Our regular readers may recall a post about the Mind & its Potential conference in late October and a reference to this conference in the weekly “Complete this quote”. The Vajrayana institute organised and hosted their annual “Mind & its potential” conference this week. There were a choice of two pre-conference workshops, two packed days of presentations, a gala dinner that raised well over $7000 for the Lifehouse foundation and eight post-conference workshops. It was a fantastic jam-packed week of meaty brain-related presentations and workshops! Some of the biggest stars from the Brain Sciences and Buddhist traditions were on stage for an incredible show of collaboration, integration and contemplation. With my long-held interests in Buddhism and the brain, this conference was a must-see event for the latest developments in both areas.
I attended B. Alan Wallace’s pre-conference workshop called “The Attention Revloution!” The day was divided into four parts with a 24 minute meditation during each session. That meant that by the end of the day, I had performed 96 more minutes of mindfulness meditation than I believe I have done for the last four years. In the next room was Dan Siegel’s workshop on The Art & Science of Teaching and Learning. Although as a Neuroanthropologist, I would have gained more knowledge by attending Siegel’s workshop, Wallace’s meditations were an overwhelming barometer of my mind during the final months of scholarship in my PhD. If I may self-diagnose, I must say that I was suffering from a severe case of monkey-mind. But then again, what do you expect when you have four months of scholarship left to finish your PhD? I feel blessed to have been guided gently through the very basic tenets of mindfulness meditation and refreshed on the basic principles that I once practiced with joy. Over the coming months, I will certainly be making more time in my day to generate more focus, compassion and concentration.
From all reports, Dr Dan Siegel’s workshop next door was outstanding. Almost every participant wanted to be in two places at once, but no one was displeased with the workshop they attended. Siegel’s workshop was more technically demanding but he was commended for his presentation skills, his ability to engage the audience and his capacity to relate information to a diverse range of interested people. If his presentation to all the delegates of the conference the very next day is anything to go by, then it can be safely assumed that he informed, interested and inspired.
CONFERENCE DAY ONE
The first day of the conference was opened by Dr Michael Carr-Gregg who was an excellent self-titled Maitre d’. He described the conference as a lavish meal where delegates were invited to enjoy the delights of each specially prepared course made of the finest ingredients and prepared by the best chefs. Our Maitre d’ accurately predicted that we would indeed be given much food for thought.
Baroness Susan Greenfield was the first speaker. Her choice of attire certainly threw off any attempts to pigeon-hole her as a dull scientist and she certainly impressed the audience with her ability to predict the social implications of the brain’s cultural conditioning. She looked at the influence of personalisation on consumerism and fulfilment, the repercussions of fulfilment from en masse cognitive mindsets in fundamentalist and fascist movements, and the role of screen technologies on the robustness on our sense of identity.
In her fantastic book, The Private Life of the Brain (Penguin 2000), Susan Greenfield wrote that “we must investigate both the neuroscience—the physical workings of the brain—and the subjective phenomena of feeling.” She is obviously still concerned with questions in these areas and has delved more deeply into these matters in her recent books “Tomorrow’s people” and “ID”. Her concerns with the increasing emphasis on ‘sensational’ experiences in contemporary culture is that the sensory world of certain activities can distract us from the consequences of our actions. She is interested in developing a culture where we can find fulfilment and also our individuality. A very noble balance in my opinion.
The second speaker was Dr Charlie Teo who, at least for me, was the most incredible speaker of the day. He was clear, impressive and surprisingly humble. Perhaps he shouldn’t have worried about giving us a guided tour of the brain because his own incredible work in neurosurgery was much more interesting than a refresher on Neuroscience 101. However, it was insightful to see his reflections on the simplest shortcomings of modern neuroscience. More than anything else though, each and every delegate was awed by the footage that evidenced Charlie Teo’s ability to transform the lives of his clients through minimally invasive neurosurgery.
Dr Daniel Siegel, a Psychiatrist from the UCLA School of Medicine, was the third speaker. He had fantastic presentation skills and I dare to suppose that it was his flirtation with a job as a choreographer that gave him the skills to present so comfortably and so clearly in front of an audience. His look at training of skills and brain plasticity and myelination caught people’s attention and his courage to study the mind from relational perspective captured the imagination of many audience members. It was his references to anthropology and the study of brain, culture and development that truly intrigued me to learn more about his research. He defined the brain as the “Social organ of the body” which resonates with my own definition and has spurred me to learn more about the research centres with whom he collaborates. The queue of people at his book-signing during the coffee break was one of the longest seen at the conference. I look forward to learning more about Siegel’s research in the near future. It will certainly be worthwhile to keep an eye out for his national Australian tour in October next year!
