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Reed professor works to evaluate conflicting claims between western scientists
Reed psychology professor Daniel Reisberg receives grant for his research examining claims made by Buddhist meditators about the nature of visual imagery
PORTLAND, OR (October 15, 2004) - As part of their continuing efforts to foster discussion between western science and Tibetan Buddhism, the Mind and Life Institute of Boulder, Colorado, has awarded Reed College psychology professor Daniel Reisberg a seed grant of $25,000 to pursue research on the nature of visual imagery, or how we form "mental pictures" before the "mind’s eye."
Reisberg’s research will be conducted in collaboration with Reed alumna Sarah Getz (’04), whose senior thesis project, "Exploring the limits of the ‘mind’s eye’: the efforts of training in imaging skills" provided the basis for Reisberg’s planned research.
Reisberg’s research directly stems from the Mind and Life Institute’s September 2003 "Investigating the Mind: Exchanges between Buddhism and Biobehavioral Science" discussions in Boston. These discussions included eleven western scientists (including Reisberg) and His Holiness the Dalai Lama, the leader of Tibetan Buddhism, who participated actively in every session—both as a teacher of his own tradition and an interlocutor of the Western tradition.
For those involved, however, it soon became clear that western scientists and the Tibetan Buddhists possess significantly differing views of mental imagery. According to the western scientists, there exist limits on how complex mental images can be and how rapidly these images can be created. These limits, it is claimed, stem from the specific brain processes needed to create and maintain the images.
The Tibetan Buddhists, on the other hand, claim to be able to visualize meditation images that are exquisitely rich, detailed, and complex at a level beyond the limits that western science suggests. This is made possible, the Buddhists argue, by extensive practice in visualization. In light of these benefits of practice, they feel that western science may need to re-think the so-called "limits" on the human mind.
Reisberg anticipates that his research will document genuine limits on the visualization of mental images. Nonetheless, he is quick to note that the reports from adept meditators must be taken seriously, and notes that he will explore various hypotheses about how one might reconcile the apparent limits on mental imagery with the reports of the meditators.
More broadly, Reisberg welcomes the dialogue between western science and other traditions—dialogue that has been actively encouraged by the Dalai Lama himself. "Much of what we know about the mind," Reisberg states, "comes from carefully controlled laboratory studies, and there’s no question that those studies have taught us a great deal. You have to wonder, though, whether the workings of the mind are different if someone comes to a task with a totally different perspective, or with thousands of hours of practice in the task. And that’s precisely the challenge that the Buddhists are offering, based on their own careful study of how their minds seem to work."
Reflecting on his discussions with Buddhists and on his own research, he comments that "the dialogue between these world views is enormously valuable, both for bringing new data to light and also for helping us think through what the relationship can be between scientific evidence and religious belief."
About the Mind and Life Institute
Founded in 1990, the Mind and Life Institute is dedicated to fostering dialogue and research at the highest possible level between modern science and the great living contemplative traditions, especially Buddhism. It builds on a deep commitment to the power and value of both of these ways of advancing knowledge and their potential to alleviate suffering.
Professor Reisberg first became involved with the Mind and Life Institute in September 2003, when he participated in the aforementioned discussions in Boston. Those talks sought to have western scientists work with members of the Buddhist community to "identify the common ground between these two powerful empirical traditions—Tibetan Buddhism and biobehavioral science—that are both deeply committed to understanding how the mind works, even as they have approached the challenges of investigating the mind in very different ways and, in part, out of very different motivations."
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). For more information, visit web.reed.edu.