Collaborations between monks and psychologists yield new directions in psychological research.
BY SADIE F. DINGFELDER
With an eye toward understanding the inner workings of the mind and using that knowledge to reduce human suffering, psychologists and Buddhist monks may have more in common than they realize, and possibly even compatible methodology. These commonalities are driving collaborations between some psychologists and Buddhist monks.
Richard Davidson, PhD, a psychology professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, for one, believes that the shared goals and empiricism of these two traditions could lead to useful advances for each. Tibetan Buddhism, says Davidson, is not a dogmatic religion; knowledge in the tradition is gained by examining one’s own experience. Monks train for years to become expert observers of the inner workings of their own minds, he says. Research psychology, on the other hand, attempts to understand mental processes by focusing on third-person observation and de-emphasizing subjective observations of mental phenomena, he explains.
Davidson, who explores brain states and their relationship to human experiences such as consciousness and emotion, recently headed a conference titled “Investigating the mind: exchanges between Buddhism and the biobehavioral sciences on how the mind works.” At the symposium, which was held at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in September, researchers in psychology, neuroscience and other fields discussed theories of cognitive control and attention, mental imagery and emotion with Tibetan Buddhist scholars, including the Dalai Lama. The conference is the second in a series sponsored by MIT and the Mind and Life Institute. The meetings are part of an ongoing series intended to illuminate potential areas for fruitful collaboration between Western science and Tibetan Buddhism.