Thursday, January 24, 2008

Bliss? -- at the Rubin Museum

The Rubin Museum of Himalayan Art is presenting a six-month long series of events called "BRAINWAVE", in conjunction with CUNY and the School of Visual Arts. The events include many dialogs, and talks, as well as music and poetry and, Saturday, a guy who says he's learned "tumo" the Tantric are of raising his body temperature who plans to have himself packed in ice for an hour or two. Last night's event was centered on Eric Weiner's new book. He's an NPR reporter and his book has the sellable title, Bliss: One Grump's Search for the Happiest Places in the World. He was joined by a neuroscientist from Stanford, Emma Sapparo. Weiner was an entertaining speaker and kept the room full of people smiling as he talked about his research. Emma was the main reason I went and I was disappointed that she showed Brain 101 in Power Point and was so soft spoken she really didn't hold her own with Weiner. She did, however, insist on the subjectivity, both personal and cultural, of the whole idea. Weiner was aware of this and apparently does write of the differences between Eastern definitions and Western ones.

However, as one questioner brought up during Q&A, he doesn't explore Africa at all and apparently he leaves out Central and South America, Australia and New Zealand and the tons of island nations that we tend to ignore. The perspective is, I'm glad to say, no longer Euro-centric [with the US an extension of Europe] but it continues to leave about half the world. His conclusion, based on subjective criteria, is that the happiest places are Switzerland, Iceland and the Scandinavian countries. He talked about Bhutan which has a governmental policy for "Gross National Happiness," but did not then include it in the top three. I guess things can improve greatly in a culture because I thought of Strinberg, Ibsen and some very melancholic Scandinavian writers.

As has been in the news a great deal, much brain imaging [MRI/PET] is being and recently has been done with Buddhist meditators to see what happens in their brains. Emma is involved in this work and I would have liked to hear more. The tantalizing bit of information Emma offered is that when those in meditation are given orange juice during the experiment, the brain recognizes the pleasure of a sweet taste, but the "desire" parts remain unaffected. This suggests they are in a state of not wanting or rejecting, of balance. I'd like to hear more about such things and more about some breathing experiments she glancingly mentioned. She was obviously familiar with a great deal of interesting literature on the subject but did not talk about it, which greatly disappointed me.

Over the next few months I'm sure I will attend other discussions, if they continue to be on the pop-science level I'll be deeply disappointed even when they are entertaining as the evening was.

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