His Holiness the Dalai Lama – Neuroplasticity & Healing
Ottobre 26th, 2014 by admin

His Holiness the Dalai Lama – Neuroplasticity & Healing in Birmingham AL & a Visit to 16th Street Baptist Church

Birmingham, Alabama, USA, 25 October 2014 – The University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) invited His Holiness the Dalai Lama to participate in a scientific symposium entitled Neuroplasticity and Healing as part of Birmingham’s Human Rights Week. When he arrived this morning about 300 Tibetans were gathered on the lawns outside the University to welcome him with flags, banners, music and dancing. He made a point of walking over to greet them and acknowledge their good wishes before going into the building. Vice-President of the University, Ray Watts, introduced His Holiness and other members of the panel, Edward Taub, Michael Merzenich and Norman Doidge, who he expected would reveal knowledge that can positively change communities. Norman Doidge, who has written ‘The Brain that Changes Itself’, explained the term neuroplasticity. The neuro part refers to the brain and nervous system, while plasticity refers to its potential for change. This property opens up possibilities for improvement and recovery after even severe brain damage.

Dr Doidge said that for 400 years it was thought that the brain was fixed like a machine. At the time of Descartes the brain was compared to a hydraulic pump. Once there was an idea that connections in the brain were electric, it was thought that the brain was ‘hard-wired’. When the brain was compared to a computer, it was regarded as hardware, while thoughts were considered to be like software. All these explanations missed the idea that the brain was plastic. It was assumed that the mind was what the brain does; a kind of physical process even though it could not be measured. Therefore, it came as a shock to discover that thought can change the brain.

Introducing the members of the panel he said that Michael Merzenich’s persistent work persuaded scientists that the brain changes. The brain has always been plastic, but his work convinced people that it was so. That people did not believe him to begin with, but were eventually convinced is a tribute to his courage and love of truth. Edward Taub was the first to show that the results of major conditions like stroke and multiple sclerosis can be changed through neuroplastic intervention. Here in Alabama are the foremost facilities in the world for tackling motor problems that result from stroke. Despite many other calls on his attention, Dr Doidge said, His Holiness has kept up a consistent interest in the mind and the mind’s ability to study itself, which he referred to as an understanding that is noble and good.

Invited to make the first remarks, His Holiness said: “This is the first time I have been to Alabama and it’s an honour for me to begin by engaging with great scientists in discussions of the mind and brain. I have always been curious. Whenever I come across something new to me, I want to know why and how. “My mother was extremely kind. As I grew up my brain faced no fear or anxiety, it had the opportunity to develop to the fullest extent. That’s why I can use it to inquire into other things. If I’d grown up in an atmosphere of fear and anxiety, my brain might not have developed so well. Because I have the name Dalai Lama I began to study very early in a system that values taking a logical approach. We apply reason, following the Buddha’s advice not to take things at face value, but to investigate and experiment.”

He explained how as a child he used to dismantle his toys to see how they worked. From keeping an old movie projector and its small generator running he learned the principles of electricity. To some extent such activities interested him more than study and the memorization of texts. After coming to India in 1959 he had greater opportunities to meet scientists and then more than 30 years ago began to meet them to seriously discuss cosmology, physics, neuroscience and psychology. He affirmed that the interchange between ancient Indian psychology, including Buddhist psychology, and modern science has been mutually beneficial.

Michael Merzenich told His Holiness it was a pleasure to be with him and that he admired his work. He explained that brain plasticity is the basis for creating different models of the world. The brain is massively specialized because it changes itself, physically, functionally and chemically. Reading changes the brain and he said it is relatively easy to give a non-reader a reading brain. The key is the ability to translate word sounds into letters. The brain is built to make relations. However, a crucial aspect of plasticity is that it is also reversible. It can be deployed to improve or degrade any ability. Plasticity is thus a two way process.

He asked how you turn an old experienced brain into what appears to be a more capable young one – and answered, by training it. He mentioned several targets for research and training including autism, learning impairment, addiction, schizophrenia and bipolar disorder and depression as part of an effort to improve the lot of humankind.

