March 20-24, 2000
An edited selection of dialogues from this conference has been published as “Destructive Emotions: A Scientific Dialogue With the Dalai Lama” by Daniel Goleman.
The conference explores a perennial human predicament, the nature and destructive potential of “negative” emotions-when, for example, jealousy turns into murderous rage. The Buddhist tradition has long pointed out that recognizing and transforming negative emotions lies at the heart of spiritual practice. From the perspective of science, these same emotional states pose a perplexing challenge: these are brain responses that have shaped the human mind and presumably played a key role in human survival-but now, in modern life, they pose grave dangers to our individual and collective fate. We will explore from multiple perspectives possible leverage points for transforming negative emotions and so ameliorating their destructive threat. In examining the nature of emotions and when they become ‘destructive,’ distinctive answers come from Buddhist and from Western philosophy. From the perspective of affective neuroscience and evolutionary theory, the destructive emotions are seen within the wider context of the full human range, such as maternal love, pleasure seeking, and defense- functions that have shaped the neural architecture that now forms the basis of our emotional repertoire.
Recent scientific findings from areas as diverse as the links between emotion and cognition, the brain basis of addiction, and the neurophysiology of distress-depression, fear and rage-offer new insights into what Buddhism calls the “Three Poisons”: ignorance, craving and hatred, as well as into equanimity and empathy, a traditional antidote to these destructive emotions. Cross-cultural evidence suggests that the socialization practices of different human groups shape the response repertoire of the emotional centers. At the individual level, developmental studies show how the individual’s emotional responses are molded by childhood experiences. Given this evidence for emotional neuroplasticity and the human potential for change, we explore the extent to which the propensity for destructive emotions might be ameliorated through various means, including educational programs and Dharma practice. And, in reflecting on the implications of the evidence we have reviewed, we will conclude with an open discussion of what avenues for research might prove most fruitful. The challenge that destructive emotions pose to the human future make this topic of compelling importance not just from social, spiritual and scientific perspectives, but also in terms of the basic responsibility and compassion that His Holiness sees as our common human bond.
Daniel Goleman, Ph.D., co-chair of the Consortium for Research on Emotional Intelligence, in the Graduate School of Applied and Professional Psychology at Rutgers University
Tenzin Gyatso, His Holiness, the XIVth Dalai Lama of Tibet
Richard J. Davidson, Ph.D., William James Professor and Vilas Professor of Psychology and Psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, and Director of the Laboratory for Affective Neuroscience at the University of Wisconsin-Madison
Paul Ekman, Ph.D., Professor of Psychiatry and Director of the Human Interaction Laboratory at the University of California at San Francisco Medical School
Owen Flanagan, Ph.D., James B. Duke Professor of Philosophy, Chair, Department of Philosophy, Faculty Fellow in Cognitive Neuroscience, and Allied Professor of Experimental Psychology at Duke University
Mark Greenberg, Ph.D., Bennett Chair in Prevention Research; Professor of Human Development and Family Studies; Director, Prevention Research Center at the College of Health and Human Development, Pennsylvania State University
Matthieu Ricard, Ph.D., Author and Buddhist monk at Shechen Monastery in Kathmandu and French interpreter since 1989 for His Holiness the Dalai Lama
Jeanne L. Tsai, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Psychology, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis and St. Paul
Francisco J. Varela, Ph.D., Foundation de France Professor of Cognitive Science and Epistemology at Ecole Polytechnique, Director of Research at the Centre Nationale de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS) in Paris, and Head of the Neurodynamics Unit at LENA (Laboratory of Cognitive Neurosciences and Brain Imaging) at the Salpetrière Hospital, Paris
Geshe Thupten Jinpa, Ph.D., President and chief editor for The Classics of Tibet Series produced by the Institute of Tibetan Classics in Montreal, Canada
B. Alan Wallace, Ph.D., Visiting Lecturer, Department of Religious Studies,
University of California, Santa Barbara
March 20, 2000
Daniel Goleman, the scientific coordinator of the meeting, will briefly introduce the week’s framework and objectives, with a general overview of the perspectives to be brought to bear on destructive emotions. Alan Wallace, the philosophical coordinator, will conduct the day’s session.
