The other day I came across (thanks to Eva) an interesting piece in the New York Times titled Standing in Someone Else’s Shoes, Almost for Real. The article details the work of Swedish neuroscientists who’ve made it possible, using goggles and cameras, to create a compelling “body swapping” illusion in the minds of research subjects. Therapists are already keen to put it to all sorts of uses, and it seems to me it has at least of couple of concurrent dharma practice applications as well.

For one thing, it sounds like the body-swap experience can provide a vivid sense of the manner in which we experience the aggregates, our bodies in particular, as selves, and how fluid that seemingly solid association can be. “Researchers have found that men and women say they not only feel they have taken on the new body,” the article relates, “but also unconsciously cringe when it is poked or threatened.” It continues:

In previous work, neuroscientists have induced various kinds of out-of-body experiences using similar techniques. The brain is so easily tricked, they say, precisely because it has spent a lifetime in its own body. It builds models of the world instantaneously, based on lived experience and using split-second assumptions — namely, that the eyes are attached to the skull.
Sounds like a good way to vivify study of the Abhidharma and its precise delineation of our momentary experience.
The possible therapeutic applications of the body swapping described in the article also seem to dovetail nicely with the Buddhist agenda of developing compassion and understanding and diffusing animosity. The article notes:
. . . those who seek help for relationship problems, in particular, often begin to moderate their behavior only after they have worked to see the encounters in their daily life from others’ point of view.
“This is especially true for adolescents, who are so self-involved, and also for people who come in with anger problems and are more interested in changing everyone else in their life than themselves,” said Kristene Doyle, director of clinical services at the Albert Ellis Institute in New York.
One important goal of therapy in such cases, Dr. Doyle said, is to get people to generate alternative explanations for others’ behavior — before they themselves react.
The evidence that inhabiting another’s perspective can change behavior comes in part from virtual-reality experiments
[such as this one].
Maybe one day, before our lojong contemplation sessions at the local dharma center, we’ll be strapping on a pair of goggles.
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