Consider the amazing life of Catherine Kerr, who began her career as an historian, was retrained as a neuroscientist at Harvard Medical School, and went on to present scientific research on neurophysiology to the Dalai Lama. For those who knew Cathy, this capacity for transformation through focused purpose was just one of her remarkable qualities. It was also the foundation of her pioneering research on the mind’s attention to the sense of touch and inner experience as a way to understand disease and improve human health.
In the days following Cathy’s death on Saturday, November 12, the Mind & Life Institute received an outpouring of affectionate memories of her strength and grace, along with moving stories of her personal importance in the lives of her colleagues and her role as a gifted and valued mentor to her students, and reminders of her monumental contributions to the field of contemplative sciences.
We would like to share some of those memories here, and we invite you to share your own reflections through a memorial website established by Cathy’s family.
From Jon Kabat-Zinn, PhD:
I first connected with Cathy at the Center for Mindfulness’s annual mindfulness conference. I approached her after hearing her present about her work at MIT in Chris Moore’s lab using MEG to investigate pain and proprioception. I had never heard about her before that lecture. I was so excited that they were doing this kind of thing at MIT in the neurosciences, something I had dreamed about when I was a grad student there in the Sixties, when of course, the technology was not even remotely developed to investigate such things, nor was there any interest in the intersection of meditation and science — far from it. Cathy kindly invited me to attend a lab meeting, and I did. It was surreal for me in an absolutely wonderful way, to be having deep conversations about meditation practice both from the scientific and from the dharmic perspectives with an entire lab of young people in a place I knew so well so long ago. I had always felt that the body scan meditation could be thought of as an attentional scan of the somatosensory homunculus, and that the signals in the various brain regions representing the anatomy of the body part or region should be detectable in a sensitive enough scanner. We talked about how this might be possible using the MEG scanner, and when she moved to Mass General and was working with Sara Lazar, Cathy kindly invited me to visit her and experiment with some of these possibilities in the scanner myself. We had an absolutely wonderful pilot day in September of 2010, exploring directed and sustained attention to various regions of the body (mostly hands and feet) and recording what was going on in the brain. It didn’t go any further, in part because of my travel schedule. I always wanted to make it a priority and loved our connection. In the aftermath, we had occasional conversations about embodiment and practice, as well as about life more generally, including social justice issues and her own health challenges, but I never made it back into her lab. I always felt moved when I heard her speak about her research. She obviously cared deeply about her students and took her mentoring role very seriously. Cathy radiated integrity, critical insight, and a deep caring for others. I miss her, as I am sure so many others in our extended mindfulness community do, and am very grateful that she will be honored and remembered through the Mind & Life Institute’s Catherine Kerr Award for Courageous and Compassionate Science. That just about says it all.
From Jennifer Daubenmier, PhD:
Cathy was a fearless leader in the field of contemplative science and embodiment. She bravely moved the field forward with her genuine heart, integrative insights, and infectious enthusiasm as she had the ability to bring people together across disciplines in ways that advanced theoretical understandings and possibilities.
She felt an urgency to articulate the embodied aspects of contemplative practice, and believed that mindful attention of the body was foundational to understanding how contemplative practices could produce a wide array of health benefits. She put forth innovative theoretical models and empirical findings of neurophysiological mechanisms of contemplative practices that we will likely be considering in the years to come.
In her work, she broke down barriers between first and third-person research methods, basic neuroscience and clinical application, and modern and ancient theories of mind-body practices. She never lost sight of the lived experiences of those engaging in contemplative practice. Her culminating ‘passion project’ was to understand first-person experiences and complex brain-body interactions in the immune system reflective of qi, or ‘life energy’ as described in traditional Chinese medicine, among cancer survivors practicing qigong. As a contemplative scholar, I believe she drew deeply on her own first-person insights in the development of her work. For example, as she stated in her own words towards the end of her life: “I knew that if I walked very slowly and focused only on the next step, I could do anything.” Words of wisdom for us all.
From Laura Schmalzl, PhD:
Cathy was a special friend, colleague and mentor. More often than not she was the first person I would reach out to for feedback when I had an idea for a new project. She would typically listen to me for about a minute before stopping me to say: “That sounds alright…but if I would give you 100 million dollars tomorrow and you could do whatever you wanted, what would you do?” That’s how she encouraged me to think, that’s what she encouraged me to lay out. Then we’d scale things down to reality — but in the process she taught me how to never let logistic constraints limit my dreams.
From Clifford Saron, PhD:
Cathy’s presence in our community is one of my touchstones that fuels my commitments to this field. As a fellow traveller I’ve always felt the lightness and depth of Cathy’s views of life, and the way science can be a precious hoe into reality, and a joyful craft.
I remember the elegance of the first alpha MEG study with Chris Moore and others. It showed that after MBSR training there was greater modulation of electrocortical activity by focused attention to hand or foot than before. It was one of those studies where you could feel the design hewed close to lived experience. Cathy’s critical, self-questioning way “held the questions” as Francisco Varela used to appeal, while offering empirical and interpretive clarity. I do and will miss her.
From Gaelle Desbordes, PhD:
Cathy was a pioneer in mind-body research on the healing effects of touch and the health issues associated with a disrupted sense of touch, such as chronic pain. Her recent work focused on the benefits of contemplative practices centered on body movement, including yoga and tai chi. Cathy’s approach to science was informed as much by her own contemplative practices (she was a mindfulness meditation and tai chi practitioner) as well as by her unusual career path, having re-trained as a neuroscientist after receiving a PhD in History and Social Theory. A rare individual combining a sharp critical mind with healthy skepticism but also a warm sense of care, she stood out for her creativity and breadth of knowledge. She was an important voice in the field of contemplative science and will be sorely missed.
From Chloe Zimmerman:
As a mentor, Cathy taught research as an applied field, extending beyond academia. She saw her research in contemplative neuroscience as something ultimately meant to help improve people’s lives, and as a mentor she passed this down to her students. She valued students’ potential and their dedication to learning, challenging them to dive fearlessly into any given topic they were interested in. And because that’s how Cathy modeled her own life, students were able to make this leap. “You can do this, you just have to do it,” was her common guidance for helping students step outside their comfort zone. To me, that was the essence of Cathy’s mentoring; fostering this sense that you could do and learn anything, that there was no real place for excuses or complaints. She knew how to inspire courage and confidence in people, and using this skill she helped students to take on responsibility and leadership in the lab and in the community. She taught students to envision how the research they were working on could ultimately be translated to the larger public and used for a greater good. By modeling curiosity, creativity, and drive in conducting her research, she fostered those qualities in her students; she taught by example. When combined with her belief that people should always be working on their ‘passion projects’, she inspired her students to understand the contemplative neuroscience research she taught as an applied field, completely entwined with public service.
From Harold D. Roth, PhD:
Cathy Kerr was a true contemplative scientist who embodied the work she studied. Trained in the Humanities, retrained in Neuroscience, she not only talked the talk but walked the walk in the ways she applied the practices she studied to her own life. She not only thought outside the box — she lived outside the box. Her work on embodied contemplative Neuroscience, working most often with traditional Chinese energetic models, has broken new ground in our understanding of the intricate interrelationships among mind, body, and life context and it will continue to do so for decades to come. She was model colleague, mentor, and a dear friend; those of us who knew her will miss her keenly but we will continue to feel her influence on our lives through the groundbreaking work she has accomplished.
In honor of her esteemed qualities as a scientist, Mind & Life is establishing a new award called the Catherine Kerr Award for Courageous and Compassionate Science as a way to keep Cathy present in our community in perpetuity.