Presentation: What Do We Mean by ‘Destructive’ Emotions?
Owen Flanagan, Ph.D., Matthieu Ricard, Ph.D., and Thupten Jinpa, Ph.D.
This philosophical dialogue between Western and Buddhist perspectives examines when negative emotions become ‘destructive’-that is, do harm. The discussion should surface implicit cultural differences-and points of agreements-in the most basic assumptions underlying our exploration. The philosophical perspective will serve as a counter-point to the scientific presentations throughout the week. The discussion from the Western perspective will touch on at least two traditions. First there is Western moral philosophy, long concerned with the destructive potential of emotions, as well as with the betterment of these human traits. In the Christian tradition of St. Augustine and St. Ignatius, for example, this manifests as spiritual exercises for moral improvement. In the later secular tradition, ethicists have addressed the issue in terms of ethical training based on rationality, democracy, and education. The second Western philosophical dimension deals with the biological underpinnings of emotion, as studied by scientists in fields such as psychology, neuroscience and ethology. From these perspectives, emotions are complex, raising issues that range from their chemical basis to their social determinants. Recent work in philosophy has dealt with issues such as the rationality of emotions, and the emotionality of reasoning (in other words, seeing emotion not as the coloring of thought, but an inseparable unity with it). However, philosophers of mind have dealt little with the issue at hand: the destructive potential of emotions. The Buddhist treatment of emotions is almost entirely phenomenological in nature, focusing on first-hand experience rather than on the biological underpinnings of emotions. The Buddhist term that corresponds most closely to “destructive emotion” is “Klesha,” which is commonly translated as “mental affliction.” Kleshas are not simply distressful emotions, but are disturbances of the mind’s equilibrium that stem from ignorance. The fundamental mental affliction is delusion, whereby one reifies one’s own personal identity as absolutely separate from others. The emotions aroused on the basis of such reification are not all afflictive, let alone destructive; some can be positive. While Buddhist psychology includes a detailed analysis of a wide range of primary and secondary mental afflictions, they all stem from the “three poisons” of delusion, craving, and hostility, which are the source of all personal misery and interpersonal conflict. The most obviously destructive of these three mental impulses is hostility-but in their own way, so are craving and delusion. Buddhism holds a remarkable hypothesis: none of the afflictions are intrinsic to the mind, but are obscurations that can be irreversibly eliminated in lasting freedom, or Nirvana. Thus the Buddhist view of destructive emotions is set within a broader psychological and philosophical framework.
What are the significant differences in the Buddhist and Western approach to emotions? Can they agree on when an emotion like craving becomes “destructive,” and what the term itself means? Is there utility in negative, even destructive, emotions-for example what might be the positive functions of negative emotions? How do Buddhist and Western thought differ in their approach for working with emotions, particularly in methods for ameliorating destructive emotions?
March 21, 2000
Presentation: The Evolution of Human Emotion
Paul Ekman, Ph.D.
In mapping the scientific landscape of emotions, we begin with a fundamental definition of ‘emotion’ from the viewpoint of contemporary psychology. There is a consensus in affective science about the basic elements and functions of emotion, though several issues remain. Emotions differ from moods as well as from emotional traits like timidity or hostility, and from emotional disorders like phobia. Emotions have played a crucial role in survival, defining our first response to crucial life events and needs. The full range of human emotions reflects the wide spectrum of the human repertoire, ranging from sexual attraction and parental love, playfulness, curiosity, and pleasure seeking to vigilance, defense and attack. Our emotions can be thought of as having evolved in part to solve specific problems from our evolutionary past, such as facilitating rapid problem solving and response in complex situations where rational thinking alone would be excessively slow and inefficient: Emotions like fear and anger can be seen as the brain’s way of making us pay urgent attention, and priming the body with a biological readiness for action. Emotions are largely hard-wired, with separate neural circuits or modules, giving each major emotion a unique biological signature, with distinctive patterns of autonomic discharge, and specific effects on cognition, physiology, facial expression and social cues. An evolutionary perspective also suggests there will be large individual differences-partly due to genetically based variations-in every facet of emotion. These include the speed and strength of an emotional response, the ability to control a response or time to recover from it, and-a key theme for this meeting-the malleability of emotions. We would not survive without emotions, and yet they sometimes propel us to act in destructive ways. An exploration of destructive emotions can usefully focus on different components: the mental appraisals that call them forth, the speed and strength of the response, the failure to regulate. From an evolutionary perspective, we respond emotionally not just in terms of what is relevant to us today, but what was adaptive for our ancestors; the power of emotions in mental life, and the ease with which we give in to destructive urges, is due in part to this legacy of our evolutionary past.
