October 31 , 2005
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
with a significantly stronger background in Tibetan Buddhism than many of his
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
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
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
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
at the University of
California, Los Angeles, and then joined the UCLA faculty. He came to Emory
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
how to deal with depression and they start long before a clinician
“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
And the spinning circle continues.