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Lions Roar : September 2005
SHAMBHALA SUN SEPTEMBER 2005 4 1 Following standard procedure, the researchers told the subject that they would count down from ten to one, at which point a loud noise would go off, the equivalent of a pistol fired near one’s ear. “I documented that Matthieu was able to focus his attention using a meditative practice so as to minimize any sign he had been startled,” Ekman says. He told the Dalai Lama, “I thought it was an enor- mous long shot that anyone could choose to prevent this very primitive, very fast reflex.” What Ekman and Davidson have dis- covered in their research has nothing to do with holding a Buddhist worldview. For his part, Davidson says, “I am a hard- nosed Western neuroscientist. The level of description of mind and the level of description of brain are very different, but I also believe that mind depends on brain and without brain there is no mind.” While in Buddhism, mind tran- scends embodiment, as evidenced by reincarnation, in neuroscience mind or consciousness is considered an “emer- gent property”; it just pops up where there are brains. In Buddhism, emotions such as the “three poisons”—aggression, clinging, and delusion—are generally talked about as something to counteract or transcend. Ekman talks about emotions in Darwinian terms, as adaptations to the environment. They allow us to oper- ate automatically, pre-thought. Ekman says, for example, that what he would call “fear” is required to be able to maintain the state necessary to react when driving at high speeds on a freeway. You could spend a long time talking about whether fear is good or not, but Ekman feels “it is not very helpful to just use words, because we may be using them in very different ways. We need to rely on examples. That’s what I try to do in the dialogues.” Ekman and Davidson and the Buddhists they’ve been talking to seem not at all focused on who’s right and who’s wrong. The methodologies of science and Buddhism are mutually respected. For example, the fact that the notion of “mood” appears to have no formal place in Buddhist teachings and yet is a widely used notion by laypeople, clinicians, and researchers in the West is on the studies I’ve done with a few monks, I believe that is something they can achieve. What these extraordinary people can do shows us the outer limit of what humans are capable of.” As a result of the 2000 Mind and Life meeting and at the behest of the Dalai Lama, Ekman agreed to launch the Extraordinary Persons Project. His main subject in a precursor to this project was someone who has also been studied extensively in Davidson’s lab, the monk and fellow Mind and Life interlocutor Matthieu Ricard. A long-time meditator, Ricard served for twelve years as aide and translator for the great Dzogchen master Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche. Ekman’s specialty, developed over years of painstaking study of minute movements of the face, is the Facial Action Coding System, a method of cataloging emotions based on minute changes in facial muscles, such as raising the inner eyebrows, tightening the eyelids, or lowering the corners of the mouth. How well someone can detect such microex- pressions is regarded as an indica- tion of empathy, as well as a skill that enables one to uncover decep- tion and ill-intent. Consequently, Ekman has been vigorously sought out to help law enforcement and anti-terror agencies. Ekman was curious to see whether meditators, who might be expected to be more atten- tive and conscientious, would do well at detecting lightning- fast changes in facial expressions. When presented with a videotape showing a fleeting series of facial expressions that one must correlate with an emotion, Ricard and another meditator scored higher than any of the five thousand other people tested. As reported in Destructive Emotions, Ekman said, “They do better than policemen, lawyers, psychiatrists, customs officials, judges—even Secret Service Agents,” the group that had previously held top honors. Ekman also decided to test whether Ricard could alter the startle reflex, the physiological response to a sudden loud noise. “shows us the outer limit of what humans are capable of.” Paul Ekman (top) and Matthieu Ricard PHOTO©2005THEMINDANDLIFEINSTITUTE