Edward Taub also began by telling His Holiness that it was a privilege and honour to spend time with him. He spoke about the Constraint-Induced Movement Therapy or CI therapy he has developed, which consists of a family of rehabilitation treatments that harness the plasticity of the nervous system. Prior to 1980 the view of the central nervous system was that it was hard-wired so after injury was unable to repair itself. However, in recent years it has been established that the brain is very plastic and that plasticity persists throughout life. Moreover, until 1990 the prevalent belief was that all recovery of motor function took place in the first year after brain injury. Consequently, many were not treated. In fact, the brain can be remodelled. CI therapy involves restraint of the unaffected limb and intensive use of the affected limb. For example, the patient might use an affected hand and arm to do exercises like stacking cones or picking up a pencil. It can bring improvement by training the brain. Reward and encouragement are used to ensure the patient keeps improving. Rehabilitation becomes an active process and the patient becomes the active agent of his or her own improvement.

His Holiness noted the importance of the voluntary aspect of the treatment and the positive role of joy. He remarked that we are beset by negative emotions like anger and jealousy and wondered if techniques could be found to control them. Merzenich suggested that there is such a technique already and it is called meditation.

Dr Doidge intervened to add that although so far they had been talking about the brain, it has been found that the immune and nervous systems are part of the same system. Dr Taub pointed out that there are findings to show that with use of Transcendental Meditation (TM) there is a decline in reliance on the health system, increase in longevity and a decrease in incidence of heart attack.

His Holiness invited questions from the audience and was asked what he would advise to reduce cynicism. He replied that taking a narrow view of things makes us feel more negative even when there are grounds for hope and optimism. He mentioned that since the early 20th century there has been a popular trend away from sanctioning war towards keeping the peace. Since the fall of the Berlin wall countries that struggled under totalitarianism became free. Meanwhile, science and spirituality, especially inasmuch as it involves the mind, have become closer. Dr Doidge advised consulting introducing a brain training system built and tested by an international team of more than 100 top neuroscientists and other brain experts.

Reverend Arthur Price, Pastor of the 16th Street Baptist Church, showing His Holiness the Dalai Lama photos in the church’s Memorial Room in Birmingham, Alabama, USA on October 25, 2014. Photo/Jeremy Russell/OHHDL

After eating lunch with the panellists, His Holiness drove to the 16th Street Baptist Church, where he was received by the pastor Reverend Arthur Price. The pastor explained the historical significance of the church. During the civil rights movement of the 1960s, it served as an organizational headquarters, site of mass meetings and rallying point for blacks protesting against widespread institutionalized racism in Birmingham, Alabama and the South. Martin Luther King, Jr. was a frequent speaker at the church. In 1963 members of the Ku Klux Klan planted 19 sticks of dynamite outside the basement of the church which exploded, killing four young girls. The sense of outrage over this bombing is believed to have contributed to the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act the following year. Pastor Price showed His Holiness the memorial containing pictures of events related to the Civil Rights movement and the bombing, as well as a clock that stopped at exactly the time of the explosion.

While waiting for the Mayor in the church upstairs, His Holiness answered questions from the media. With the mechanical drone of the Dolgyal demonstrators outside clearly audible, he was asked for a statement in response to their complaints. He replied:

This controversial issue is 400 years old. At one time I too recited these prayers but I stopped when I realized that previous Dalai Lamas had strongly opposed the practice. I have never banned the practice, but it is my responsibility to make clear the reality about it. My Senior Tutor, my main teacher, was always sceptical about it and the 13th Dalai Lama strongly opposed it. Whether these demonstrators listen to what I have to say or not is up to them. If you are interested to know more about it, look into its history both inside and outside Tibet.”

Asked what he felt to visit this historical site, he said he had come because the Mayor, William Bell, had invited him. He said he was glad to come to such a historical place associated with the struggle for truth. Although he had not met Martin Luther King, he had met his wife and son who told him of Dr King’s admiration for Gandhi, the simplicity of his way of life and non-violence.

As he was about to leave, His Holiness told Mayor Bell that his role as a leader too was important and that one of the key things to keep in mind is that we are all the same as human beings. Tomorrow, still in Birmingham, he is to attend an interfaith discussion and give a talk about secular ethics in our time.–healing-in-birmingham-al–a-visit-to-16th-street-baptist-church

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