CAMBRIDGE, Mass. (AP) – Was the image a duck’s head, or a leaping rabbit?

The Dalai Lama squinted at the computer screen as hundreds of people watched him take a test commonly given by psychologists exploring visual perception.

It was part of an unusual conference that opened Saturday at MIT, seeking to bridge science and Buddhism, two vastly different worlds that nonetheless share a common interest in human consciousness.

Scientists are naturally trained to trust “third-person” verification and be wary of “first-person,” spiritual experiences.

But experts are increasingly interested in many of the same questions that Buddhist monks have studied for thousands of years: can concentration be controlled, and attention practiced? Can visualization be learned? And can the mind turn images into a kind of reality?

Meditation, a central component of Buddhist religious life, may provide some answers about the limits of an individual’s control over the mind.

And panelists suggested that scientists are only now starting to see that expert meditators may be useful not only as guinea pigs, but also in offering insight about the mind.

“Before I got into this, I thought we should be open-minded, but I didn’t think it was likely we would be able to have a useful exchange,” Nancy Kanwisher, an MIT psychologist and panelist, said after the first morning session of the two-day conference. But now, she said, “I feel like there is a common language, a common engagement of ideas. We’ve only scratched the surface.”

The Dalai Lama, the exiled leader of Tibet, participated in a few experiments the scientists demonstrated, such as the duck and rabbit image, and periodically contributed in to the philosophical and scientific exchanges, saying he hoped science could provide answers where inward contemplation cannot.

“I myself am not clear,” he said at one point, drawing laughs from an overflow crowd of scientists, students, monks and even celebrities Richard Gere and Goldie Hawn.

The Dalai Lama, who is described as having a broad general interest in science, indicated his interest in brain imaging and whether it might support some tenets of Buddhism – for instance whether the technology reveals differences between negative reflexes such as anger and “higher cognitive afflictions” like self-centeredness.

The scientists, not surprisingly, wanted to pick the minds of the Buddhist scholars about how they meditate.

Among their questions: do images achieved in meditation emerge at once or in pieces? Do those who have eye problems also have trouble visualizing mentally? And can the clarity of visualized dreams ever be achieved while awake? The answers to all of those questions are closely tied to an understanding of some of the brain’s most important processes.

Predictably, there were moments where the two approaches clashed.

“According to what I know about the brain, it should not be possible,” said Harvard psychologist Stephen Kosslyn of claims by some Buddhists that they can hold images in their heads for hours at a time.

But mostly, Kosslyn and others seemed to be seeking guidance. On several occasions, scientists asked for suggestions on what kinds of studies to do, and how to apply new technology like brain imaging, to study consciousness.

“I can think of a million things to measure, but what I am interested in is, “What do you think are the right things to measure?”‘ asked Jonathan Cohen, a Princeton University brain expert.

Ajahn Amaro, co-abbot of a Buddhist monastery in California, had a ready answer: use the new technology to measure whether the brain’s “level of comfort is associated with how honestly you live.”

AP-ES-09-13-03 1843EDT



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