Campus & Community

What can monks teach scientists?

1 min read

Psychology professor probes imagery with Dalai Lama

People tested by Harvard Psychology Professor Stephen Kosslyn and his colleagues have found it difficult to hold a simple image in their minds for more than 10 seconds. However, 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. 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.