BG 262: The Emerging Science of Mindfulness Meditation

Episode Description:

David Vago, an instructor of psychology at Harvard Medical School, has held the position of Senior Research Coordinator for the Mind & Life Institute, a not-for-profit organization dedicated to fostering dialogue and research at the highest possible level between modern science and the great living contemplative traditions.

In this episode David relates how his personal mindfulness practice has integrated with his professional scientific research. He talks about the thriving community of scientists interested in mindfulness that has taken root in contemporary academia and research, and he highlights some current projects and lines of inquiry that have benefited from this uniquely supportive atmosphere.

Episode Links:


Vincent Horn:    Hello Buddhist Geeks. This is Vincent Horn. And I’m on the line today with David Vago. David, it’s great to have you here on Buddhist Geeks.

David Vago:    Such a pleasure to be here. Thanks for inviting me, Vince.

Vincent:    Absolutely. And just a little background on David. David’s an instructor in the Department of Psychiatry at the Brigham and Women’s Hospital at Harvard Medical School. And he’s also part of this emerging group of folks that we’ve been interviewing on Buddhist Geeks who are doing really cool and cutting edge research in the field of contemplative science and are focusing specifically too on how Dharma intersects with science. So it’s really, really cool to talk with you. And I figured we could just start off with the kind of basic question of how in the world did you get in to contemplative science and how does your own personal practice tie into that story?

David:    I love these stories because you know, we all sort of end up on this really big ship together floating this river. And really, it doesn’t require much steering. You know, we all sort of had a reason for ending up in this position. I started really just with the meditation practice after going to my first Goenka Vipassana Retreat in 96 while I was an undergraduate. Just because I had an interest in eastern religions and philosophy and I was doing some yoga and tai chi, but I never really had an expectation that I would ever, you know, use my interest in meditation and it would fuse with my science because I was a neuroscience student.

I went to Graduate School for Cognitive Neural Sciences. And I studied basic neuroscience with learning and memory research. And my graduate advisor would always refer to my interest in Buddhism as sort of Zen stuff and complain that I had almost more Buddhist books on my bookshelf than neuroscience books. But I continued my practice and you know, in 2004, I followed the dialogues with His Holiness at MIT with great interest. And I was like, “Wow, look. People are actually doing this.” And at the same time, I was taking a History Systems course and I decided to write a paper on meditation as being the new introspection of contemporary introspectionism movement and that’s that way we should really start looking inside again.

And everything just sort of came into place because in 2004, Mind And Life Institute started the summer research institute which most of your listeners are familiar with. But it was a breeding ground for people like me who were budding scientists, young scientists and who had a budding meditation practice. At this point really, there’s hundreds of people like me; young scientists who have sort of been interwoven into the fabric of contemplative science research but into major universities and institutions all around the world doing this type of work. And I went there in 2005 as a research fellow, you know, as a graduate student and I just happened to be finishing my PhD at the right time that they needed somebody to help be the scientific advisor that needed to sort of help out when Richard Davidson wasn’t really available.

And I finished my PhD. I got a grant award, Varela Grant Award from the Mind and Life Institute to look at the effects of meditation on pain, chronic pain and fibromyalgia. And at that time I took a job, a part time job with Mind and Life Institute as their senior research coordinator. And so then I got to meet everybody who was doing research in this field. I reviewed all of their grants; I made the grant program up to par, at least made it pretty rigorous.

And it really was a great way for me to interface with the rest of the world who was doing this type of work. And so I met a lot of really key people in the field. And that really just sort of solidified my involvement. And I just kept going. And each instance that brought me closer to where I am today was really related to just making the right connections continuing my practice and really be staying closely tied with Mind and Life Institute.

Vincent:    That’s really cool. And you mentioned you started with a Goenka Retreat in 96.

David:    Yeah.

Vincent:    That’s a long time ago.

David:    Yeah, that was a long time ago. I was I think a junior in University of Rochester and I decided to go up there because my uncle was a psychiatrist and he also was dabbling in meditation.  He said, “if you really want to learn how to meditate, that’s the place to do it.” So I took the holiday over the Christmas break or the New Year and went up there for the 10-day and had a pretty amazing experience. But you know, yeah, I sort of dabbled in a lot of different traditions. I went to Peru to do some energy work with a Shaman there and did a lot of work with the Lakota people in Utah. And so I think everything’s sort of all these different types of spiritual practices have helped inform the way I think about the mind and mind-body connection. And informed my science, and I think that’s what we’re really looking for is how first person experience can really inform science so we can you know, ask the right questions. And that’s really I think critical in this field is that everyone of us, who’s, that you’ve been talking to – all of the people I’ve been referring to as the “pragmatic Dharma wing of neuroscience”; you know, researching the neural-correlates of no self, enlightenment, the progress of insight and sometimes even the dark night dissolution process that some meditators go thru. We’re asking tough questions.

