Remembrance of things to come: the predictive nature of the mind and contemplative practices

Two contemplative neuroscientists consider meditation in light of a leading theory about brain function

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Imagine this scene: it is a cold winter night and you are sitting in your favorite armchair reading an engrossing novel, a warm cup of tea by your side. Suddenly, a sharp noise rips through the silence. Now, freeze the frame here and let’s do a little phenomenology—what goes through your mind at that precise moment? If you are like most people, a potent and singular thought will have instantly and inescapably overtaken your mental space: “What was that?!” In no time, this question will also be followed by a few hypotheses about the cause of the noise (e.g., an intruder, or a branch falling on the roof), which in turn will prod you into a specific action aimed at determining which one of your guesses is true. Read More

Grey Matters: Examining Subjective Experience

Mind & Life’s resident neuroscientist on the past, present, and future of neurophenomenology.

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Brain1What is the human mind, and how can we develop it to its greatest potential?

There are many ways of trying to answer this age-old question. As a neuroscientist, I was trained within a theoretical system that largely equates the mind with the physical structure of the brain. Operating from this perspective, science has made incredible strides, giving us insights ranging from the molecular array of genes and proteins to the electrical firing patterns of individual neurons and neuronal assemblies. Yet, until recently, a central element of the human mind was largely missing from neuroscientific investigations: lived experience. Read More

Theory of Mind

Contemplative science begins to unpack the critical elements of caring

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BLOG_TheoryofMind (LEADWRAP)

One of the central elements of caring involves the capacity to see things from another person’s point of view. In psychology, this ability is referred to as “theory of mind.” If we want to be able to respond to someone compassionately, we must first understand what he or she may be thinking, feeling, or perceiving—we must have a theory of his or her mind.

In order to do that, we must shift from our own perspective and “put ourselves in their shoes.” In that process, however, we don’t completely abandon our own view. Since we can’t observe others’ minds directly, we instead make use of personal memories and experiences, intuiting what another person is going through by way of analogy. If you think about it, this is actually a complicated set of cognitive operations, but we make this shift effortlessly, many times each day. Read More

Grey Matters: The BRAIN Initiative & Mapping the Mind

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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 & 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. Read More

Meditation: It’s Not What You Think

Think you can’t meditate? Mind & Life’s resident neuroscientist explores some popular misconceptions surrounding meditation, and reasons to keep trying.

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DSC_0132_crop2When I explain to someone that I’m involved in research on meditation, it’s not uncommon for me to hear, “Oh, meditation—I tried that. I couldn’t do it.”

This response brings up a mix of emotions in me that is equal parts sadness and frustration, with a heaping dose of motivation on top.

Sadness because people have experienced meditation in a negative light and come to associate it with a sense of failure. Frustration because that association often stems from pervasive cultural misunderstandings about what meditation is (and how it should feel when you practice). And motivation: to change this misperception, so those who are interested can experience the benefits that accompany a meditation practice.

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