His Holiness the Dalai Lama keeps a plastic brain with detachable labelled components on the desk in his office in Dharamsala, India. It was a gift from his friend the late Robert Livingstone, a neuroscientist at the University of California, San Diego, whom he credits with opening his eyes to the findings of modern biology. Livingstone founded the world’s first department of neuroscience at UCSD in 1965 and dedicated his career to linking the anatomy of the brain to the workings of the mind.
That, in a nutshell, is why I’ve called my new blog Plastic Brain. For me, the model brain sitting on the Dalai Lama’s desk symbolises the way ancient contemplative practices and science have come together over the past three decades as the gulf between the intangible mind and the inscrutable brain has narrowed. These are exciting times for neuroscience and psychology.
Of course, “plastic brain” also recalls the brain’s plasticity – its wonderful capacity to create new nerve cells and new connections in response to experience. Who would have thought, for example, that a course of mindfulness meditation could subtly change the structure of the brain?
So I’ll be writing about research that catches my eye, books I’ve been reading and, well, anything else that I feel moved to write about.
In the past week or two there has been a backlash against “neuromania”: the tendency of journalists and university press officers to exaggerate the implications of fMRI scans, pointing to different parts of the brain and saying things like “this is the love spot”, “this is the god spot”, “this is the right-wing ideology spot”. It’s right and proper to be sceptical about what brain scans tell us about the mind. After all, what the scan shows is only a proxy of brain activity. When particular regions light up while the person in the scanner is thinking about her loved one, her god, or is meditating, those are correlations – flags indicating potentially fruitful areas for future research. There’s still a long way to go, but what a fascinating journey it’s going to be.