And we’re – you know, we’re really young generation of scientists are really willing to examine some of the more difficult and even taboo aspects of deep contemplative transformation. I think these are topics that like the first generation of scientists were a little bit more cautious about. But we’re all about it. We’re asking tough questions and we’re you know, like I said, we’re permanently woven into the fabric of these major universities and institutions.

Vincent:    Yeah. That’s what’s so amazing and so interesting to me as I speak to you and your colleagues. You know, we spoke to Willoughby Britton who’s doing work at Brown with the Dark Night project. And we spoke to Judson Brewer who’s at Yale working on things around the self referential processing network and all kinds of cool technology stuff. It’s amazing, the space that’s opened up in the last decade or two. And it seems like the Mind and Life is really instrumental in opening that up and creating conditions for that.

David:    Yeah, and I think even Judd mentioned it as well in the interview with him that most of my peers and most of the contemplative scientists out there have all interfaced together at one point or another at the Mind and Life Summer Research Institute. So, you know, we do owe a lot of our sort of involvement and where we are in our careers to having that opportunity. And recently – so there’s about a hundred scientists who have been awarded a grant from the Mind and Life Institute; you know, a seed grant, something between 10 and $15,000 to do research in these areas.

And that has actually been the seed funding that people needed to start seeding the field with just a little bit of research and then continuing on with supplementary funding from federal grants, for example. That’s what’s really pushing this field forward where we’re blossoming now and we’ve all been sort of exposed to the same types of teachers and same types of practices and we’re all communicating and we’re all pretty friendly with each other. It’s probably one of the only fields of science where actually the ego is really something for us to really be destroying and working much harder to collaborate with each other.

Vincent:    OK, cool. And you know, with both Willoughby and Judson, one of the things that of course makes sense to talk about is just kind of what sort of things you guys are working on. And I’d be really curious to hear what’s going on in the mad scientist’s lab. In yours in particular, what are you working on or what are you excited about?

David:    Oh, so many things. So for example, I think because there is – well I like to think of my main focus right now is on creating models for understanding mindfulness because there are generally speaking, there are two models that I like to think of for cultivating mindfulness in the context of meditation practice. We have a 2500 year old model and then we have a 25 year old contemporary model that’s heavily influenced by John Kabat Zinn’s adaptation intended for general stress reduction. The good news here is the concept to mindfulness in the contemporary view is now increasingly becoming part of popular culture. It’s not just for Buddhist anymore.

You find mindfulness in hospitals, schools, prisons, corporations, you know, it’s helping everything from finding emotional balance in eating healthier to reducing cravings, so on and so forth. The not so good news here is that popular culture has a tendency to trivialize the concept and contemporary views are often conflated with many common interpretations. And even in the field of contemplative science, we describe the concept of mindfulness in many ways. We describe it as a state that’s cultivated during meditation practice as an enduring trait. It can be described as a dispositional pattern of cognition and emotion. It’s described as a meditation practice of self, mindfulness meditation.

So these semantic differences are actually problematic in the laboratory setting. In order to sort of avoid sort of the dilution of the practices and losing the depth and insight that you get from the historical model itself, we need to really deconstruct what we mean, and operationalize what we mean by mindfulness. And so that’s been sort of one of my main focuses is to really deconstruct mindfulness into component parts moving away from the more contemporary definition that John uses, John Kabat Zinn, which is paying attention in a particular moment in a present way, non-judgmentally, non-reactively, and these third wave clinical applications of mindfulness that have embraced the idea of acceptance as a major part of mindfulness.

And so we have to also integrate the older model into this contemporary model. And as we dismantle what we mean by mindfulness, we can create component mechanisms by which we think mindfulness is working; things like, you know, attention regulation and emotional regulation are two sort of fields of research that we know can, mindfulness and certain meditation practices that cultivate mindfulness, are targeting. But there’s also things like intention and motivation and learning your memory process like extinction and reconsolidation; increasing our ability to empathize and improve pro-social behavior; this idea of de-centering or re-perceiving or psychological distancing. All these things have sort of neural substrates that we can examine in all of the meditation practice that are thought to cultivate mindfulness are likely targeting these types of processes. So we can study each one of these processes individually rather than trying to come up with some one unifying construct in which we can reduce mindfulness to.

