Grey Matters

The mysteries of the human brain are hidden in an almost unfathomable array of synaptic connections, cellular activity, neurotransmitters, gene expression patterns, and electrical oscillations. Even deeper than these lay the questions of how such an extraordinarily complex electrochemical system connects to our moment-to-moment experience as human beings: our perceptions, our thoughts, our emotions—what cognitive scientists call our “subjective experience.” At Mind and Life, we recognize the critical importance of subjective experience; after all, it is the very lens through which we filter and interpret our lives. To overlook it is to overlook human nature itself.

When the Obama administration announced its BRAIN Initiative, I, like most neuroscientists I know, was very excited. Any investment in deciphering the mysteries of our minds is well worth the cost and promises great return. Admittedly, however, the more I read about the Initiative, the more I felt a familiar disappointment: Those making the case for the Initiative made it almost exclusively in medical terms. That is to say, one of its main selling points became how the project might unearth treatments or cures for diseases of the brain.

Having spent my early scientific career in the field of psychiatry, I couldn’t agree more with the call for new approaches to some of the most detrimental disorders affecting the mind-body continuum: schizophrenia, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, major depression. These afflictions cause enormous suffering to individuals, families, and communities. They cost the U.S. billions in medical care, lost wages, and productivity. Without a doubt, advancing our knowledge in these areas is essential.

But, however detrimental, mental disease only affects a percentage of our population. And yet the absence of mental illness does not necessarily imply true mental health. Which is why society desperately needs more research on the neural underpinnings of well-being, health and happiness, and interpersonal connections. Questions around these elements are woven directly into the fabric of our daily lives—in families, at work, in relationships—and affect each and every one of us regardless of the presence or absence of mental disorders. Answers to such questions could prove to be as groundbreaking as any treatments or cures.

One of the reasons I came to Mind and Life is the important role the organization plays in discovering these kinds of answers. And it does so in a holistic way, through conferences, books, and interdisciplinary dialogue, as well as through the funding of rigorous research that explores the powerful connections between the mind and, well, life—our whole lives.

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This year, Mind and Life launched its own Mapping the Mind initiative, a long-term effort to gain a more complete picture of the human mind, and the ways that picture illuminates for us the hindrances to, and possibilities for, genuine happiness. We are achieving this by integrating the best insights from multiple perspectives: through modern science, yes, but also through the rigors of the humanities, philosophy, and the ancient wisdom of contemplative traditions. One without the other only offers incomplete answers. And incomplete answers are, by their very natures, misleading. When it comes to the human mind, we can’t afford to be misleading.

A central organizing principle for our Mapping the Mind project will be to get a clearer picture of the human emotional landscape. Emotions may, in fact, represent the major driving force of human behavior. Think about how much your feelings affect how you interact with others, how you set up your life in your own search for happiness. In order to realize human flourishing, we still need to understand the causes and neural representations of emotions, how they influence our actions, and how they can be regulated or changed. And if the goal of brain research in the 21st century is to truly understand our mental landscape, science will need to take seriously the first-person perspective and find ways of reliably incorporating it into traditional third-person experiments like those proposed under the president’s initiative.

Scientific understanding of the brain has burgeoned over the last several decades. One of the most exciting lessons in this area has come from modern neuroscience and relates to our immense capacity for what is called “neuroplasticity”—the ability to change our brains through experience. Indeed, our brains are constantly being shaped and remodeled based on our ongoing internal and external experience, whether we are conscious of it or not. This points to the importance of continually training our minds in healthy ways over our life spans. To reach our highest potential as humans, what kind of trainings do we need, at what ages, and how can we deliver them? This is precisely where the white coat and the philosopher’s stone come together. This is precisely where Mind and Life seeks to do—and does—so much good.

In the ongoing quest to understand the mind, the Obama administration’s BRAIN Initiative is, and will be, a critical stimulus. The research it supports will add significantly to our knowledge base and lead to scientific milestones. I am grateful for it. But we can do more. We should do more.

My hope is that one good investment will inspire another. When considering the brain, that means paying attention—whether through an MRI machine or spiritual insight—to our subjective experience of thought and emotion. That way we not only treat and prevent disease, but also find the pathways that lead to flourishing as individuals and communities.


 

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Wendy Hasenkamp, PhD, serves as senior scientific officer at the Mind & Life Institute. As a neuroscientist and a contemplative practitioner, she is interested in understanding how subjective experience is represented in the brain, and how the mind and brain can be transformed through experience and practice to enhance flourishing. Her research examines the neural correlates of meditation, with a focus on the shifts between mind wandering and attention. She has also contributed to neuroscience curriculum development, teaching, and textbook creation for the Emory Tibet Science Initiative, which aims to integrate science into the Tibetan monastic education system in India.