Attention, Memory and the Mind:
A Synergy of Psychological, Neuroscientific, and Contemplative Perspectives
April 6–10, 2009
Beginning in the twentieth century, science has become the dominant paradigm for understanding the natural world by way of objective, quantitative measurements, using the instruments of technology. The integration of scientific knowledge and technology has vastly contributed to our understanding of the physical world and to improving the human standard of living. Furthermore, over a much longer time period spanning the past 2,500 years, Buddhism has emerged in multiple cultures throughout Asia as the dominant paradigm for understanding the natural world by way of subjective, qualitative observations by way of highly sophisticated meditative training. The integration of Buddhist theories and practices has revealed many important insights into the nature of the mind and its role in nature, while radically transforming and enriching its host societies and improving the quality of life of its adherents. In many ways, the methods and goals of scientific and contemplative inquiry are profoundly complementary, with each of them having enormous potential for enriching the other.
In 1987, recognizing that there was no official orderly way for science and Buddhism to share their findings, and convinced that a rigorous scientific dialogue and collaboration between these two impressive traditions would be beneficial for humanity, neuroscientist Francisco Varela and entrepreneur Adam Engle started the Mind and Life Dialogues with His Holiness, the Dalai Lama. Since then, the Mind and Life meetings have focused on a broad set of themes ranging from the mind sciences and biology to physics and cosmology. This present meeting on attention, memory, and the phenomenological study of the mind is the eighteenth such Mind and Life dialogue.
What sets the Mind and Life dialogues apart from other meetings between science and Buddhism is the focus on in-depth, cross-cultural dialogue. In this meeting, the morning presentations by cognitive scientists will be 60-90 minutes in duration, followed by up to 90 minutes of discussion; and the afternoon sessions by cognitive scientists and Buddhist scholars and contemplatives will be 30-45 minutes in duration, with the rest of the 2 ½ hours devoted to discussion. These discussions have always been the central focus of each Mind and Life meeting, and in this conference they will play a more predominant role than ever before.
In addition to the Mind and Life dialogues and publications, the Mind & Life Institute has two other programs to advance our mission. One program initiates collaborative research studies between scientists and contemplatives, focused on determining the effects of meditation and other contemplative practices. To date, such studies have been initiated at the University of Wisconsin; UCSF Medical Center; Princeton; Harvard; UC Berkeley; Reed College; Pennsylvania State University; and University of Pennsylvania.
Another program to help promote new research in this emerging area is the Mind and Life Summer Research Institute, which is an annual week-long workshop specifically for young scientists and scholars with an interest in this area. This Research Institute combines scientific and Buddhist presentations, in-depth discussions on how to advance the interface between scientific and contemplative modes of inquiry, and meditation practice.
The topics of Mind and Life XVIII are human attention, memory, and the mind considered from phenomenological (including contemplative), psychological, and neurobiological perspectives. While the relation between attention, memory, and the mind is a fascinating area of research in psychological science and neuroscience, it is also of particular interest and investigation in Buddhism, because it is through the contemplative refinement of attention and mindfulness that one explores the distinctive characteristics, origins, and potentials of human awareness, of suffering, and of genuine happiness. In short, the contemplative training known as “shamatha” (meditative quiescence) deals with the development and refinement of attention; and this is the basis for “vipashyana” (contemplative insight), which entails methods for experientially exploring the nature of the mind and its relation to the world at large.
Furthermore, sustained voluntary attention (samadhi) is closely related to memory, because in order to deliberately sustain one’s attention upon a chosen object, one must continue to remember to do so from moment to moment, faithfully returning back to refocus on that object whenever the mind wanders away from it. Likewise, in Buddhism, the faculty of “mindfulness” (smrti) refers not only to moment-to-moment awareness of present events. Instead, the primary connotation of this Sanskrit term (and its corresponding Pali term sati) is recollection. This includes long-term, short-term, and working memory, non-forgetful, present-centered awareness, and also prospective memory, i.e., remembering to be aware of something or to do something at a designated time in the future. In these ways, from a contemplative perspective, memory is critically linked to attention, and both of these mental faculties have important ramifications for the experiential and phenomenological study of the mind, its training, and potential optimization.
The discussions during Mind and Life XVIII will primarily focus on the subjective phenomenology, information-processing operations, and neural mechanisms of attention, memory, and conscious awareness from both scientific and Buddhist perspectives. It is fervently expected that participants in these dialogues, coming from the various disciplines of philosophy, psychology, neuroscience, and Buddhist scholarship and contemplative practice will especially work toward understanding and incorporating the broad range of each others’ ideas and views about the topics of this meeting. Special attention will be focused on the distinctive characteristics and interactions of attention, memory, and metacognition as seen from diverse viewpoints, including the possibility of multiple dimensions of awareness (not limiting the discussion to the familiar categories of the conscious and subconscious mind), and the relationship between the entire spectrum of human information processing, awareness, and the world of experience (Lebenswelt) as a whole. We anticipate that this exploration will lead to further systematic plans for ground-breaking empirical and theoretical research on meditation and contemplative practice at the interface between science and Buddhism. Participants will be prepared to interact collaboratively toward developing such an exciting research agenda.
Tenzin Gyatso, His Holiness, the XIV Dalai Lama<
David E. Meyer, Ph.D., Professor of Psychology, University of Michigan
B. Alan Wallace, Ph.D., President, Santa Barbara Institute for Consciousness Studies
Anne Treisman, Ph.D., Professor of Psychology, Princeton University
Rupert Gethin, Ph.D., Director of the Centre for Buddhist Studies, University of Bristol, UK
Adele Diamond, Ph.D., Professor of Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, BC, Canada
Amishi Jha, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Psychology, University of Pennsylvania
Clifford Saron, Ph.D., Assistant Research Scientist, Center for Mind and Brain, UC Davis
Elizabeth Phelps, Ph.D., Professor of Psychology, New York University
Shaun Gallagher, Ph.D., Professor of Philosophy and Cognitive Science, University of Central Florida