And so that I think is really critical, but here’s the most critical point that I think all of your listeners would be interested in, is that we have to be really careful not to inadvertently ignore the Buddhist traditional systems from which these more contemporary practices originate. And so that’s what I’ve been working on. You know, we have one paper that we put out with Britta Holzel and Sara Lazar in Perspectives Psych Science that dismantles mindfulness into component neurobiological mechanisms. And I have one in submission right now for the Frontiers of Human Neuroscience special edition that talks about mindfulness as really investigating the mechanisms by which mindfulness reduces biases related to self processing and just sustains a healthy mind.

And when we really think about the goals of mindfulness and meditation practice, that’s what we’re talking about. It’s not necessarily a goal to pay attention at the present moment, it’s really to reduce suffering. So we have to understand what suffering is in the contemporary context and try to use the historical model to sort of understand what suffering is. And the way we’ve been thinking about it, you know, from my point of view at least has been a level of bias that we create; bias, attentional bias, what we pay attention to, what we remember, what we recall to mind, what we think about as we project into the future.

All of our cognition and emotion is biased in some way thru our past experiences. And so that sort of that fact alone it becomes our sort of target for understanding mindfulness as it changes those biases and in the context of self-processing. And so we believe that mindfulness could be thought of as a multi-dimensional skill set that involves different component mechanisms that are highly integrated and strengthened together through these intentional mental strategies.

So that’s what I’m most passionate about at this point. We talk about it at some level from the neurosciences and we also have to be really informed by Buddhist practitioners; people who are really immersed in the field as a practitioner or as a scholar, so people like Cortland Dahl or Jake Davis, Andy Olendzki, these are all people who the neurosciences have to interface with, and we are as we write these papers, so we can efficiently integrate the Buddhist historical model into the more contemporary models for investigation.

Vincent:    OK. That’s super cool. And I just wanted to go back to one thing you said and maybe just a little follow up question. You mentioned, you defined kind of mindfulness as a multi dimensional skill set and talked a little bit about those skill sets kind of strengthening each other, kind of working together. Could you talk a little bit about what some of those different skills are?

David:    Oh, yeah. So I was saying that – I think of by incorporating historical and contemporary uses of the term mindfulness, we can describe mindfulness thru a framework of self-awareness, self-regulation and self-transcendence. And that’s the way I’ve been framing mindfulness. And that’s just in a simple framework so we can understand what we’re talking about. And it’s in a context of self-processing. And so what we know is that there is existing functional neuro-anatomical networks for self specifying processing and narrative self-processing. And a lot of people talk about the narrative self in the context of default network where the you know – and so I won’t go into detail what the narrative self really is or what neural substrates are underlined because I know Jud has talked about it and a few other people have mentioned it. But one of the things that we haven’t really focused on is the different sort of neural substrates that we can identify for not only just experiential self-processing but the non-conscious distinctions and the more conscious distinctions of self-processing.

They do exist and they do have its own substrates. And what I try to point out is that there’s no – we don’t think mindfulness is necessarily improving our experiential self-processing over the narrative self-processing or suppressing the narrative. The narrative is really important still. We still need to have the narrative. So it’s not – we’re not trying to … I don’t think that at least the models that we’re creating don’t seem to suggest that the narrative is being suppressed and the experiential is being increased. There is really more of an integration that’s going on between the two types of networks, between experiential non-conscious, experiential conscious and focused attention and then the narrative.

And all three of those are really being integrated more efficiently thru the continued practice. And if you keep that in mind as a framework, then what we can now do is dismantle what we mean by that. And within that framework, there are specific processes. So for example, now you can actually take the practice of focused attention or Shamata and you can lay out in what which we do this in our models is the actual cognitive process that is occurring while you practice. So first thing you do when you sit and someone gives you instructions, is you create some sort of intention. And there’s motivation there. And some of the models that have been created already sort of incorporate intention, but some people don’t think about that. But intention to do something, the motivation to do something is an extraordinary form of feedback that sets up a whole set of changes before you even do anything. So we have to think about that as well. So intention and motivation become the first component that we have to investigate and see how that changes things.

