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Beth Sorensen
Office of Communications


Portland, OR (September 16, 2003)–Daniel Reisberg, professor of psychology at Reed College, seized a "personal and professional opportunity that comes along once in a lifetime" when he recently explored the nature of mental imagery with three other psychologists and four Buddhists–including the Dalai Lama.

Reisberg was honored to be one of the scientists chosen to take part in a panel session at the "Investigating the Mind: Exchanges between Buddhism and Biobehavioral Science" conference, which took place in Boston September 13 and 14 and was sponsored by the Mind and Life Institute and the McGovern Institute at MIT. Reisberg was the only speaker or panelist from the Pacific Northwest.

The Dalai Lama–the leader of Tibetan Buddhism and the head of the Tibetan government-in-exile–has a deep interest in the science of the mind and has for years invited scientists to his headquarters in Dharamsala, India, to explore all aspects of the subject. This is the first time that an exchange of this sort has been presented to the public.

"The current view of Western science is that there are inherent properties of the mind that make certain processes unfold in a particular way," said Reisberg. "The Tibetan Buddhist tradition offers strong challenges to these assumptions, and anyone who cares about these topics in psychology must take these challenges seriously." Reisberg and the other panel participants explored visual mental imagery and the way this imagery changes with extensive training, a topic that has received little attention from Western scientists. The Buddhists have not only been examining these skills in detail for many years, but have been practicing them through various techniques of meditation. The two groups approached the topic with great openness, said Reisberg, and a willingness to admit that they might be wrong in many of their specific claims. A strong sense of the need for collaborative research and a feeling of partnership between the psychologists and the Buddhists has grown out of the conference experience, and the mental imagery panel participants plan to continue their conversation through email–from the lab to the monastery and back.

"I try to imagine any other leader of a religious tradition or nation willing to engage in this debate," said Reisberg. He described the Dalai Lama as an enthusiastic participant in all the conference discussions, listening attentively to what others had to say through a translator and both questioning the panelists closely and responding in detail.

The mental imagery panel of psychologists was led by Stephen Kosslyn, John Lindsley Professor of Psychology at Harvard University and associate psychologist in the department of neurology at the Massachusetts General Hospital; the others were Marlene Behrmann, professor in the department of psychology at Carnegie Mellon University, with appointments at the University of Pittsburgh, and Nancy Kanwisher, professor in the department of brain and cognitive sciences at MIT and investigator at the McGovern Institute for Brain Research. In addition to the Dalai Lama, the Buddhists were Matthieu Ricard, a Buddhist monk for 20 years who earned a Ph.D. in cell genetics at the Institut Pasteur; Thupten Jinpa, the Dalai Lama's principal translator, who received the highest academic degree of Geshe Lharam (equivalent to a doctorate in divinity), in addition to a B.A. in philosophy and a Ph.D. in religious studies from the University of Cambridge, England; and B. Alan Wallace, president of the Santa Barbara Institute for the Interdisciplinary Study of Consciousness and a longtime teacher of Buddhist theory and practice.

Daniel Reisberg has been a member of the Reed faculty since 1986. An expert in cognitive psychology, perception, memory, and imagery, Reisberg is the author of Cognition: Exploring the Science of the Mind (Norton, 1997, second edition 2001) and has written numerous works on imagery, memory, emotion, eyewitness testimony, and cognitive psychology. He is a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Psychological Association, and the Western Psychological Association. Before coming to Reed he taught at the New School for Social Research, and he has served as visiting scientist at the applied psychology unit of the Medical Research Council in Cambridge, England. He received his Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania and his B.A. from Swarthmore College.

Reed College, in Portland, Oregon, is an undergraduate institution of the liberal arts and sciences dedicated to sustaining the highest intellectual standards in the country. With an enrollment of about 1,360 students, Reed ranks third in the undergraduate origins of Ph.D.s in the United States and second in the number of Rhodes scholars from a liberal arts college (31 since 1915).

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