RS professor co-teaches a new course on Buddhism and Neuroscience

The course, “REL3000-1/BIO3000-1 The Meditative Mind-- Neuroscience and Thai Buddhist Vipassanâ Meditation”

Instructors:Mark MacWilliams, Religious Studies Joe Erlichman, Biology and Neuroscience

            This team taught course is an attempt to bridge the divide between the humanities and the hard sciences though a study of an important form of Theravada Buddhist meditation. Studying cognitive science, we can ideally understand the mechanics of meditation, identify the structure of the cognitive states it produces, and examine the physiological and biological effects of meditation. Topics and activities in the classroom will include: Evolution of the human brain; organization of the brain; neural circuits involved in automatic control of the body (breathing, blood pressure, heart rate, body temperature etc); methods to study the brain during mediation (fMRI and PET scanning); and changes in brain structure resulting from meditation (MRI/ tensor diffusion imaging) and how these structural changes differ from other types of experience/learning.

            Studying Theravada Buddhism, we can ideally examine the ways people attribute meaning to their experiences, the way those structures of meaning effect religious practices, and the effects religious doctrine and practices have in human life. This part of the course will offer: an introduction to Theravada Buddhism; an outline of meditation as a Buddhist practice; a close reading of key southern Buddhist meditation treatises, and a focus contemporary meditation movements in Thai Buddhism. Key in this unit is to identify the goals and various understandings of meditation as a religious practice and to assess the contributions Theravada Buddhism makes for understanding human consciousness.

            Our class will be divided into three components: (1) meditation and cognitive neuroscience; (2) meditation in the Buddhist tradition, focusing on S.E. Asia; (3) science, meditation and religious experience: issues and interpretations.