How do people perceive—and screen out—sensations within their own bodies, such as touches on their fingertips?

Catherine Kerr ’85 presented a lecture and slideshow in December on the neural mechanisms involved in these perceptions. Sitting next to her was an elderly man in a robe and spectacles, who occasionally interjected comments and questions with the help of a translator, while assistants brought him water and tea. The man was Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama. He was learning from Kerr at the Sera Monastery in Karnataka, India, along with an audience of thousands of young Tibetan Buddhist monks.

Catherine Kerr
A diagnosis of multiple myeloma led her to train as a neuroscientist. Catherine Kerr ’85; Major: American Studies

Kerr’s talk with the Dalai Lama (now on YouTube) was “like having a conversation with a brilliant grandfather,” she says, “and he asks really smart questions”— mostly about how the latest findings in neuroscience relate to Buddhist concepts of the connection between mind and body. “He’s asked the great monasteries to incorporate scientifc training into the monks’ training,” she says. “and that’s an incredibly novel and exciting thing.”

Kerr, an assistant professor of family medicine at Brown University, spoke at the Sera Monastery as part of a conference on “Perception, Concepts and Self: Contemporary Scientific and Buddhist Perspectives.” The conference was put on by the Amherst-affiliated Mind & Life Institute, where Kerr is a fellow.

It may seem surprising for modern Western science to intersect with an ancient Eastern religion in this way, but Kerr has long studied the brain from an interdisciplinary perspective. She earned a Ph.D. in history from Johns Hopkins in 1996. A diagnosis of multiple myeloma while she was a Harvard postdoc sparked her interest in studying patients’ understandings of the medical system. That led her to research the placebo effffffect and train as a neuroscientist. Seeking ways to cope with the stress and fatigue from her cancer, she also embraced qigong, a Chinese mindfulness practice involving meditation, breathing and movement.

She has spent the past decade investigating the question, “How does mindfulness change the brain?” Her Harvard research team published findings in 2011 suggesting that training in mindfulness—in directing specific attention to their own bodily experiences—can give people greater “control over the neurons in the primary somatosensory cortex, which is where sensations enter the brain from the body.” This can allow people to “turn the volume up or turn the volume down” on their perceptions of each sensation.

That same year, Kerr arrived at Brown, where she is now director of translational neuroscience for the university’s Contemplative Studies Initiative. Today, her lab studies the effffff ects of mind-body exercises on the neural systems and immune systems of breast cancer survivors.

Kerr sees this interface of mind and body, and of science and spirituality, as a promising frontier, with potential implications for the treatment of depression and pain, and even for our understanding of how the body regulates its own temperature.

“There are a lot of phenomena that some of these Eastern practices have explored that have not been talked about in Western scientific settings,” she says. In true liberal arts fashion, she notes how this reminds her of the line from Hamlet: “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, / Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”