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MIT’s Interest

The McGovern Institute, cosponsor of the conference, has no small mission: it seeks to ultimately understand the biological basis of all higher brain function in humans. This, it believes, will in turn foster better ways of communicating at all levels of society-both nationally and internationally. Since opening in 2000, the institute has assembled an interdisciplinary research team with the latest in brain-scanning and associated technologies. Two McGovern researchers, Nancy Kanwisher and Christopher Moore, are particularly interested in meditative training and its broader neurological implications. Both study the mechanics of perception, which some believe may underlie the attention and mental-imagery aspects of meditation. And both see Buddhists as “exceptional subjects” for study, as well as valuable partners with whom to frame new research questions.

Kanwisher, MIT’s representative on the organizing committee, also served as a conference panelist. In addition to object recognition and perceptual awareness, she studies visual attention-a set of mechanisms in the brain that selectively process what our eyes take in. “So far, almost nobody in the visual-attention field is asking how perceptual mechanisms may change with experience,” says Kanwisher. She points to the example of Buddhists who undergo extensive attention training; of particular interest is how this training may change the properties of attention characterized in past scientific research. Might meditation help us boost our awareness? She’s not sure. But she’s intrigued when the Buddhist practitioners say, Look, with training we can get better at visual attention.’”

Moore studies how brain dynamics allow our perception of touch to change in different situations. The brain is constantly filtering information from all our senses, catching what’s important and ignoring what isn’t. Moore has shown that one’s surroundings affect the brain’s touch-filtering mechanism; for instance, fingertip sensitivity may be boosted in subjects searching for lost keys in a dark room. Moore’s next step is to examine how goals and expectations might affect filtering. He says that attending the conference piqued his interest in the subject and left him wondering “whether the Buddhists’ training lets them willfully control these dynamics.”

The conference ended with plans for the next wave of meditation research, particularly larger controlled studies of novice practitioners. In the wake of an enthusiastic overflow crowd and widespread media attention, Phillip Sharp, director of the McGovern Institute, saw a clear indication that neuroscience is onto something big. As he remarked, “[We’re] beginning to address questions that society finds profoundly interesting,”

Meanwhile, there’s plenty of uncharted territory. For instance, while fMRI brain maps are a great leap forward, we still know “shockingly little about the connections among the parts of the human brain,” acknowledges Kanwisher. But she’s confident that the answers will keep coming, and collaborations with Buddhists are an invaluable contribution-particularly when validated by what conference panelist and Buddhist monk Ajahn Amaro calls “the great god of data.”

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