After a refreshing coffee break of muffins, fruit, tea and coffee, we heard from Dr Michael Valenzuela who would make an interesting colleague with his hobby of Salsa dancing and martial arts and an impressive CV of achievements. He did a fantastic job of bringing the latest findings in regenerative neuroscience to an audience of diverse expertise with sufficient sensitivity to the philosophical and spiritual questions relevant to those present. His participation in the Conference panel that followed was both humble and constructive.
The conference panel consisted of Baroness Susan Greenfield, Dr Daniel Siegel, Dr Michael Valenzuela, Dr Jane Burns (and her baby daughter) and was moderated by Alan Saunders. It started off slowly but became very interesting towards the end with an intense discussion about the relationship between technology, culture and the brain. Siegel and Greenfield shared similar views with Siegel describing himself as Mr Relationships and Greenfield as Miss Integrationist. Dr Jane Burns was able to balance out Siegel and Greenfield’s views with some of her positive use of technology to train suicide-prone teenagers into a more positive lifestyle. The work of the centres that Dr Jane Burns works for received a very emphatic applause from the audience that left us all hoping that a balance will be found that upscales the positive uses of technology and downscales the negative uses.
Dr Bruno Cayoun had a tough act to follow, but his smooth French accent and succinct presentation skills won the audience over quickly. His research-based and data-rich clinical application of Mindfullness-integrated Cognitive Behaviour Therapy showed both success and promise. Dr Bruno Cayoun had everyone enthusiastically talking about his research and work during the Lunch Break which followed.
After lunch, Dr John Ratey presented some time-honoured research about how exercise helps the brain. There were a few take-home messages, but the one that spoke to me most was that: Doing a crossword a day is good, but something more of the order of learning how to dance or learning a new language is what will really keep your brain active.
B. Allan Wallace talked about the next revolution in Science. In Wednesday’s talk, Wallace told us that the first revolution happened 400years ago with Galileo, the second 150 years ago with Darwin, and the third started with William James roughly 100 years ago. Unfortunately, the revolution that William James brought has been largely ignored according to Wallace. This revolution is the burgeoning of the Mind Sciences. I found this wonderful clip on YouTube which covered material similar to his talk at Mind & its Potential:
The afternoon panel with Dr John Ratey, Dr Mathew White and Dr Leonie Kronborg covered some fascinating subjects. Then the day closed with a talk by Professor Matt Sanders on Parenting and another panel with Jim Bond, Sue Larkey and Dr Maryanne Demasi who covered a beautiful first-person perspective on brain development in an Australian cultural context. The stories touched our hearts and all the attendees went home with a new sensitivity to life with a mental handicap. Those attendees who stayed on for the Gala dinner went on to enjoy a fantastic evening with speeches by Professor Michael Boyer, Tony Steel and Dr Charlie Teo and early evening entertainment offered by Tania de Jong — wow! What a voice! — and I even got to have my photo taken with Benita Collings from Play School!!! My mum would be so proud!
What a wonderful smile she has!!! Benita was the MC of the Gala dinner.
CONFERENCE DAY TWO
Attendees made an effort to arrive early at the second day of the Mind & its Potential conference. His Holiness the Dalai Lama was part of a Panel on the Science of Mind and a big crowd was on the books. I thought I was arriving early by getting to the doors by 8am, but I ended up joining a queue of a few hundred people. I heard that there were some 3000 people in the audience that day!
The Panel consisted of Dr Martin Seligman, Professor Marc Hauser, B. Alan Wallace, and of course His Holiness the Dalai Lama and his translator (who may I say was put in a very difficult position of translating key words from extended dialogues of research-related conversations). This is the first time that I have seen His Holiness the Dalai Lama in person and it was beautiful to see the connection that His Holiness the Dalai Lama and B. Alan Wallace shared. One could sense the trust and friendship that existed between them. The importance of finding great mentors in life is crucial and I was reminded of the mentors in my life who have guided and helped me along my journey. It was clear that the opportunity for B. Alan Wallace to give something back to His Holiness the Dalai Lama and assist him in the scientific aspects of future research was something he took quite seriously and earnestly.
