Sunday, April 23, 2017

What happens when you try to transplant cognitive science to a Tibetan monastery

After a short night on the plane from Frankfurt to Bangalore, and a long drive to the monastery, we arrived safe and sound from hustling and bustling in India to the quaintness of a Tibetan monastery. Our mission? Trying to learn about the effects of the debating that Tibetan monks engage in on their cognitive and emotional functioning. But (obviously) none of it was as easy as that may sound.
cow in front of Sera Jey's science centre, where we conducted our studies

a visit by NIMHANS scientists

Doing research in India reminds you of how we take so many things for granted: drinkable water flowing from the tap, warm water to take a shower, steady internet, and electricity. The first few days, internet was mostly absent and electricity was intermittent. This meant we were really coding like monkeys, because apart from talking to our monastic collaborators, there was no distraction! We had brought a few tasks that we routinely use in our laboratories to study logical reasoning, working memory, and decentering (this is the ability to realize that your thoughts are just thoughts, and then to step outside a train of thought). We thought that translating the tasks and their instructions would be quite trivial, since it mostly involved common words like 'shoebox' and 'baseball bat.' But of course, shoeboxes and baseball bats are actually not that common in a Tibetan monastery! So we had to had long conversations about what the best Tibetan equivalent for a particular word would be. This really makes you realize how western-centric the psychology tasks that we normally use are! Another example of that came up in a working memory task that we use, in which you have to intersperse memorizing a visual object and making decisions about words. As it turns out, monks are really not used to doing two things at the same time (or maybe we should say: Westerners are chronic multitaskers). So is this actually a good measurement of working memory?

a testing session in action (with a visiting dog)
But doing research in India is not only being a crazy coding monkey: relationships with people are also very important. We received a visit from Prof. Shantala Hegde and Shivarama Varambally from the prestigious National Institutes of Mental Health And Neuroscience in Bangalore. They gave talks to the monastic core team about their work on how music affects emotions, and what goes wrong in patients with schizophrenia. And imagine, the tasks had to be improvised without slides because we still had no power! Nevertheless, we had a wonderful time together and learned a lot. We also were invited by the abbott of the monastery. What was very exciting was that some of the monastic collaborators actually presented the data and graphs single-handedly to the abbott, who was very inspired, and gave his blessing to the project. Not unimportant for a project that takes place at a monastery...

After a few days, and lots of struggles with Tibetan fonts, we got the tasks to show up on the little tablets we brought and we were able to start testing (victory!). We started doing our usual thing: trying to rush through the tasks to get in as much data as possible. However, this just doesn't work for the monks. As we slowed down, we realized the process was much more pleasant for everyone (and much more informative!) if we took a break after every task and asked the monks about their experience in doing the tasks--what worked, what didn't, whether it was related to things do would do in their debating or analytical meditation practice, and so on. We also quickly discovered the meaning of "Indian time"--groups of monks could show up 15, 30, 45, or even 60 minutes late! On the other hand, it is also quite rewarding when your participants tell you that a boring task is "good mind training." Even more rewarding was the fact that our monastic collaborators really manifested and single-handedly took charge of the testing sessions.
Monks taking charge of the testing sessions!

Altogether, it was a wonderful gift to hang out with my monastic collaborators once again. They are some of the most kind, funny, and joyful people I know. Quite illustrative for this was Easter, which fell in the period that we were visiting to conduct some studies. My collaborator Amir and I hid some chocolate easter eggs, and the monks playfully went around searching for them, and even rehiding some of them after they had found them!