Are there significant differences between Buddhist theory and contemporary psychology in the basic definition of ‘emotion’? Does Buddhism, like evolutionary theory, recognize a positive function for what psychology thinks of as “negative” emotions? Does our propensity for falling sway to negative emotions follow from these positive functions? Is there an optimal emotional balance for mental and spiritual health? One issue for discussion is the relation between emotion and awareness, and the difference between experiencing emotions–being able to observe the arising and passing of emotions versus being “hijacked” by emotions.
March 22, 2000
Presentation: The Psychobiology of Destructive Emotions
Richard Davidson, Ph.D.
Emotions become destructive when normal neural systems for essential behavior go to extremes, compelling us to react in inappropriate, harmful ways. To understand why this happens so easily in modern life, we examine first the impact that the role of emotions as a survival mechanism in evolution has had on our neural architecture. The emotional centers developed early in evolution-our thinking brain, the neocortex, literally grew from the emotional centers; our thoughts and emotions are as intimately intertwined as the latticework of circuitry that regulates them. The design of brain integrates multiple networks from various regions that can play different roles at different moments. Some of these networks allow the emotional centers to override rationality in moments of perceived emergency, recruiting areas of the neocortex in what seems an emotional “hijack.” With this perspective from affective neuroscience as background, we can explore the classical Buddhist model of the “Three Poisons”-aggression, craving, and delusion-in terms of the neural processes at work in fear and anger; in ordinary pleasure and addiction; and in the role of emotional bias in cognition. The brain mechanisms by which negative emotions are regulated-amplified and attenuated-help to distinguish normal expression of these emotions from their destructive extremes. The trigger for turning them on involves circuits running from cortical sensory and perceptual processing zones to subcortical limbic structures including the amygdala. Anatomical data suggest that direct pathways exist between sensory regions of the thalamus and the amygdala, permitting the activation and learning of emotional responses in the relative absence of awareness. A circuit that includes inhibitory pathways from regions of the prefrontal cortex to the amygdala provides a mechanism by which activation of the amygdala, and negative affect, might be regulated. When this process fails, emotions may spiral out-of-control, becoming destructive. Circuits converging on the hippocampus determine whether an emotional reaction is appropriate; the over-generalized fearfulness in post-traumatic stress disorder likely emerges from trauma-induced abnormalities in the hippocampus and amygdala. Craving appears to arise from the pleasure-inducing dopamine system, which spurs us toward our goals in life and makes us feel satisfied when we attain them. But the repeated over-activation of this system in addictions produces structural alterations, which decreases the normal capacity to activate pleasure. This in turn fuels addictive behavior as people seek to re-experience the pleasure. Finally, emotions can bias cognition through the neural architecture connecting structures that generate the emotions to those brain systems involved in perception and attention. We can identify the neural mechanisms by which sustained emotional habits (e.g. the hyper-vigilance to threat common after trauma) result in an enduring sensory and perceptual bias, and thus to “delusion”.
From the Buddhist perspective, and given the neurological insights, we revisit the question of the boundary between the utility of negative emotions and their destructive nature. Are certain negative emotions-specifically anger-always destructive? When might negative emotions such as fear and sadness be useful? Is awareness a factor that can transform negative emotion that is potentially destructive into one that is potentially instructive, or even utilitarian? What can Buddhism teach the science of emotion about using awareness as a fulcrum to keep from falling sway to destructive emotions, and as a tool for exploring the richness of information conveyed by emotions? How can we best distinguish between the necessary features of positive affect such as the social attachment between a parent and child from the pathological varieties of attachment seen in craving? Finally, on the positive side, are there biases in perception associated with happiness?
