Kent Berridge, the James Olds Collegiate Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience, hesitated a year ago before taking the offer to discuss his research on addiction with the Dalai Lama.
“It seemed so overwhelming; it was certainly nothing I would put myself forward for,” Berridge said. “I didn’t feel quite up to what the Dalai Lama group might want.”
But now Berridge is in Dharamsala, India, the site of the exiled Tibetan government, preparing to participate in Mind & Life XXVII: Craving, Desire and Addiction. It’s the 27th lecture sponsored by the Mind and Life Institute, a nonprofit organization that investigates the intersection between Buddhism and science founded in part by the head monk of Tibetan Buddhism.
All experts in their respective fields, the dozen event speakers typically include philosophers, scientists, psychologists and Buddhist monks. Berridge said he looks forward to the interdisciplinary perspectives the dialogue will offer.
Psychology Prof. David Meyer attended and organized a research dialogue with Daili Lama in 2009. He said the interdisciplinary nature of the dialogues led to “profound new insights.”
“Buddhism has a lot of neat ideas that you can bring into a scientific framework to pursue further and that will advance both the science and, like the Dalai Lama would want, the Buddhism,” Meyer said.
He added that Buddhism as a spiritual practice leaned towards a scientific approach.
“The Dalai Lama has said if there are any beliefs in Buddhism which turn out to be contradicted by what scientists are finding, then Buddhism is going to have to change its beliefs so it’s consistent with science,” Meyer said.
The Mind and Life Institute chooses a topic each year for its week-long dialogues. Addiction, the topic this year, is a key question in Buddhism and science alike. Buddhism posits craving as the root of all suffering. An overabundance of craving can develop into addiction, which concerns psychologists like Berridge.
“Addiction is basically just a kind of chronic craving over which somebody who is addicted doesn’t have control,” Meyer said. “Regardless of whatever you’re addicted to, you’re going to have very intense cravings and it’s impossible to completely satisfy that craving. As a result of being unsatisfied, you suffer.”
Berridge’s role at the dialogue is to explain the scientific background of addiction. It is impossible to discuss solutions to addiction without understanding how an addict’s brain functions.
“I think that my perspective might help them to understand the essence of craving and the essence of good and bad cravings,” Berridge said. “I’m there to describe the problem better and help them come up with a better solution.”
Berridge’s research shows that there are two sections of the brain behind cravings: wanting and liking. A person wanting an ice cream cone because they like ice cream would likely have both areas of their brain activated. Addicts, conversely, may have the “liking” sections of their brains turned off, but their active “wanting” sections can impel them to seek substances that they know are harmful and that they do not like.
These conferences improve the public well-being in the long run, Meyer said. The Mind and Life Institute uses the information discussed in these meetings to decide what research to fund.
Meyer said he valued the opportunity to meet the Dalai Lama in 2009, whom he noted had both profound humility and keen intelligence.
“You would never start off expecting that some day you might wind up having a personal conversation with someone like the Dalai Lama.”