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The Dalai Lama's visit

November 3, 2010

JING PENG
The Varsity, the Science section
November 1, 2010

Exclusive symposium on cognitive science and
mindfulness explores the intersections between
Buddhism and western science, MEKHALA GUNARATNE reports

His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet
commenced his three-day visit to Toronto on
October 22, beginning at the University of
Toronto, where he participated in an exclusive
four-speaker symposium on “Cognitive Science, Mindfulness and Consciousness.”

Among the 56 guests, some notable participants
included Penpa Tsering, the speaker of the
Tibetan Parliament in Exile and U of T
Chancellor, David Peterson. Dr. Franco Vaccarino,
Vice President and Prinicpal of UTSC, acted as
the moderator for the symposium, which covered
four areas of clinical and experimental research.

The biology of language

The first presenter, Dr. Laura-Ann Petitto, gave
a talk on "Expanding the human brain’s processing
capacity for thought and language: insights from
neuro-imaging explorations of bilingual and
monolingual brains.” Petitto is a professor in
the Department of Psychology at UTSC, and
director of the Genes, Brain and Mind Cognitive
Neuroscience Laboratory for Language, Bilingualism, and Child Development.

Petitto explained that biological mechanisms work
in conjunction with environmental factors to
allow humans to acquire and organize language in
the brain. “Language is a signal in the form of
neuro-chemical patterns,” she explained.

In her research, Petitto has tracked neural
tissue as it develops in monolingual and
bilingual speakers, and found that bilingual
brains use a significant amount of extra tissue
compared to monolingual brains. Petitto concluded
that “the biology of language has evolved as a
gorgeous adaptation to the infinite, expansive,
and generative biology of human mind."

Neural bases of the mindful self

Dr. Adam Anderson, a professor at U of T’s
Department of Psychology and the Canada research
chair in Affective Neuroscience, spoke about his
research in mindfulness, the self, and its neural correlates.

He began by posing one of the most fundamental
questions that has puzzled, intrigued, and
garnered fruitful debate among scholars,
scientists, and Buddhist practitioners: “What is the self?”

Through his own research, Anderson has been able
to isolate multiple representations of the self:
the mentalistic self, the judging self, and the
mindful self. He explained that the mentalistic
self is an amalgamation of all our physical and
personality traits — for example, “I am male,” or
“I am introverted.” The judging self is more
critical of our self and our experience, and is
associated with a part of the brain called the
cortical midline structures. Anderson explained
that the mindful self remains nonjudgmental, and
experiences change from moment to moment.

In one study, participants practiced eight weeks
of mindfulness based stress reduction, or MBSR, a
therapeutic technique that includes meditation.
After only eight weeks, participants demonstrated
a higher attunement of the mindful self to body
state, as well as relative reduction in the
judging self, including reduced activation in
cortical midline structures. Participants also
showed neural decentring, meaning that there was
more brain activity in the mid to right hemisphere.

Anderson concluded that when a negative mood is
induced, the judging self -- which is associated
with depressive relapse — increases its activity.
However, by developing the mindful self,
individuals can disengage the judging self and
greatly reduce their capacity for suffering while
increasing their capacity for wellbeing.

Mindful awareness as therapy for mood disorders

Dr. Zindel Segal, the Cameron Wilson Chair in
Depression Studies at U of T’s Department of
Psychiatry spoke next about his work in
mindfulness-based therapy for treating mood
disorders. Segal acts as the head of the
Cognitive Behaviour Therapy Clinic within the
Mood and Anxiety Disorders Program at Toronto’s
Centre for Addiction and Mental Health.

Segal presented on the clinical effects of
mindfulness-based cognitive therapy. MBCT is a
therapeutic technique used to treat depression
and prevent relapse which Segal developed with
Dr. Mark Williams and Dr. John Teasdale, who also
attended the symposium. Mindfulness involves the
calm awareness and observation of one’s own body,
feelings, and consciousness. Applied to therapy,
it can be used to help patients become more aware
of the kinds of thought patterns which often perpetuate depressive symptoms.

