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His Holiness the Dalai Lama
Stephen Kosslyn and the Dalai Lama discuss the reality of imagery with the aid of a background sketch which people can see as the head of a rabbit or of a duck. (Photo by Donna Coveney/Massachusetts Institute of Technology)

What can monks teach scientists?

Psychology professor probes imagery with Dalai Lama

By William J. Cromie
Harvard News Office

"What shape are a cat's ears?" Stephen Kosslyn asked the Dalai Lama. The John Lindsley Professor of Psychology at Harvard University expected the Buddhist holy man to conjure up a mental picture and answer immediately, as most people do.

But the Dalai Lama, after consulting his interpreter, smiled and asked, "What kind of cat?"

Kosslyn was flustered. "A house cat," the Buddhist leader answered. He held Kosslyn's hand to ease his discomfort, and told him, "I see a furry head and it's making me feel peaceful."

More Dalai Lama coverage

Kosslyn also asked the Dalai Lama how many windows are in his bedroom. Although his eyes moved back and forth as if he was visualizing his bedroom, the Dalai Lama didn't seem to know, or didn't care to answer the question.

Another monk later told Kosslyn that the Dalai Lama doesn't care about things like cats' ears or windows. But Kosslyn did learn that the Dalai Lama is capable of conjuring up superb mental images of things he does care about. A monk told him that the Buddhist leader keeps accurate images of more than 700 gods in his memory. These complicated deities may have three heads and six arms, each holding a different object.

"Our exchange taught me that Buddhist monks don't necessarily store the same things as we do in their memories," Kosslyn says. "It's a cross-cultural difference I didn't expect."

Can we trust introspection?

Kosslyn was among a group of scientists and Buddhist monks and scholars who came together at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (M.I.T.) last month to discuss what they might learn from each other. One of the sessions focused on Buddhist views of mental imagery and scientific findings about how the brain stores and uses such images.

"Buddhists claim to have developed a science of the mind over the last 2,500 years, but as far as I can tell it's all based on introspection," Kosslyn points out. "Some of the things they claim to be able to do contradict what Western scientists, including myself, believe is possible. I think the Dalai Lama, to his enormous credit, wants to interact with scientists to see whether the beliefs of the religion he heads are scientifically correct."

Buddhists who excel at mental imagery claim that they can hold vivid three-dimensional images of complex objects, like a palace or deity, in their minds for as long as 20 minutes. However, normal people that Kosslyn and his colleagues have tested find it difficult to hold onto even a simple image for more than 10 seconds.

In a recent experiment, researchers in Kosslyn's laboratory showed drawings of common objects to 15 different people. They then asked them specific questions, such as, is the right arm of an anchor drawing higher than the left.

In another session, the participants memorized similar drawings, then later had to visualize them with their eyes closed and answer the same questions. Their brains were scanned during both parts of the experiment. One interesting result is that about 90 percent of the same areas of the brain were actively occupied during both tasks. Every bit of the brain activated when they saw the drawings was also activated when they imaged them.

If the same machinery has to deal with both perception and recalling of images, people should not be able to hold images long, Kossyln concludes.

Buddhists also claim that, after mental training, images pop into their minds all in one piece, "fully formed like a fish leaping out of water," as Kosslyn says. But experiments show that average people bring up images piece by piece. Take something as simple as letters. It seems that letters spring to mind in one whole piece, but, in fact, it takes longer to visualize an "F" than an "L" because the former has one more segment. The same with "G" and "C."

"In imagery, people often think of the images as mental pictures," Kosslyn continues. "They are not." When he and the Dalai Lama talked in front of an audience of 1,300 at M.I.T., he illustrated this point with a sketch (see photo). If you focus on the right side of the sketch, you see the head of a rabbit with long ears extending to the left. When you focus on the left side, the ears become the beak of a duck. It is much more difficult, even impossible, to "reverse" images like this in your imagination.

"During imagery, people don't realize there's an alternative way to see the head," Kossyln point out. "Therefore, introspection can be misleading. "I don't trust it. That's why scientists do experiments."

What's in it for us?

Scientists and the Dalai Lama want to know who is right, and they have begun to cooperate with each other to find out. Kosslyn's laboratory is preparing to scan the brains of volunteer monks who are virtuoso visualizers to see how their brains work. "I'm especially interested in getting data that would contradict my ideas," he says. "That's when you really learn something."

The answer to who is right could have a major impact on many people. "If I'm right and the monks are wrong, that doesn't tell us anything about how the brain processes mental images," Kosslyn admits. "But if they're right and the brain can be trained to do what they report, this could lead to immense practical applications."

The most obvious is improved memory. Based on the experience of monks, Westerners may be able to develop efficient methods of training that enable them to quickly recall the past.

"Since the 1960s, experiments have been conducted on using mental imagery for memorizing," Kosslyn notes. "But surprisingly little has been done to explore other possible uses." Among these he includes using imagery in navigation, planning, problem solving, language comprehension, and helping us to better understand our thoughts and emotions.

Such possibilities can be added to physical advantages. "Many studies have shown that imagery is the best way to control pain outside of medication," Kosslyn points out.

Monks also use meditation, with or without imagery, to reach a state of inner peace and to fight off physical ills. Herbert Benson, a Harvard Medical School researcher and director of the Mind/Body Medical Institute, uses meditation to help lower blood pressure, control pain, ease stress, help people to quit smoking, and other purposes.

Richard Davidson at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, has done experiments that show meditation can strengthen the immune system. Results he has obtained hint that two months of training can help people fight off flu. Such practice also increases activity in areas of the brain associated with positive emotions.

Questions yet to be answered include what kind of training does it take to make a physical and mental difference, and how long will the effects last. More basic, can mental imagery and meditation produce permanent changes in the brain that can provoke a happier, healthier life?

"Clearly, there's an immense amount of interest in the potential of mental imagery and meditation," Kosslyn says. "I have received a ton of e-mail from people describing their personal experiences and asking me questions I can't answer. If the monks are right, and I'm wrong, someday I may be able to answer those questions."

Copyright 2007 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College