Visual Memory May Just Be Mind Over Matter

Posted: November 9, 2009 at 1:02 am, Last Updated: November 9, 2009 at 8:57 am

By Tara Laskowski

Maria Kozhevnikov

Maria Kozhevnikov

Some people say they can remember something better if they see it written down — say, a phone number or a password.

Often, when visual memory is tested, one’s capacity for recalling details of a room’s layout, a person’s clothing or a painting only goes so far. Eyewitness testimony in crimes, for example, becomes less accurate as time goes by.

Monks have long been known for their ability to meditate, and they claim to be able to keep a very complex religious image in their minds for a long time. Are their techniques super memory machines? And if so, what can we learn from them?

Recently, Mason psychology professor Maria Kozhevnikov was tasked with finding the answers to some of these questions.

Through colleague and advisor Stephen Kosslyn, professor of psychology at Harvard, Kozhevnikov was involved in carrying out an intriguing experiment first commissioned by the Dalai Lama.

At a cognitive neuroscience conference held at MIT several years ago, the Dalai Lama said that accomplished monks who meditate on religious images of a deity can keep a complex image in their mind for up to 24 hours.

The Dalai Lama asked the researchers to look at accomplished monks. If the thesis was true, it would change the way people think about visual imagery.

Kozhevnikov spent a year in Nepal, traveling to different monasteries, interviewing monks on this sacred practice that, frankly, the monks wanted to keep sacred.

“It was difficult at first to get the monks to cooperate,” Kozhevnikov says. “I really needed to know exactly what they do when they meditate, but because so much of their practices are secret, they did not want to share.”

So, to understand the techniques better, Kozhevnikov undertook some meditation training of her own. After several retreats, she began to gain a greater understanding of the practice and formulated better questions to ask.

Because there are so many different kinds of meditation practices, Kozhevnikov focused on two: the deity yoga and rig pa (open meditation).

While deity yoga emphasizes imagery and involves staring and meditating on a very complex image, rig pa involves meditating on nothingness — stopping any images that crop up in one’s mind and blocking out everything.

Kozhevnikov tested different groups — from experienced monks to people who had never meditated — before and after meditation to see how their visual memories improved.

She found that monks who practiced deity yoga more than doubled their performance on memory tests after meditating for just 20 minutes. Her results were recently published in Psychological Science.

Kozhnikov found that monks' ability to retain a visual image after meditating was remarkable. Photo courtesy of Maria Kisnivkov

Kozhevnikov found that monks' ability to retain a visual image after meditating was remarkable. Photo courtesy of Maria Kozhevnikov

“This is an extraordinary score, really,” she says. “Highly unusual.”

This state of extraordinary memory does not last forever. When tested without meditating first, the monks’ performance was about average — similar to people who’ve never meditated before.

“They can’t maintain this state forever,” she says. “But it does exist, and meditation seems to help them get into it.”

Depending on how experienced the monk is and how long he meditates, one can maintain this state for anywhere from 20 minutes to several hours, says Kozhevnikov.

This high state of consciousness intrigues Kozhevnikov because it relates to her primary research focus of visual–spatial cognition — how people visualize and what specific brain areas are involved when they are visualizing. She is interested in particular how artists visualize in contrast to scientists.

“Artists report the same states of extended consciousness after painting,” she says. “It is the state where they paint their masterpieces; however, artists do not know how to control getting into this state the way that monks do.”

Kozhevnikov says that psychologists know little about the creative state, and she hopes this research will help her better understand how the brain works in these areas.

This article originally appeared in a slightly different form in the Mason Spirit.

Write to mediarel at