Buddhism and Experimental Psychology


Today, I’d like to discuss an article by the American Psychological Association on Buddhism and experimental psychology.

Interdisciplinary work is currently at the forefront of research into the mind and brain, and what could be more interdisciplinary than working with Buddhist monks? After all, Buddhists have a 2,000 year headstart on empirical investigations into how the mind influences the body and vice versa. The essence of Buddhism’s approach to psychology has never been dogmatic, but rather, has always been empirical in nature. It has always been emphasized that lifelong experience through meditation is the gateway into understanding your own mind, which of course, leads to the understanding of others. It is this emphasis on experience that makes Buddhism so compatible with empirical psychology.

One line of research currently being explored by Paul Ekman is concerned with meditation and emotional control. At its heart, meditation emphasizes mindfulness of mental states. This form of mindfulness is an attentive awareness of your thoughts and emotions. In the same way that one might sit in a cafe and passively attend to the various people walking by, in meditation, one strives to not react to emotions, but rather, only be passively “mindful” of them.

In a series of yet unpublished experiments, Ekman exposed one Tibetan Buddhist monk to a sudden sound as loud as a firecracker and monitored the participant’s blood pressure, muscle movements, heart rate and skin temperature for signs of startle. The Buddhist monk, possibly due to hours of practice regulating his emotions through meditation, registered little sign of disturbance.

This ability to passively sail through mental storms almost certainly has to do with inhibitory control, which is mediated by the frontal lobes of the brain, responsible for the “executive functions” of attention, planning, socialization, and impulse control. So, it seems evident that through mindfulness training, one can increase your ability to attend to thoughts and emotions, and as they say, knowledge is power. Enhance your awareness and mental control will follow. However, because of our evolutionary history, automatic reactions to emotions is deeply ingrained in our forebrains, and consequently the meditative path is long and arduous. But take the following words to heart and be at peace,

I am about to tread the very path that has been walked by the Buddha and by his great and holy disciples. An indolent person cannot follow that path. May my energy prevail. May I succeed.



Filed under Philosophy, Psychology

3 responses to “Buddhism and Experimental Psychology

  1. I enjoyed reading this post. Thanks for sharing!

  2. Thank you for your post.
    There is certainly something about mindfulness…
    where we do not objectify things

    .. a life journey this!

  3. I think there is a movement a foot perhaps based more toward the interface of phenomenology and Buddhism that will push this important research forward. Being initiated by the Dalai Lama mainly through the Mind and Life conferences, there are now a number of skilled Buddhists working in this area, and engaging the Western philosophical tradition on their own terms.

    Also, while I agree with you in terms of monks participating in the process, if they were to be trained researchers in their own right, this woud give more weight to the evidence and would allow them to participate in documentation in a direct fashion…although being both a monk and a graduate student I’m probably just being bias.

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