Tibetan Ancient Wisdom Challenges Modern Science

Scientists Present Meditation Research Results to Dalai Lama at Emory Conference


As part of his October visit to Atlanta as an Emory University Presidential Distinguished Professor, His Holiness the XIV Dalai Lama participated in a panel discussion of research scientists who presented results of their studies exploring the effects of meditation on physical and mental health. Through the perspectives of evolutionary biology, neuroscience, and educational research, a compelling rationale for the integration of modern science and Buddhist tradition emerged. A summary of the research presented follows including some of the work of one of my Emory research teams.


I am part of an Emory multidisciplinary research team that has been studying the mechanisms of compassion meditation and its effects on health. As a research psychologist, my role on the team since 2008 has been to provide research design and statistical analysis expertise.  Although secular in presentation, the compassion meditation program, Cognitively Based Compassion Training (CBCT), was derived from Tibetan Buddhist mind-training practices and from writings ascribed to Indian Buddhist masters dating back to the 8th Century. Some of our published findings follow.

     - Our initial studies used CBCT with Emory undergraduates as subjects. We investigated neuroendocrine, immune, and behavioral responses to psychosocial stress. Students were presented with the Trier Social Stress Test to induce acute psychological stress. This standardized stressor consisted of a 5 min impromptu speech on a given topic followed by 5 min of mental arithmetic, performed in front of a microphone before a panel of two judges and a video camera. The students who meditated the most had significant reductions in stress and were less prone to depression. Based on those results, the National Institutes of Health funded a 5-year study for us to investigate the effects of compassion meditation in mediating psychosocial stress in adults.

     - Studies have shown that children in foster care have high rates of chronic illness and developmental disability, and one recent study found that children in foster care report lifetime rates of post-traumatic stress disorder similar to that of US war veterans. We taught children aged 13 to 17 in the foster care system in the multi-county Atlanta area to meditate using CBCT. Foster children who meditated more had the greatest reductions in inflammation. Meditation appears to be an acceptable intervention for foster children with the potential to improve interpersonal functioning and perhaps to reduce the long-term biological consequences of chronic stress.


One of the panelists presenting to the Dalai Lama, Richard J. Davidson, PhD, has focused his research on the neural bases of emotion. He has investigated the mechanics of mindfulness meditation at the cellular level and has explored the influence of meditation in factors that synchronize gene expression. Mindfulness-based meditational practices intentionally cultivate attentional skills. With colleagues at Instituto de Investigaciones Biomedicas de Barcelona and at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, they investigated the impact of a day of intensive practice of mindfulness meditation on the expression of circadian, modulatory, and inflammatory genes in peripheral blood cells of experienced meditators. These long-term meditators had a daily meditation practice spanning a minimum of 3 years. In parallel, they analyzed a control group of participants with no prior meditation experience who engaged in leisure activities rather than meditation. Like our social stressor methodology at Emory, both groups were presented with the Trier Social Stress Test to induce acute psychological stress. The researchers found that an intensive day of meditation triggered an anti-inflammatory response that was not observed in the control group. The regulation of the inflammatory pathways studied may represent some of the mechanisms underlying the therapeutic potential of meditative interventions.


There is a growing body of research including recent work at the cellular level that suggests that incorporating Eastern meditative practices into our stressful Western lives may be beneficial for our health. I, for one, express thanks to the Dali Lama for challenging us to explore compassion and meditation in a scientific manner.



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