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Body and Spirit: Tibetan Medical Paintings Opens at the Museum

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Just as Western medical historians prize classic texts, whether Henry Gray’s 1858 Anatomy Descriptive and Surgical or Walter B. Cannon’s 1932 The Wisdom of the Body, students of Tibetan medicine value scroll paintings that illustrate traditional medical knowledge and procedures. Sixty-four modern copies of such medical paintings from the Museum’s collection are the subject of a new special exhibition, Body and Spirit: Tibetan Medical Paintings, which opens Tuesday, January 25 in the Audubon Gallery on the Museum’s fourth floor. Curated by Laila Williamson, senior scientific assistant in the Division of Anthropology, with host curator Laurel Kendall, chair of the division, the exhibition will run through July 17.

In the 17th century, a series of paintings was commissioned for use as teaching aids in a medical school founded in Lhasa, Tibet, by Sangye Gyatso, regent to the Fifth Dalai Lama and author of the Blue Beryl, an important commentary on the classic Tibetan medical text Four Tantras. The fate of the original paintings, which were created between 1687 and 1703, is unknown. But in the late 1990s, Romio Shrestha, a Nepalese artist, and his students reproduced 79 paintings, painstakingly rendering their intricate details in vegetable and mineral dyes on canvas. These Tibetan Medical Paintings, acquired and conserved with the support of Emily H. Fisher and John Alexander and exhibited with the support of a generous gift from the Estate of Marian O. Naumburg, are believed to be among only a handful in existence, providing a unique and rich history of medicine in Tibet.

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Brain Beat: Meditation and the Brain

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The goal of meditation — the act of consciously directing one’s attention to alter one’s state of being — is to take control of the mind so that it becomes peaceful, focused, and more aware. Going beyond the mental and emotional benefits, a new field of study known as contemplative neuroscience is revealing the real, physical effects of meditation on the brain. Using modern neuroimaging and electrophysiological methods, scientists can measure how the brain changes in response to contemplative practices.

This week, neuroscientist Richard J. Davidson,director of the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds at the University Wisconsin-Madison, will join other experts for a panel discussion about Tibetan Meditation, Brain, and the Arts (Thursday, January 27) and speak about how to Change Your Brain by Transforming Your Mind (Saturday, January 29). Visitors can also take part in Tibetan meditation at the Museum at one of many free meditation sessions led by Khen Rinpoche Geshe Kachen Lobzang Tsetan, abbot of Tashi Lhunpo Monastery in India. The Museum is celebrating Tibetan culture throughout the week, as part of the six-day Global Weekends: Brain and the Tibetan Creative Mind program, presented in conjunction with the exhibition Brain: The Inside Story.

In the meantime, check out a couple of recent articles on meditation and the brain:

Can meditation change your brain? Contemplative neuroscientists believe it can,” a post on the CNN Belief blog, explores recent studies on the effects of meditation on the brain, including those conducted by Davidson, that have found that committed meditators experienced long-term changes in brain function. Research has shown that regions of the brain associated with positive emotions indicated an increase in activity — even in novice meditators.

new study led by Massachusetts General Hospital researchers indicates that mindfulness meditation training can change the brain’s structure in just eight weeks. Participants who meditated for about 27 minutes per day showed increased gray-matter density in the hippocampus, the region of the brain important for memory and learning. Decreased gray-matter density in the amygdala, the region of the brain that plays a role in anxiety and stress, was also apparent.

Tags: Brain

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Decision Making and the Brain

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On Thursday, January 20, neuroscientist Paul Glimcher of New York University and Rob DeSalle, curator of Brain: The Inside Story, will discuss the interdisciplinary field of neuroeconomics and how the brain enables humans to evaluate decisions, categorize risks and rewards, and interact with each other. Glimcher, whose books include Neuroeconomics: Decision Making and the Brain and Foundations of Neuroeconomic Analysis, recently answered a few questions about the discipline.

