UO's Posner participates in unique Vatican conference

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Pope Benedict XVI and physicist Stephen Hawking at a 2008 meeting of the Pontifical Academy of Science (AP PHOTO/L'OSSERVATORE ROMANO, HO)
Pope Benedict XVI and physicist Stephen Hawking at a 2008 meeting of the Pontifical Academy of Science (AP PHOTO/L'OSSERVATORE ROMANO, HO)

A recent trip to Rome by Michael Posner, a University of Oregon professor emeritus of psychology, had a distinct "Da Vinci Code" flavor.

He and his wife, Sharon Posner – a retired videographer – were whisked from the Rome airport in a black, chauffeur-driven car, which was then waved through a heavily-guarded Vatican City checkpoint after its driver flashed credentials. The couple were deposited at the doorstep of Domus Sanctae Marthae (St. Martha's House) – a 130-room hotel that serves as a temporary residence for the College of Cardinals when the group convenes to select a new pope – and then the car roared off.

The taste of intrigue ended there, but the trip – Posner had come to Rome to participate in a meeting titled, "Neurosciences and the Human Person: New Perspectives on Human Activities" – offered unique glimpses into a world well beyond the reach of most travelers.

For starters, the hotel is a stone's throw from the left transept of Saint Peter's Basilica – a singularly important site to the world's billion-plus Catholics.

"(The hotel) seemed to be run primarily for internal Vatican needs – housing attendees at meetings, traveling scholars and clerics, that sort of thing," Sharon Posner says in a story in the spring issue of Oregon Quarterly. "The rooms were very understated, with beautiful wood floors and lots of mahogany. The bathrooms were all marble and very nice. There was a simple cross over the bed."

There was also an unusual feature, fitting for the priests who often stay at the hotel but not so much for a long-married couple such as the Posners – all the rooms are singles. The Posners found themselves in separate quarters, talking with each other by telephone.

Michael Posner's professional conference was held in a building that was constructed in 1561 as a summer residence for Pope Pius IV and that now serves as home to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences – which itself dates to about 1600. The academy now focuses on six areas: fundamental science; science and technology of global problems; science for the problems of the developing world; scientific policy; bioethics; and epistemology. The academy is made up of 80 top scientists and academics – appointed by the pope - along with church representatives.

At the recent conference, Posner moderated a panel discussion titled "Towards a Neuroscientific Understanding of Free Will," and also delivered a talk, "How Genes and Experience Shape Will."

"I was pleased that they thought I had something to contribute," says Posner, a National Medal of Science winner whose research has spanned the structures and mechanisms underlying alertness, orienting to sensory events and voluntary control of thoughts and ideas.

Posner prepared for his talk – written with Oregon colleagues Mary K. Rothbart and Pascale Voelker – by reviewing scientific literature as well as various papal addresses and encyclicals that touch on the idea of the will.

"John Paul II talks about the development of the will, which is related to the same topic as our work," he says in the Oregon Quarterly story.

Other presenters addressed the state of neuroscience from a variety of perspectives with talks on such topics as "Developmental Sources of Prejudice," "The Evolution of Cooperation" and "Neuroscience of Self-Consciousness and Subjectivity." The conference also included Cardinal Georges Cottier's session, The Christian View of the Human Person and the Soul.

"I learned things from the lectures," Posner says. "I heard a lot of things from outside my field."

Sharon Posner attended several of the sessions, but also enjoyed exploring the 50-plus acres of the Vatican's Renaissance- and Baroque-era gardens. "The grounds were beautifully well tended," she says. "It was peaceful and very quiet."

While strolling, she was approached twice by security personnel who checked to make sure she was an authorized visitor. "Security was very tight," she says.

But showing their room keys seemed to satisfy the guards.

Conference attendees got guided tours of the Vatican Museum and Sistine Chapel, and had an audience with Pope Benedict XVI in the spacious papal apartments.

Sharon Posner describes the 85-year-old pope as a "small frail man," who entered wearing his white cassock and other papal vestments. He welcomed the group and talked about the importance of education.

The couple had a similar experience about a decade earlier, when Michael Posner was invited to another PAS meeting toward the end of John Paul II's long papacy (1978–2005). He remembers the charismatic pope, then in his early eighties, as "quite infirm."

The 2012 meeting was the third in a series on neuroscience that has been hosted by the Pontifical Academy every 24 years since 1964. The conference's printed prologue includes this reflection on the future: "We may imagine another meeting of our Academy on this same issue in 2036 but we certainly cannot predict the topics and the technologies that will be discussed then. Our fields are expanding rapidly and the scientific, philosophical and theological challenges will increase accordingly."

- from Oregon Quarterly