Saturday, January 30, 2016

A cross-cultural collaborative study of monastic debate (aka my India adventure)

Last December I got on the plane with an exciting destination: Bylakuppe, India. It was probably the most mind-blowing journey I have made for work thus far. The primary goal of this journey was to collect pilot data for a research project on debating practices engaged in by TIbetan Buddhist monks. For those who have ever watched debate, it is quite a spectacle (see for example here). When my collaborators (David Fresco, Marcel Bonn-Miller, and Josh Pollock) and I left, we knew very little about debate (except for having read parts of this phenomenal book by Georges Dreyfus), and our objective was to learn as much as we could and collect pilot data for future studies.
picture by David Fresco

What made our study so unique is that--inspired by our work with Science for Monks last year, we wanted to make the research really a two-way street. We went to learn about debate, but also to teach our monastic collaborators about how to conduct science. To accomplish this, we had a meeting every evening with the monastics, and chatted about what debate brought them, showed our EEG equipment, while they showed us their debating practice. The first evening after our arrival we were still fairly hung-over from our flights, but nevertheless learnt a tremendous amount about debate while having a nice dinner with the monastics. They told us for example that debating is not just a dyadic practice, but involves a continuously changing group of people. As the debate heats up and interesting arguments are being made, more people may join in. Informal meetings such as this dinner turned out to be a well-spring of information for us curious scientists.

our puppy team member (picture by Marcel Bonn-Miller)
In the following days we would meet our monastic friends in the evenings in the Sera Jay science centre, a place where the monks learn about science and where we had put up our camp (i.e., the EEG that we had brought along in a suitcase). The first night we just showed our EEG equipment (we were amazed it even worked in India!), but before we knew it the monks were already playing around with the equipment, fascinated by seeing their own brain waves. Because the monks did not seem to have too many problems with the EEG equipment, we could move onto the more exciting stage the next evening: wiring up two monks, and then having them debate while they wore the caps. We were particularly curious about what would happen to the synchronization between their brains over the course of their debate. Inter-brain synchronization is a very new field, but it is thought that it reflects some sense of social connectedness. For example, it has been shown that in a prisoner's dilemma, between brain synchronization is larger when players cooperate than when they defect. Nevertheless, given that this was a very new tool, we had no idea whether this was going to work. Another challenge was that we observed this practice, but since the monks debated in Tibetan, we had little idea of what was going on. For that reason, we developed a new technology. We asked one of the monks to set at one of our computers and press a button whenever he thought and event of interest (e.g., the debaters are now getting in synch, or the debate is heating up, or there is a large amount of disagreement). I sat next to that monk and wrote down his description. What I really liked about this method--as crude as it is--was that it really included the monk's judgments and perspectives into our data analyses. The next day we would spend analyzing the just-collected data, thinking about what we found, and coming up with a plan for that evening.

One of the interesting things we learned from the monks was that debate is not only a method to sharpen your intellect (they quoted a Tibetan saying that says "don't bang your head against the wall, and don't argue with a Geshe", which means that both are not a good idea, since a Geshe will always outwit you). Debate is also a way to train emotion regulation. When the monks start debating, they can be very angry with each other. In debate, they learn to quickly move into and out of the anger, and thereby the emotion loses its intensity. They also told us that debate can help create self-confidence, because they learn how to argue well (interestingly Daniel Perdue argued the same in a book he wrote on applying debate in the Western classroom).

attending the Mind & Life meeting. Picture by David Vago
the dangerous bee nests
debate with EEG hyperscanning in course - picture by David Fresco

While every day was an amazing adventure during this visit because we learnt so many new things (and we also got to attend the Mind & Life meeting with His Holiness the Dalai Lama, doing research in India was not without challenges. Several times we wondered whether we were going to survive the auto-rickshaw ride. As a reminder of impermanence, we saw a little puppy being hit by one such autorickshaw on one of our first days in India. He was adopted by Marcel Bonn-Miller and slowly became a new member of the research team as he was nursed back to health. On one of the last days of our trip, one of the killer bee colonies that was hanging alongside the monastery broke out and preyed on several monks, as well as my colleague Marcel, who suffered 30 bee stings and had to be brought to the clinic. Thankfully he was able to get the appropriate treatment and survived, but it surely brought back the precariousness of life in India. Despite these less-pleasant adventures, I think this visit to India taught us a phenomenal amount, and I am already looking forward to the next trip!
Post a Comment