What is neuroeconomics?

Neuroeconomics is a highly synthetic and interdisciplinary effort to understand how both humans and animals make decisions.

What role does neuroeconomics play in our daily lives?

Decisions — the events that neuroeconomists seek to understand and predict — are embedded every aspect of our lives: what to have for breakfast, who to marry, or where to invest our retirement accounts. We make these choices effortlessly, but how? Over the last decade the basic outlines of the answer to that question have begun to become clear and the answers are surprising, exciting, and at times even troubling. It now seems clear that every day, at every action, our brains unconsciously compute and store the values of every event that befalls us. So I would have to say: neuroeconomics is our daily lives.

Tags: Brain

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Follow the Thread: A Mandarin Coat

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In 1901, budding anthropologist Berthold Laufer sent a brilliant blue silk robe he had bought in Shanghai to the American Museum of Natural History with a simple note: “Coat of a mandarin, for the summer.”

Within a few years, fakes would flood the market, says Curator Laurel Kendall, chair of the Division of Anthropology, but the time and place of this purchase indicates that it is “the real thing,” a coat that could only have been worn by a scholar-advisor to the Imperial Court during the Qing dynasty, which lasted from 1644 to 1911.

Part of the Museum’s extensive collection of textiles, this coat exemplifies the rigidly defined rules of Imperial Court dress in which an elaborate system of colors and motifs telegraphed rank. The dragon, for example, is the ultimate “yang” or male symbol, and a sign of the Emperor’s power. The water represented at the bottom of the robe reflects the legendary role of dragons in East Asia’s traditional agrarian societies as denizens of lakes, rivers, and seas who once a year ascend to the heavens to bring on the rain. Overall, the decoration suggests a mandarin of the fourth to sixth rank.

Laufer, who would go on to become the premier Sinologist of his generation, was sent to China by Franz Boas, then director of the Museum’s Anthropology Division and the acknowledged father of the field in America. Boas had secured a grant of $18,000 (about $400,000 today) from New York banker Jacob H. Schiff to cover Laufer’s expenses for three years to gather “collections which illustrate the popular customs and beliefs of the Chinese, their industries, their mode of life.” Laufer set about buying the stuff of everyday life, completing what is still the most extensive ethnographic collection from pre-revolutionary China in North America.

“Nobody was doing that kind of work at that time,” says Kendall. “He gave us a picture of daily life…And that’s us! We’re all about the time capsule, the trunk in the attic, trying to imagine how people lived.”

Go behind the scenes of the Division of Anthropology’s ethnographic collections on February 24 on a Members-only tour.

A version of this story originally appeared in the Winter issue of Rotunda, the magazine for Museum Members.

Tags: Anthropology

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Brain Tweetup Roundup

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“Tweeting is a lot like the nervous system,” Curator Rob DeSalle told the crowd that gathered on Wednesday, January 12 for the first-ever Tweetup at the American Museum of Natural History—a comparison all the more appropriate coming from DeSalle, who curated the Museum’s interactive exhibition Brain: The Inside Story.

The evening kicked off with an after-hours tour of the exhibition, where Tweeters got a look inside a dancer’s brain, tried connecting neurons, and attempted to speak foreign languages. There was also time to talk with DeSalle and co-curator Joy Hirsch.

After refreshments, tweeters headed behind the scenes to learn about the brains of other creatures from Museum scientists and to get a peek at Museum collections. Christine Johnson, a curatorial associate in the Division of Invertebrate Zoology, discussed group decision-making and chemical triggers in ants. Ronald Clouse, a post-doctoral researcher, presented specimens of crustaceans and a few echinoderms while discussing how some of these simple organisms make sophisticated decisions.

To see all the tweets about the event, look for the hashtag #AMNHTweetup or check out the photos on Flickr-and stay tuned for information about upcoming Tweetups at the American Museum of Natural History.

Tags: Brain

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