I just returned home from the 2012 Sages and Scientists Conference, a gathering that brought together physicists, musicians, neuroscientists, yoga teachers, philosophers, and more at the Chopra Center in Carlsbad, California. It’s taking some time to readjust to “normal” life. I feel like my brain just tripled in size.
The conference felt like a hybrid of academic symposium, TED conference, and a new-age community gathering. It was intimate, dynamic, and highly interactive. The format of the presentations facilitated rich dialogue among attendees, building bridges between disciplines and perspectives that usually don’t interact with one another. I’ve been to a great many scientific conferences in my day, but I have to say… nothing like this. The Chopras know how to throw a nerd-party.
One of the aspects I appreciated most about the conference was the diverse range of topics presented throughout the weekend. The conference began with the smallest of the small — presentations on quantum physics, quarks, inquiries about the relationship between matter and consciousness. By Saturday, world-renowned neuroscientists V.S. Ramachandran, Richard Davidson, and Daniel Siegel were sharing research on topics like the biology of belief and emotion and the brain. In case you’re not familiar, these scientists are without a doubt the best-of-the-best in their fields. Ramachandran wrote my graduate neuroscience textbook. Dr. Davidson collaborates with the Dalai Lama to study how meditation effects the brain. Daniel Siegel… well, just watch one of his videos on YouTube. The caliber of the presentations was exceptional.
J. Ivy, an incredibly talented spoken word poet, gave my favorite artistic performance of the weekend. This is a briefer version of the same poem performed on Def Poetry.
By Sunday afternoon, my pick for the top educational presentation of the weekend had arrived. The former President of Mexico, Vicente Fox, gave a heartfelt and moving speech about the connection between leadership and service. He argued that all great leaders share one essential feature: They dedicate all their work to a higher cause. At the core of such leaders, Fox argued, is one essential force:
“Love is the greatest power we all have. Leaders don’t like to speak about love and compassion… they don’t think it’s manly. That’s why the 21st century is going to be the century of women.”
Amen to that, President Fox. Too bad we can’t get you in the race for the Republican nomination here in the U.S.! I’d vote for you.
From there, the lens of the microscope zoomed way out. The focus of the presentations shifted from micro to macro, as speakers share ideas for how we can solve the most significant problems facing humankind today: climate change, water shortages, world poverty, and genocide. Satish Kumar, a peace/environmental activist and founder of Resurgence Magazine, spoke about the connection between how we treat the earth and how we treat one another:
“We are all human beings first… before we are Americans, Indians, Pakistanis. We are members of the earth and human community first. We are one humanity.”
For me, this conference was particularly meaningful because it represented a collision of worlds, a demonstration of what’s possible when people with very different beliefs and worldviews come together for collaboration.
In a former life (only two years ago, actually), I was fully immersed in the world of neuroscience and health psychology, on track to get my Ph.D. and spend the rest of my life in a research lab studying intricate processes that underly the mind. But as I approached the end of my senior year, I found the work I was doing less and less fulfilling. I grew disheartened with the miles-long gap between academic discourse and real-world application. I was frustrated that cognitive psychologists seemed so reluctant to collaborate with environmental scientists, to work together to use our understanding of human behavior to guide public policy and fight climate change. If we aren’t in active conversation with non-scientists (politicians, spiritual leaders, non-profit organizers, etc), I wondered, how would these findings ever have an impact on the world?
For me, this conference (and others like it) demonstrate the tremendous opportunities that show up when we make an effort to bridge that gap — connect science and spirituality, knowledge and application, findings with public policy. I watched as relationships were formed between musicians and psychologists, doctors and politicians, physicists and spiritual leaders. Those connections will without a doubt have an impact on all parties moving forward. When we expand our worldview, take a moment to consider how the world is seen through the eyes of another, we open the door to tremendous possibility.
Think of what could be possible if artists and doctors worked together to support women diagnosed with terminal breast cancer! Or if neuroscientists worked side-by-side with non-profits to see if the services they offer are actually reducing stress, improving well-being, etc. Or if Deepak Chopra and a physicist wrote a book together. Oh, wait. I think that’s already happening.
As I was driving back to Los Angeles after the conference, I caught sight of the ocean in the distance and was reminded of why I fell in love with science to begin with. Learning about topics like quantum physics, dark matter, and neuroscience imbues a beautiful experience of awe, wonder, recognition of my own insignificance in the universe. After all, as the great Sage and Scientist Carl Sagan reminded us, we are just one pale blue dot.
To give you a sense of the range of topics covered this weekend, I have collected a smorgasbord of quotes from some of the presenters this weekend. Enjoy!
“I am no more my brain than I am hunger pangs in my stomach. My brain serves the real me.” — Rudolph Tanzi, MD, Neuroscientist & Alzheimer’s researcher
“Spirituality is simply our experience of connection to what we believe truly exists…. There is no spiritual realm that transcends the universe. Spirituality is right here, within our universe.” — Nancy Ellen Abrams, J.D., Philosopher of Science
“There’s no such thing as the paranormal. There’s just the normal and the stuff we can’t explain yet.” — Michael Shermer, Founding Publisher of Skeptic Magazine
“There’s no such thing as mind, there’s just brain…. if you remove the brain, there is no mind. Mind is just a word we use to talk about brain function.” — Michael Shermer
“Science is an important part of our grasping the world… but it doesn’t explain anything. Science in and of itself is not a satisfying world view. I think you need more than that. Science points in a certain direction, but I don’t think it can get you there.” — Fred Kuttner, Physicst
“If you don’t have freedom… you don’t innovate, you don’t create, you don’t discover. To grow a human being, to grow a community… you must have freedom and democracy.” – Former Mexican President Vicente Fox
“Love is the greatest power we all have. Leaders don’t like to speak about love and compassion… they don’t think it’s manly. That’s why the 21st century is going to be the century of women.” — President Fox
“I believe connectivity breeds happiness.” — Erin Mote, Chief of Party for the USAID Global Broadband and Innovations Alliance
“Soil and soul are connected. Soil has soul. Trees have soul. You and I have soul. If we can take care of the soul, you and I can realize who we are.” — Satish Kumar
“The argument is not science or spirituality, but an expanded science that understands that we are also the expression of the universe. We have a personal body and an extended body, but they are both equally ours. We are nature.” — Deepak Chopra