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"Bear with me. It's a bit intimidating to try to summarize," said Professor of Biology Eric Lander. He and Jerome Kagan, a research professor of psychology at Harvard, were asked to address the question of how to proceed in future during the final session of the conference, "Integration and Final Reflections," on Sunday afternoon.
Lander is a geneticist, not a psychologist, but he was instrumental in bringing the conference to MIT. "I'm not a Buddhist. I am also not a mind scientist. My only qualification is that I am completely unqualified in either," he said.
The foundation for continued talks must be a "commitment to openness" and a willingness "to change your mind," said Lander--qualities he believes both scientists and Buddhists possess. He also noted that both sides have similar motivations.
"Science and Buddhism both try to ameliorate suffering in the world, but in different ways." Both traditions "share a curiosity about the world" and both have been "thinking for a long time," he said.
Buddhists, who are highly skilled in "practices worked out over 2,500 years," bring interesting experimental participants to the table, Lander said. These skills should be regarded by the West not just as "folk wisdom" but as a "refined technology. Not a technology for detection, like an MRI, but as a technology for modulation." Buddhists bring "not just the notion that the brain is adaptable, but specific methods suggesting how you might do so."
"People who bring new questions to science often revolutionize the field just because they pose the question differently," said Lander, who later referred to the Tibetan notion that we can think about emotion as a trainable skill. "Why not try to achieve Olympic status in mental health? Why be satisfied with not being mentally ill? Why not work hard to get better and better?" he asked.
"Science is a very powerful and effective paradigm, but it does not contain answers to all human needs. A diet of only science produces malnutrition," he said, expressing concern that the recognition that science alone is not enough, sometimes "leads to a rejection of science, a flight from science and reason to a fantastical world of crystals," he said to groans from audience members, some of whom may have taken that flight. The Buddhists, he noted, did not wish to reject science, but rather draw on its knowledge.
By allowing questions about the nature of reality to be rephrased, Buddhists and scientists might open up a new paradigm. In addition to its current recommendations for physical exercise, "it's not inconceivable that in 20 years the surgeon general might recommend 60 minutes of mental exercise five or six times a week," said Lander.
A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on September 17, 2003.