that mental states are things in the brain-that they are actually states of the physical brain. This has important implications for how we understand mental states, how we understand ourselves, and how we plan technology.

Discussion theme: Minds and Brains
What kinds of techniques might be used to discover the nature of minds and brains?

Presentation: How Brain Damage in Specific Brain Regions Affects Perception, Recognition, and Language
Dr. Antonio R. Damasio
Damage to specific brain regions can alter the experience of color, the recognition of faces, and the ability to translate thoughts into language or vice-versa. The cognitive and neural study of patients with such disorders reveals new aspects of brain organization and indicates that complex psychological functions depend on relatively separate collections of interacting brain regions.

Discussion theme: The Neural Basis of Conscious States
What can knowledge about the brain structure and function tell us about consciousness?

Presentation: Memory and Brain
Dr. Larry R. Squire
How is experience stored in the brain? What happens to the record of experience when specific brain structures are damaged? Is there one kind of memory or many? Newly developed technology and new experimental findings are providing the beginnings of a sketch of how the brain accomplishes learning and memory.

October 6, 1989

Presentation: Brain Control of Consciousness States
Dr. J. Allan Hobson
The current knowledge of the control of the states of waking, sleeping, and dreaming by the brain stem will be reviewed. The way the brain is activated and how the source of information processed is switched will be detailed. The neurobiological data will be related to details of the experience such as dream visions, dream thinking, and dream feeling. Techniques for dream collection, incubation, lucidity, and control will be reviewed as will some of the history of these techniques in Western science and religion.

Discussion theme: Relationship of the Theories of State Control in Western Science and Tibetan Tradition
In what ways can Tibetan understanding about state control be measured by Western science? How can Western methods of state control be incorporated into Tibetan practices?

Presentation: New Concepts of Mental Illnesses Based on New Information from the Neurosciences
Dr. Lewis L. Judd
During the last 25 years, Western concepts and practices for diagnosis and treatment of mental illnesses have changed radically. Many once-mysterious mental disorders, such as alternating high and low moods and schizophrenia, are now perceived as psychobiological processes which result from complex interactions of constitutional and environmental factors. Developments in neuropsychopharmacology have helped establish a broad and expanding array of medicines with proven effectiveness for treatment of specific mental disorders. Clinical management strategies for specific mental disorders now combine psychotherapy and medications. These advances have given rise to increasingly systematic and effective treatments for mental disorders throughout the Western world, and they should have beneficial applications in other cultural settings as well. Many aspects of mental illnesses still elude our understanding and control. These shortcomings appear to reflect both the lack of sufficient empirical research and the limitations of Western theories of mental illnesses. Thus, an exploration of commonalities and differences between Tibetan medicine and Western mental health approaches will be mutually beneficial.

Discussion theme: Exploration of the Commonality Between Tibetan
Buddhism and Western Neuroscience with Relation to Understanding Mental Disorders and Their Treatment

Does Tibetan Buddhism, which underpins Tibetan medicine, conceptualize mental disorders as having biological roots as related to dysfunctional brain mechanisms? Can clinical practices in both traditions benefit from a thorough exchange of theories and empirical research findings?