The most interesting question that was posed in this panel was asked by Professor Marc Hauser whose research is concerned about morality and the mind. Professor Hauser talked briefly about research that showed that clinically diagnosed psychopaths do recognise right from wrong, as evidenced by their responses to moral dilemmas. Psychopaths, however, are free of emotional restraints and act violently even though they know it is wrong because they are without remorse, guilt or shame. His Holiness the Dalai Lama took time to reflect on this data and referred to some fairly basic tenets of Buddhist science that could be used to frame hypotheses in future research. The Dalai Lama commented quite correctly that we need more experiments. It is true that with more experiments we may be better equipped to know what we are talking about. The Dalai Lama’s thoughtful and simple reply demonstrated why he is so highly regarded as a great thinker and an inspiring leader.
The next day, I had the opportunity to put Professor Hauser’s polemic to Dr Bruno Cayoun who is more familiar with this research and had a greater proximity to the clinical aspects of psychopathology. Although Dr Cayoun refrained from commenting on the biological constraints on empathy and morality, he did suggest some promising models of mindfulness-integrated therapies that could be implemented and trialled in Psychopaths who demonstrate knowing but show no caring. The ways in which biology and cultural experience interact in shaping the adult are an important area of future research and one that we should invest in with ethically-guided interests. As I reflect on this polemic now, I am reminded how Professor Hauser talked about the Psychopath’s desire to control something/someone else. Through the various martial arts traditions that I have studied in France, Indonesia, Brazil and Australia, one thing I have seen is a reframing of the understanding of control among practitioners. Control is no longer something we gain by exerting it over someone else, but something we find by exerting control over our own minds in situations of adversity. I could certainly see an application of such a reframing of the concept of control in cases of psychopathology, (if indeed it is possible to positively influence these biologically constrained individuals). If we replace the desire for control with the desire for freedom and create an understanding that the greatest freedom is the freedom that we are able to share with the greatest number of other living beings, then perhaps we could start to help genetically predisposed psychopaths. Perhaps we could also start to do something about the psychopathology of corporate enterprises, political systems and cultural directives. I could go further, but perhaps I should save that for another occasion.
Dr Paul Ekman spoke after lunch. With his soft smile, relaxed demeanour, tartan socks and green shoelaces, he was the kind of person we would all want as a grandfather. He was gently humourous, deeply empathetic and widely knowledgeable on his topic. Ekman’s research topics are fascinating, but his research has been slow and laborious. It has been a long journey from his initial hypotheses to where he is now and I have always imagined that the person who performed this painstaking research had to be dramatically immune to the intense boredom of data collection. After reading many of Ekman’s papers while I was studying Neuroscience and Anthropology, I had never expected Paul Ekman to have such a vibrant personality. He was joyful, a pleasure to listen to and an uplifting presenter. This is one researcher that I would reccomend listening to!!! He is simply fantastic! His workshop the next day was equally great! Everyone wanted to ask him questions and my recommendation to the Conference organisers would be to have a system where questions are written down and given to a selection committee before or during the workshops. I was slightly frustrated that many people asked questions that were answered in Ekman’s books, Emotions Revealed and Telling Lies. It was a time-waster for those who wanted to learn more than what is written in the books. With such a fantastic researcher and presenter on stage, I wanted to make the most of listening to his latest insights and anecdotes.
Dr Paul Ekman participated in the panel that followed after Associate Professor Eleonora Gullone‘s presentation on emotional development in children. There was a lively discussion about emotions, feelings and the brain with Hanan Dover from UWS, Evian Gordon from the BRC, Andrew O’Keeffe and Richard Fidler. Their panel nicely preceded presentations by Arun Abey (Kiva), Professor Amanda Sinclair, a final panel with Sue Pieters-Hawke, Associate Professor Neil Cole and Julie McCrossin and then a final presentation by Evian Gordon with closing remarks by the Director Tony Steel.
