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The study of what Davidson calls "the Olympic athletes of meditation," those who have done from 10,000 to 55,000 hours of practice, is intended to show "what the limits of human plasticity are." When Davidson began his career, he couldn’t get much traction because the brain was treated as a computer by the reigning behaviorist view. The brain is now known to grow and change based on how it is used. So Davidson asks, "What does very intensive training do to the mind? We’ve come to appreciate the value of physical training, but we have not given the same kind of attention to the mind. In our work, we now view happiness and compassion as skills that can be trained. When we look at advanced practitioners, we are stretching how people think about the furthest reaches of human development."
Among other findings, Davidson’s work has shown that meditators can regulate their cerebral activity, yielding more focus and composure. By contrast, most untrained subjects asked to focus on an object cannot limit their mental activity to a single task. The monks who had practiced the longest showed the greatest brain changes, leading Davidson to think that they may have effected permanent changes. His most intriguing results have come from observing advanced practitioners meditating on compassion. The brain changes observed during this practice seem to show that intensively generating goodwill produces indicators of an extreme state of well-being. While the sources of all kinds of disorders and dysfunctions have been studied extensively, there is almost no literature on what these scientists sometimes call "healing emotions."
Paul Ekman, unlike Davidson and Kabat-Zinn, has had no long-term interest in meditators or meditation. Ekman, who recently retired as the head of the Human Interaction Laboratory at the University of California at San Francisco, studied the emotions for fifty years. He more or less stumbled into his recent involvement in studying meditators. "It all started with the meeting in Dharamsala," he recently told me. "I only went to the meeting because my daughter had lived in a Tibetan refugee camp in Nepal and was very moved by the cause. I thought it would be a great treat for her to meet the Dalai Lama. Now, having met the Dalai Lama myself, I’ve developed an interest in what he’s doing, for what I can learn both as a person and as a scientist.
"When I completed my training 45 years ago, my supervisor said, ‘If you can increase the gap between impulse and action, you will benefit your patient.’ He didn’t know that’s a straight Buddhist view: the spark before the flame. That may be a place where through practices of one kind or another, it may be possible to do what nature did not intend for you to do, to become a spectator of yourself and decide whether you want to go along with it, and if so in what fashion." Some think this convergence of neuroscientific thinking and Buddhist teachings is extraordinary. In the abhidharma (sometimes called "Buddhist psychology") one is said to solidify experience through a chain of twelve mental events known as the nidanas. Some masters teach that the chain can be broken at the moment between "craving" and "attachment," and unconditioned, open experience can occur in that gap.
Ekman says that "Increasing the gap between impulse and action is very unusual emotional behavior, but based on the studies I’ve done with a few monks, I believe that is something they can achieve. What these extraordinary people can do shows us the outer limit of what humans are capable of."
As a result of the 2000 Mind and Life meeting and at the behest of the Dalai Lama, Ekman agreed to launch the Extraordinary Persons Project. His main subject in a precursor to this project was someone who has also been studied extensively in Davidson’s lab, the monk and fellow Mind and Life interlocutor Matthieu Ricard. A long-time meditator, Ricard served for twelve years as aide and translator for the great Dzogchen master Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche.
Ekman’s specialty, developed over years of painstaking study of minute movements of the face, is the Facial Action Coding System, a method of cataloging emotions based on minute changes in facial muscles, such as raising the inner eyebrows, tightening the eyelids, or lowering the corners of the mouth. How well someone can detect such microexpressions is regarded as an indication of empathy, as well as a skill that enables one to uncover deception and ill-intent. Consequently, Ekman has been vigorously sought out to help law enforcement and anti-terror agencies.
Ekman was curious to see whether meditators, who might be expected to be more attentive and conscientious, would do well at detecting lightning-fast changes in facial expressions. When presented with a videotape showing a fleeting series of facial expressions that one must correlate with an emotion, Ricard and another meditator scored higher than any of the five thousand other people tested. As reported in Destructive Emotions, Ekman said, "They do better than policemen, lawyers, psychiatrists, customs officials, judges - even Secret Service Agents," the group that had previously held top honors.
Ekman also decided to test whether Ricard could alter the startle reflex, the physiological response to a sudden loud noise. Following standard procedure, the researchers told the subject that they would count down from ten to one, at which point a loud noise would go off, the equivalent of a pistol fired near one’s ear. "I documented that Matthieu was able to focus his attention using a meditative practice so as to minimize any sign he had been startled," Ekman says. He told the Dalai Lama, "I thought it was an enormous long shot that anyone could choose to prevent this very primitive, very fast reflex."
What Ekman and Davidson have discovered in their research has nothing to do with holding a Buddhist worldview. For his part, Davidson says, "I am a hard-nosed Western neuroscientist. The level of description of mind and the level of description of brain are very different, but I also believe that mind depends on brain and without brain there is no mind." While in Buddhism, mind transcends embodiment, as evidenced by reincarnation, in neuroscience mind or consciousness is considered an "emergent property"; it just pops up where there are brains.
In Buddhism, emotions such as the "three poisons" - aggression, clinging, and delusion - are generally talked about as something to counteract or transcend. Ekman talks about emotions in Darwinian terms, as adaptations to the environment. They allow us to operate automatically, pre-thought. Ekman says, for example, that what he would call "fear" is required to be able to maintain the state necessary to react when driving at high speeds on a freeway. You could spend a long time talking about whether fear is good or not, but Ekman feels "it is not very helpful to just use words, because we may be using them in very different ways. We need to rely on examples. That’s what I try to do in the dialogues."
Ekman and Davidson and the Buddhists they’ve been talking to seem not at all focused on who’s right and who’s wrong. The methodologies of science and Buddhism are mutually respected. For example, the fact that the notion of "mood" appears to have no formal place in Buddhist teachings and yet is a widely used notion by laypeople, clinicians, and researchers in the West is leading both Buddhist teachers and scientists to think about how they study and teach. In today’s Buddhism and science dialogue, insights are not so bound up with authorship. Who discussed the virtue of having "elasticity of mind"? The Buddha? No. Charles Darwin, in The Expression of Emotion in Man and Animals.