Segal explained that despite the development of
effective treatments for depression, there still
exists a high rate of depressive relapse. MBCT
incorporates mindfulness techniques to help
patients work with their own emotions and form a
healthier relationship with them. This helps
prevent emotion provocation from spiralling into relapse.

After evaluating the data collected from a
six-year study with 160 participants, Segal and
his colleagues found that in the post-treatment
phase for depression, participants who continued
preventative techniques using drugs like SSRIs,
or therapy like MBCT, had a significantly lower
rate of depressive relapse compared to patients
who were assigned to a placebo condition. Segal
concluded that using MBCT as a preventative
therapeutic tool has powerful clinical outcomes to prevent depressive relapse.

What do meditators do when they meditate?

alt text The final presenter, Dr. Tony Toneatto,
is a professor in the Department of Psychiatry,
and director of the Buddhism, Psychology and
Mental Health Program at U of T. He is a
registered clinical psychologist and acts as
director of the Toronto Institute for
Mindfulness, Meditation, and Psychotherapy.

Toneatto’s presentation was titled, "What do
mindfulness meditators say they do while they
practice? A content analysis." He explained that
traditionally, detailed instruction from an
expert teacher was vital and necessary to learn
meditation and acquire its benefits, yet current
research on mindfulness meditation does not usually include such guidance.

He asked if scientists could confidently
attribute the positive benefits reported in
mindfulness research to the practice of
mindfulness itself, since the specifics of what
meditators do while meditating is unknown. Thus,
Toneatto sought to uncover what participants
actually did while they meditated. Were they
meditating, or were they fantasizing, or even
sleeping? In a review of over 50 studies using
mindfulness techniques as a main component of the
methodology, not one reported what meditators were doing as they meditated.

When Toneatto introduced this line of questioning
within his own research, he found that meditators
reported feeling relaxed, observing mental
activity without distraction, attended to the
breath, and were aware of their thoughts. He also
found that after a few weeks of meditation,
participants reported lower depression and
anxiety scores. These scores were associated with
the cultivation of particular mindfulness skills
such as being non-judgmental and having an accepting attitude.

Toneatto concluded that it is necessary to know
what meditators actually do while they practice,
in order to determine how well their mindfulness
skills are being learned, and whether it is
possible to draw a significant link between
mindfulness and the benefits that we believe accompany its practice.

Buddhism and science

Following the four speakers’ presentations, His
Holiness the Dalai Lama proceeded to comment on
the symposium, mentioning how impressed he was
with the wealth of information each presenter was
able to generate. He stressed the importance of
science and scientific inquiry, discussing that
initially, science focused on studying what was
external to human beings such as environmental
phenomena and overt behaviours. Over time,
however, this has changed dramatically, and
scientists have turned their microscopic lenses
inward to focus on themselves. Scientists have
become the subject matter of their own inquiry.

His Holiness explained that by gathering
knowledge on something, we learn how to
manipulate it in such a way that that it becomes
beneficial to us. Similarly, by studying our
inner selves in depth, we wield the capacity to
master our self, and harness our potential which
may lead to the synthesis of a healthy body and a
healthy mind. According to His Holiness, modern
science is made more complete by combining both
internal and external matters, and this
amalgamation is creating a new field of
scientific research that can benefit humanity.

In Dr. Franco Vaccarino’s closing comments, he
noted the power of new tools and technology
emerging within the field of mindfulness
research. “We have developed new levels of
reflection regarding the mind, consciousness, and
what it means to be human," said Vaccarino. "As a
result, we are unravelling the complexity of the
mind and brain to demystify it and create enough
comfort for us to probe deep questions."

He concluded, "Now we are bringing humanism and
science together in a sophisticated way, developing a multidisciplinary nexus."
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