Naegele Teaches Neuroscience to Tibetan Buddhist Monks

Lauren RubensteinDecember 12, 20164min


In June, Jan Naegele, professor of biology, professor of neuroscience and behavior, traveled to Mundgod, India to teach Tibetan monks through the Emory-Tibet Science Initiative (ETSI), a program promoting “the convergence of science and spirituality as two complementary systems of knowledge,” according to the Emory Tibetan Partnership. ETSI was founded as a pilot in 2006 by Emory University at the bequest of the 14th Dalai Lama. Naegele’s journey, which she took together with her husband, Dr. Paul Lombroso, was described in the Winter 2016 issue of Rutland Magazine, in an article featuring many photographs provided by Naegele.

Lombroso explains, “The Dalai Lama escaped from Tibet in 1959 and continued as the head of the Tibetan Buddhist world. From many trips abroad he realized that modern science is something the monks needed to learn about as another ‘piece of the puzzle’ as they had never been educated in science.”

Monks selected for the three-year program are educated in the areas of philosophy, biology, physics and neuroscience. Naegele taught second-year students about sensory systems in the brain, including visual, auditory and olfactory communication. She told Rutland Magazine that the customized curricula devised for ETSI had to be revised on-the-fly by the teaching staff, who discovered that the Western education system needed modification to “reach” the monastics who brought a totally different cultural experience to the classroom. Tibetan Buddhist monks fluent in English translated the lectures as the professors taught, which was no easy task given the lack of Tibetan words for scientific terms such as electro-magnetic fields, chromosomes, or neurotransmitters.

According to the article:

Also missing from the regulation teaching modules was something that the Tibetan Buddhist monks embraced in class and out of it: true, not theoretical, compassion. To introduce the concepts of natural selection in evolution, several of the faculty introduced the monks to an experiment to exemplify survival of the fittest in the wild. One monk was allowed to use his fingers (mimicking a bird’s “big beak”) to extract pieces of dried fruit tacked onto a board and then eat it. Next to him, another monk was given only tiny tweezers (mimicking a “little beak”) to pry fruit from the grid, and despite his efforts, failed. To Naegele’s surprise and delight, the “big beak” monk promptly extracted more fruit which he then fed to his “little beak” friend, who otherwise would have gone without. This compassion is seen, too, in the end goal of many of the monks in the program: they strive to achieve the Geshe Lharampa degree (described by ETSI as “the highest academic degree granted in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition”) and return to their villages in Tibet to help their countrymen.

The group of faculty teaching in the ETSI program come from all over the U.S. Naegele was reunited with two of her former students: Sam Sober ’98, currently assistant professor of biology at Emory, and Matthew Tresch ’92, currently associate professor of biomedical engineering and physical medicine and rehabilitation at Northwestern University.

Naegele and Lombroso were invited to return to the program and will be joined next summer by Matthew Kurtz, professor and chair of psychology, professor of neuroscience and behavior.