Perspectives on MLI’s International Symposium for Contemplative Studies: Al Kaszniak

We asked MLI Fellow Al Kaszniak what, in his opinion, has been the most significant or meaningful breakthrough in contemplative science over the past 30 years.
 

I think that it is fair to say that we are presently in the “golden age” of contemplative science. Comparing the first to the second five years of this century, there has been a more than 300 percent increase in basic and clinical contemplative science publications. Given this explosion of published research, it is very difficult to single out any particular discovery as the most significant or meaningful breakthrough.

However, taking a step back and trying to see the forest rather than just the many trees, it seems clear to me that the two most important meta-trends in contemplative science have been: (1) the fruition of an approach that truly brings first-, second-, and third-person perspectives into collaborative interaction; and (2) the real beginnings of the sort of “neurophenomenology” that Mind & Life Institute cofounder Francisco Varela had envisioned.

The first meta-trend is embodied by research teams in which highly experienced contemplative practitioners and teachers (“first-person” observers) are active co-investigators with scientists (“third-person” observers) and those humanities scholars (“second-person” observers/translators/systematizers) who study contemplative traditions. The transformative contribution of this trend is the great leap in sophistication of the scientific research questions that are being asked and empirically addressed. In many ways, for the first time there are now scientific studies that are beginning to capture with fidelity contemplative traditions as they are actually practiced in both historical and contemporary contexts.

The second meta-trend of neurophenomenological research is exemplified by scientific studies in which highly experienced meditation practitioners, representing different practice traditions, serve as research participants instructed and trained to make discerning observations of their mental processes while various brain and other bodily physiological measures are taken. The transformative contribution of this trend is that questions can be asked regarding human mental experience and its biological correlates that simply cannot be addressed by studying research participants who do not have the stability of attention or accuracy of perceptual discernment that research has shown to be characteristic of long-term meditation practitioners. The promise this holds for the cognitive, affective, and neurosciences is one of more reliable and finer-grained reports of lived mental experience that can then be correlated with various biological observations. The resultant sophistication of such an approach to “mapping the mind” has the potential to radically shift and advance our foundational understanding of human nature.

Both of these meta-trends are amply represented in the keynote talks, master lectures, and submitted presentations and posters to be presented at the 2014 International Symposium for Contemplative Studies.

 

Al Kaszniak, PhD, received his doctorate in Clinical and Developmental Psychology from the University of Illinois in 1976, and completed an internship in Clinical Neuropsychology at Rush Medical Center in Chicago. He is currently Director of Clinical Neuropsychology, Director of the Arizona Alzheimer’s Consortium Education Core, and a professor in the departments of psychology, neurology, and psychiatry at The University of Arizona (UA). His research, published in over 150 journal articles, chapters and books, has been supported by grants from the NIH, NIMH, and several private foundations. His work has focused on the neuropsychology of Alzheimer’s disease and other age-related neurological disorders, consciousness, memory self-monitoring, emotion, and the psychophysiology of long-term and short-term meditation. In addition to his academic and administrative roles, he is a lineage holder and teacher in the Soto tradition of Zen Buddhism.