March 23, 2000
Presentation: Cultural and Developmental Neuroplasticity
Jeanne Tsai, Ph.D., and Mark Greenberg, Ph.D.
The neural circuitry that governs emotional life is among the last part of the brain to become anatomically mature, and repeated experiences are among the stronger forces that sculpt the developing brain-as evidence from in cross-cultural and child development studies shows. Culture gets under the skin: socialization into a given culture is an active agent in emotional neuroplasticity, resulting in systematic differences in patterns of autonomic reactivity, subjective experience of emotion, and emotional expressivity from culture to culture. For instance, a cultural prohibition against extreme emotional expression may alter conceptions of emotion, the occurrence of specific types of emotion, their underlying neural circuitry, and their intrapersonal and interpersonal functions. The case in point comes from comparative studies done with Chinese and American subjects within and outside the United States. Similarly, the unique developmental events of a given child’s life have a major role in shaping emotional circuitry. Much of the data here focuses on prefrontal-limbic circuitry that regulates emotional awareness, regulation, and reactivity. Trauma or neglect can lead to sub-clinical prefrontal deficits that manifest as poor impulse or anger control. More generally, how a child learns-or fails to learn-basic skills like emotional self-regulation or empathy has a lasting influence on the neural circuitry that underlie these abilities. Childhood represents a singular window of opportunity for intervening positively in the behavioral and neural repertoire that can counter the destructive emotions. Curricula on social and emotional learning can help children master lifelong abilities like self-awareness, anger management, impulse control and empathy-roots of individual responsibility and compassion. Data from studies of such educational programs suggests the active ingredients in effective emotional learning, and what the practical benefits are for a child’s development.
Given the plasticity of the developing brain, how do we teach children to master their negative emotions-for example, to learn from them but not get hijacked by them. What would a curriculum in emotional instruction entail? From a cultural perspective, what factors play a role in the apparent positive emotional predisposition of people raised in traditional Tibetan culture? What factors in the socialization and training of Tibetan Buddhist monks or Dharma practice seem to enhance such a positive disposition?
March 24, 2000
Presentation: Neuroplasticity and a Possible Agenda for an Experiential Neuroscience
Francisco J. Varela, Ph.D., and Richard Davidson, Ph.D.
This meeting underscores the plasticity in brain and mental function that exists throughout life, and the potential role of practices designed for change in actually producing beneficial changes. As a case in point, studies on how negative emotions operate at the level of brain function offer an opportunity to develop an entirely new understanding of equanimity as a classic antidote to this range of emotions. Further, a neural-experiential complementary framework can be developed to actively guide new research, using modern brain methods (such as neuroimaging) to provide an independent window on the trait changes induced by refined ongoing learning, embodied in practices such as quiescence (shamatha). However the topic of neuroplasticity introduces a number of delicate issues around this new kind of research that mixes, on equal footing, data from third person or scientific perspective, and on first person or experiential access. On the one hand, there is little idea yet how to validate collectively data coming from first-person access. On the other hand, the mere identification of neural correlates of consciousness is only in its beginnings, and it typically leaves untouched how experiential, first person methods can play a role. We will outline a three-pronged program of research. The first element will consist of a detailed and thorough examination of the conceptual and methodological conundrums encountered in the study of self-report and an outline of a program of research to examine the possible impact of dharma practice on accuracy and biases in self-reports of subjective experience. The second element concerns the boundary between automatic and controlled processing and the extent to which this boundary is subject to plastic changes induced by meditation and other similar forms of training. Again, a series of experiments will be proposed to examine these questions. Finally, the third element consists of examining the neurobiological correlates and substrates of these processes.
We will review proposals made earlier for a major research agenda and will seek the counsel and collaboration of His Holiness and his Tibetan colleagues regarding these proposals. We shall outline concrete steps where the agenda for an experiential neuroscience is put into action in collaborative research programs between neuroscience laboratories and trained observers of their experience. More particularly, what might a more detailed research program on the neurological impact of Dharma practice reveal, and what would such a project entail? How can we best deploy research techniques, unavailable even five years ago, that can now be brought to bear on the understanding of neural changes that are produced by Dharma practice as an essential first-person capacity? Our goal is to have an agreed upon general strategy for research on this topic by the end of the day.