Topics and Attitudes—Not to Mention the Opening Event’s Keynote Speaker—at This Year’s Neuroscience Society Conference Suggest an Important Corner Has Been Turned on the Nature Versus Nurture Debate

A few days ago—in mid-November—the Society for Neuroscience met in Washington, DC, in an event that, if it had any message at all (and it had many), it was this: in terms of exploring and understanding how the brain works, times are a’changing. This was indicated from the opening moments because guess who was invited to open the SFN’s annual meeting?

The Dalai Lama.

Now this gent, an amazing fellow who is as savvy about the workings of postmodern media and politics as he is in the ministrations of ancient Buddhist regimens and practices, is usually a “natural” for most intellectually oriented Boomer, Gen X and Gen Y audiences. But his appearance before the neuroscientists carried double-meaning. There was his topic—the need to be vigilant about ethics and responsibility in scientific research. And there was the ancillary element—the role of meditation in changing the structure and activity of our brains.

The Dalai Lama was less interested in structural changes than in behavioral changes. He talked about training people to think compassionately. But researchers like Sara Lazar of MassGeneral Hospital in Charlestown presented evidence showing that regions like the prefrontal cortex and the insula (an area that integrates emotions, thoughts and sensor imput) in the right hemisphere are thicker in experienced meditators.

“It is a real effect to do with meditation experience,” says Lazar. And what are consequences of the effect? For one, an apparent reversal of the normal cortical dissipation that age brings on.

There were numerous such presentations at the SFN meeting. A significant corner has been turned, it would appear, in the nature versus nurture debate. In hindsight, the whole issue is probably going to seem silly and naïve in the ways it has been previously approached by thinkers in both camps. Of course both nature and nurture contribute vitally to how an organism works. Both are elemental. Both are synergistic. And both are unavoidable in explaining anything to do with life. Now, we are beginning to have the tools to confirm some of the nitty-gritty details. And now, thanks to the human genome project and the decade of the brain, to cite two huge impetuses, we are beginning to have a sympathetic atmosphere in the scientific community to get on with the search and the research. Because henceforth, the interaction between genes and experiences is going to be considered a given. The big questions now have to do with how all this complexity works.

In our Brain Technologies seminars, we’ve talked for years about the importance of doing things that cause you to change how you describe yourself as being key to changing how you think.

That’s because we’ve always thought experience interacting with genes changes experience. And that genes interacting with experience changes how genes work.

And we’ve always thought it was a no-brainer that everything you do has an impact on how the brain is wired and functions, and that everything the brain does has an impact on what you do. And think. And are. (And that includes spiritually.) Now, those of us who have so been arguing are starting to find ourselves in very good company.
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NewScientist.com’s news service had an insight-filled article on the SFN meeting. Go to
“How life shapes your brainscape”. (You will have to pay $4.95 to get a subscription to the news service to read the entire article but the opening paragraphs are free and, in themselves, quite interesting.)

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