Mind & its Potential was a fantastic conference and well worth attending next year!!! I’m still wondering if there should be an apostrophe in the third word of the title, but I am left with no doubts that there was little missing in this jam-packed must-see event! Throughout the conference, there was a great deal of discussion about how the brain changes itself, the capacity of neuronal plasticity and various techniques to improve cognitive performance most notably emotional training, cognitive enhancement tools and mindfulness meditation. It was somewhat surprising that none of the presenters talked about the evolutionary characteristics of the brain that fit these processes together. None of the speakers spoke about the brain as an evolutionary system, yet each of them was subscribing (consciously or unconsciously) to a model of brain function that is based upon evolutionary principles. The best current model of brain development is the Theory of Neuronal Group Selection, also known as Neural Darwinism, a theory that has been described by Nobel Laureate, Gerald Edelman. Perhaps Neural Darwinism was overlooked during this conference because few scholars can fit a description of the brain as an evolutionary system into a 20 minute talk. Indeed, not everyone fully understands what an evolutionary system is let alone explain it to an audience 3000 strong.
In discussions about contemporary spirituality, the words ‘evolve’, ‘evolution’ and ‘evolutionary’ are often bandied around without a proper understanding of what these terms actually mean. In self-help books, the word ‘evolution’ is common-place, but a true understanding of the concept is severely lacking. Authors often draw upon a definition that is a tainted and outdated ladder-like understanding of evolutionary processes from a point-to-point perspective. Creationists take issue with these models and, believe it or not, Darwinists do too. However, this intuitive attraction to the term evolution in current trends of spirituality is not misplaced, merely insufficiently understood. When properly understood, contemporary evolutionary theory can contribute so much more to spirituality, personal growth and development than has heretofore been explored.
Evolutionary theory is compatible with the Buddhist science of the mind explored during the Mind & its Potential conference. Evolution assigns no teleology, makes no assumptions about God(s) but allows for God(s), and is characterised by constant change—perfectly echoing Buddhists concepts of impermanence. Why then, should there not be a greater dialogue between evolutionary theorists, moral philosophers and Buddhist scholars? Indeed, during the Mind & its Potential conference, it was Paul Ekman and B. Allan Wallace who paid tribute to evolutionary theory. An interdisciplinary dialogue between evolutionary thinkers and Buddhist scholars could go even further and make truly remarkable contributions to personal development, culture change and global equilibrium. Such an exploration will certainly empower us and better enable us to understand humanity, predict humanity’s future and make informed choices about humanity’s responsibilities.
During the first panel of the Mind & its Potential conference, Radio Presenter Alan Saunders asked Baroness Susan Greenfield and Dr Dan Siegel “What is the mind?” (overlooking the fact that they had already provided definitions during their presentations). Greenfield described the mind as the personalisation of the brain, and Siegel defined it as a relational embodied process. After listening to the speeches and panel presentations by Dr Dan Siegel, Baroness Susan Greenfield and also subsequent presentations by B. Alan Wallace, I was motivated to think deeply about a definition of the mind. Most scientists have refrained from defining the mind and when they have, they often fallen short of a pleasing definition. For example, in How the Mind Works, Steven Pinker wrote that “The Mind is what the brain does” and upset many critics. I would like to create a space for the development of a definition of Mind that takes into account evolutionary processes. My own research looks at evolutionary processes in the brain, evolutionary processes in culture and the co-evolution of brains and culture. In an evoutionary system, context confers meaning. By changing the context, we alter the function or dysfunction of genetic instructions, molecular structures and cellular machinery. I posit that the brain is the context for the mind, and that culture is the context of the brain keeping in mind that it is the context which evolves. By not directly defining the mind, but allowing the dynamic space for an unfolding definition, we are able to investigate the ongoing heterogeneous construction of mind in living organisms with respect to their socio-cultural milieu. Perhaps such an open definition will be of use to brain scientists, anthropologists and clinical psychologists.
The Mind & its Potential conference was an informative and refreshing way to bring Buddhist scholarship and practice together with the latest findings in the brain sciences to a large audience of vast backgrounds. I do believe that delegates would have benefitted from a deeper explanation of the characteristics of an evolutionary system and how that knowledge applies to the real world. Nonetheless, there was a fantastic selection of solid scholarship with various presenters touching upon findings and issues that truly challenged mindsets. I would have liked to see them engage in the challenging discussions with more depth and commitment, but many presenters chose the path of diplomacy in front of such a vast audience. Understandably so when the purpose was to bring technical research to an eclectic collection of spectators. My advice to future attendees is to familiarise yourselves with the literature of the presenters beforehand because you will gain so much more from the experience. The Mind & its Potential is an extraordinary conference and credit is due to the organisers who did a fantastic job. With audiences becoming more informed and people taking more initiative in their mental health, I can only imagine that the Mind & its Potential will travel to new strengths in the future.