IST Schreyer Scholar to further philosophy, tech research at Indian Monastery

Jordan Ford
April 23, 2018

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- A college student who spends the summer doing nothing may be perceived as unambitious. But for Vidur Mishra, his summer of “doing nothing” will help advance his research on a global level.

“I’ll be living in the Tushita monastery in India for a month and a half, giving up my personal possessions to meditate rigorously, read scriptures, and learn how Buddhists perceive the nature of the mind,” said Mishra, a Schreyer Scholar majoring in information sciences and technology. “I’ll literally be doing nothing by design. I won’t have any access to my phone, laptop, or anything else during my stay.”

The experience will have Mishra, who is also pursuing minors in philosophy and security and risk analysis, living and studying with monks in Dharamshala, India, the town most widely known as the home for the Dalai Lama.

Mishra’s undergraduate thesis research explores the differences between how the eastern and western worlds perceive the mind. Between the more inwardly-focused sessions, he will spend his time interviewing monks to advance his work.

“We think we understand the mind from a scientific perspective, but we really don’t have sufficient knowledge of it,” he said. “Western research tends to focus on the science of analyzing the mind. Eastern tradition is more about purely experiencing, channelizing, and attaining mastery over the mind. It’s very hard to put that phenomenon into words.”

“If we can bring the eastern and western ways of thinking about the mind together, we may get a more cohesive understanding of the subject,” he added. “As a result, my research focuses on the quantum, psychological, and ecological analysis of the consciousness and the spiritual channelization of its altered states.”

The pursuit of that cohesive understanding is what brought him from New Delhi, India, to Penn State, where the financial support from the Schreyer Honors College and the opportunity to conduct undergraduate research is allowing him to blend his passions for technology and philosophy.

“Based on the latest advances in the western studies, consciousness has been described as the emergence of the quantum information stored in the protein-based microtubules of cells and our universe as a conscious informational structure that unfolds into matter,” he explained. “We are like very complex biological computers, but we have a consciousness that – as of now – computers lack that allows us to reflect on our internal stimuli and possibly control them.”

Richard Doyle, Edwin Erle Sparks Professor of English in the College of the Liberal Arts, is helping Mishra guide his research. Doyle’s work has explored the intersection of the sciences, arts, and humanities, and he posits that Mishra’s experience will help him integrate contemplative practices into his software design work by understanding how these environments alter our consciousness.

“Nobel Prize-winning economist Herbert Simon put it this way – ‘What information consumes is rather obvious: it consumes the attention of its recipients,’” Doyle explained. “In order to take the measure of the effect of this increase capture of human attention, it is useful to find a minimum baseline for consciousness without the continual stimulus of new information.”

Doyle believes that Mishra’s meditation sessions will enable him to gain exposure to this baseline consciousness and its characteristics.

“By zeroing out his experience of external information through extensive meditation, Vidur will deepen his understanding of the experience of being informed, feeding back into his design and understanding of information systems,” said Doyle.

Though anyone can apply to spend the summer at the monastery, only 20 percent of those accepted show up. He shares that family and friends have been supportive of what he describes as “an experiment I’m conducting on myself with the goal of purely experiencing the unconditioned-baseline state of consciousness and then reflecting upon it for my research.”

“The real challenge begins when you are there,” he said. “I’m not really preparing myself yet, but I know when I step in, I will be ready at that moment.”

Once his stay in the monastery is complete, Mishra will teach English at a local school for the remainder of the summer. With his junior year ahead of him, Mishra has already completed one internship and has another lined up for next summer.

His experience will also be shaped through his work as a research assistant with Lynette (Kvasny) Yarger, associate professor of IST. The team’s ongoing research measures if and how much human resources anti-bias software discriminates hiring behavior based on gender and race. Yarger believes this work and Mishra’s interests in both technology and philosophy makes his work more compelling.

“Philosophical ideas are created by an endless process of thinking, reflecting, and contemplating. It’s slow, deliberate, and cerebral,” said Yarger. “Approaches to technology are active, agile, and unpredictable. Technology does not have a strong moral code and is largely missing a guiding set of philosophical principles like fairness.”

“By understanding both technology and philosophy, Vidur can examine the technologies that companies are creating and their impacts on human lives,” she added. “This deep reflection on software systems is necessary if you are trying to create tech to change the world for good.”

After graduation, Mishra is looking forward to a career in data analytics or software development. He credits philosophy with helping him approach information systems from a better viewpoint.

“Information systems are a good metaphor of the world itself, and how a computer works is an oversimplified metaphor of how the individual works,” he said. “When you start seeing these patterns, you realize that what you’re creating in technology is a reflection of yourself.”

“IST helps me to code computers, philosophy helps me to code myself.”

(Media Contacts)

Last Updated April 24, 2018