Emory Report
October 31, 2005
Volume 58, Number 9


Emory Report homepage  

October 31 , 2005
Spin cycle

BY eric rangus

Shortly after coming to Emory in 1999, Charles Raison, assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences, renewed his friendship with religion Lecturer Lobsang Tenzin Negi. They shared an interest in perspectives of the self—only they approached the subject from different hemispheres.

Ordained as a Buddhist monk by the Dalai Lama himself, Negi adheres to Tibetan Buddhist traditions. Raison is a mainstream Western scientist—albeit one with a significantly stronger background in Tibetan Buddhism than many of his peers.

It was an inspired partnership that led to an equally inspired class. Their team-taught course, “Psychobiologic Foundations of Personhood,” investigated Western perspectives of the self—both historical and modern—and compared and contrasted those with Buddhist notions.

“In the traditions of the West, the self has been seen as a reified, concrete thing,” Raison said. “You had a soul that God put into your body, and one thing that modern brain science has done over the last 20–30 years is suggest that our perception of a unified, conscious self is a production. You go looking for it. It’s a constructed thing that emerges out of smaller, simpler parts. That’s a conception the Buddhists have had for years. The idea is to examine your sense that you exist as a solid independent entity. When you do that, you find out that there is no self to be found. You look around and you see that it’s all related to your body. That’s part of why scientists and Buddhists have wanted to talk to each other, especially in the last five or 10 years.”

It’s pretty heady stuff and probably not the sort of material that can be properly explored in a single semester. So next spring, following a good bit of planning Raison and Negi will team up again for a new course that takes the East-West personhood dynamic in a slightly different direction. They have also partnered with a third faculty member, Chikako Ozawa-de Silva, assistant professor of anthropology.

Cross-listed in anthropology and the Graduate Division of Religion, the half-semester course “Phenomenology of Depression: Body, Mind and Culture” will explore the perceptions of emotional disorders, particularly depression, from the interdisciplinary approaches of medical anthropology, psychiatry and the Tibetan Buddhist tradition.

“Depression is a funny business,” Raison said. Of course, he doesn’t mean humorous, Raison means intriguing. As such, depression and its treatment is another of Raison’s research areas.

“Culture is impacted, but in many ways the presentations are the same around the world,” he said. “To some degree depression is a hard-wired neurobehavioral response to things really hitting the fan in people’s lives. There is this very interesting dynamic and tension between how culture shapes the presentation of depression and the underlying human, universal physiology. Most people with depression get a lot of aches and pains. They don’t sleep well. They lose weight very often. You see that all over the world. It’s interesting to see how the mind affects the body and the body affects the mind.”

It’s that connection between the body and the mind—the physical and the psychological that drives Raison. He is a faculty member in the Emory Mind-Body Program, which explores interactions between the two through clinical and basic scientific research.

Raison said humans are at risk from a “spinning circle of depression” and its onset can be caused by either physical or mental stresses. Those stressors activate pathways that can lead a mentally stressed person to become physically sick and vice versa.

In the upcoming class, the three instructors will lecture about depression from their various perspectives. Raison said he will take Western, “scientific” perspectives on depression and place them in cultural contexts. The class discussions will come from the many collisions that take place following these explanations.

The addition of the anthropology angle is exciting for Raison in more ways than one. It takes him back to the start of his academic career.

A native of California, Raison graduated with a degree in anthropology from Stanford University and then earned a master’s in English from the University of Denver (and worked for a time as a journalist) before switching to medicine.

He earned his medical degree from Washington University in St. Louis, returned to California to complete his residency in psychiatry at the University of California, Los Angeles, and then joined the UCLA faculty. He came to Emory in 1999.

Raison’s interest in Tibet was fueled by a trip he took to India many years ago when he was a “young hippie dude.” He traveled to Dharmasala, home of the Dalai Lama, and when he returned home to California tried to practice some of the things he learned. Meditation, for instance, didn’t stick, although studying its therapeutic qualities is another of Raison’s research interests. In practice, Raison exercises to relieve stress.

“Buddhists have a very interesting take on treating mood disorders,” said Raison, who said while he Buddhism is a frequent ingredient in his research, he does not practice it. “It’s not all touchy-feely. Their treatments range from giving love and kindness to people who feel depressed, to demon exorcism or hot pokers. They call it branding. A white-hot, metal rod is applied to the sternum. You wander around and see these people who have been worked over.”

Branding is not generally a treatment for depression in Western culture, but Raison has ideas—at least from the Western perspective—about how to deal with depression and they start long before a clinician gets involved.

“Social support is good for what ails you,” he said. “I have a research interest in trying to understand pathways by which group cohesion, social embeddedness and social connectivity moderate inflammatory response to psychological stress. It sounds like a hoity-toity thing, but to optimally function as human beings in the modern world, we need finely tuned stress and immune systems. You don’t want your inflammatory system firing off like crazy once you get into a fight with someone. That sets you up for heart disease and other health problems.”

And the spinning circle continues.