Sunday, April 26, 2009

With your mind you make the world...

Recently, I heard a lecture from Elizabeth Loftus
about false memory. She presented evidence for claims that it is
possible to implant false memory in people--in fact, it is very
easy. For example, people can be convinced very easily that they have
gotten sick of a particular food, and will subsequently avoid it. This
is an effect that persists for even months! What is quite shocking
about these studies is that what we think of as us is really a
construction, and very easily altered. On the other hand, it also
gives us hope. We are not stuck with our psychological make-up: we can
change it fairly easily. That is probably the whole ground of Buddhist
practice. We convince ourselves every day on our cushion of the
importance of caring for others, and of the relativity of our own
perspective. This can make our minds much more flexible.

A few weeks later, I heard a lecture by Michael Kane about
mindwandering. It is actually quite easy to induce mindwandering in
people: give them a boring task, and off they go. What is interesting,
is that the amount of mind-wandering people do is related to their
working memory capacity. In general, people with a higher working
memory capacity tend to mind-wander less; although on easy tasks they
sometimes mind-wander more than people with low working memory
capacity. Of course in meditation we are trying to train not to
mind-wander. This begs the question: can meditation increase our
working memory capacity? There is some very preliminary evidence that
it can, although it is not sure by how much and for how long.

The final example comes from my own research, which shows that
intensive shamatha meditation training might actually change how you
perceive the world, and make it more precise. In a paper presented at
the Cognitive Neuroscience Society in San Francisco, I argued that
after a month-long intensive shamatha retreat, participants were able
to remember face stimuli with less mental noise than before. There are
surely problems with my study, for example that the first time they
were tested, some participants had just had a long journey to get
there with a lot of stress. Nevertheless, all of these research
studies seem to point in the direction that we can change our mind,
and we can affect how we perceive the world.

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