Then there’s set formation. For example, executive set formation which is essentially taking information the instructions of practice and keeping them in mind and how you incorporate that into your sitting practice; how it’s always there in present, how often does it come back to mind. That’s important as well. And then we think about things like focused attention versus say, more ambient forms of attention. In focused attention practice, when the intention is to focus your attention on a specific object like the breath, that is a very different process than saying when you do something like insight meditation or open monitoring practice where the attention is more diffused; where you’re just paying attention to whatever arises. And so you can then look at the differences between the two types of practices and the form of attention that’s being recruited. And so each one of those types of attention has a very specific neural substrate and you can then target those neural substrates and see how they change over time thru practice. And then of course this whole process of just focusing on the object is supposed to stabilize our mind and create some form of tranquility. There should be less distraction. So we can look at the level of distraction that’s experienced. And where distraction goes is typically some form of emotion, so then we can look at the effective responses that manifest and look at the types of memories that come about, episodic and sort of were declared – these memories that sort of manifest recurrently as habits. As soon as you sit on the cushion, what’s the first thing that comes to mind? Well, it’s usually something of the day, something related to one’s self. But the emotions that arise are typically habitual and they proliferate. And they lead to one thought and then another thought comes and another thought. And there’s typically a pattern there.

And what we think is that there’s a critical level of awareness that’s developed or meta awareness that allows you to de-center or psychology distance yourself from one’s thoughts to get out of the recurring loop that’s created with mental proliferation or rumination that’s associated all with distraction. So we’re still in a level of distraction here. I’m really just walking the listener thru a sort of flow diagram or a process model of the meditation practice itself. And so I said the monitor is the really important component. That is – you know the dorsal anterior singlet for example is a neural substrate that has been implicated in monitoring or conflict monitoring for the rest of the cognitive processes that are ongoing. It’s in a very unique position in the brain to integrate information that’s coming from the sensory world and the internal world and everything in integrating it all together into one form of feedback to the system so that we can then make appropriate choices.

And then the dorsal anterior singlet happens to be also one of the largest substrates that is implicated in meditation research. You see it across every meditation study that uses neuroimaging always has some form of implication of the dorsal anterior singlet. That’s one of the substrates of course, but it’s a critical one. And so that monitor we think is one of the critical substrates for the meditation practice. So we can look specifically at just the monitor and how that changes over time. Is it getting bigger? Is the gray matter getting bigger; is it actually contributing – you know, as it gets bigger, are you less likely to have rumination.

And is the – for example there are other types of cognitive processes like response inhibition which is a very common cognitive process with very specific neural substrates like say the ventral lateral prefrontal cortex that we can also look at. And there are a lot of studies that have shown that that area of the brain seems to be getting stronger also during meditation practice. And so we know that it’s implicated in response inhibition. And what response inhibition is essentially stopping your brain from proliferating, from ruminating. So we really deconstructed mindfulness into these component parts. And we can now use those component parts as a model to test to see how things change over time because one other thing that early on in contemplative science we failed to realize is that there’s differences between types of meditation practice, number one; and that there’s also differences between the experience of the practitioner and the proficiency in which they practice because in some cases, we can use the metric for expertise by asking the practitioner, how long have you been sitting formally? And we can put translate into number of hours and it turns out that 10,000 hours of practice is about … let’s see. I wrote this down on my big white board here. Twenty-seven years at one hour per day or 13 years at 2 hours per day. If you’re doing that, then you’re considered an expert because 10,000 hours is sort of the model level of practice one needs to do in any skill to become an expert. But it’s not always the case. Some people sit for years and years and years and never actually get the benefits. And others can sit for less time and get the benefits right away.

So we’re just realizing that there is dispositional differences between practitioners that we have to take into account in these models. We have to think about the different types of processes and how these cognitive processes that I’ve been referring to are different between novice meditators who have just been exposed to this type of practice for minutes or eight weeks versus 27 years and people who have gone on multiple three months long retreats. So there’s a difference there too. And it looks different. And that’s what we’re trying to do, is trying to really break it down, dismantle things into component parts and really again not ignoring the traditional systems, the Buddhist traditional systems from which these practices originate.

Vincent:    You know, part of what I’m hearing you say which is very fascinating is you’re sort of creating a very new kind of model to look at all these different dimensions of what practice is, what mindfulness is. And then it sounds like you’re running into things that practitioners also run in to which is, you know, there are these different types of meditations. They do different things. And then like you mentioned this sort of dispositions. Some people probably get benefits quicker from certain types of practices. And then there are different levels of depth or proficiency from different practitioners. So it sounds like in a sense like the model is then becoming much more three-dimensional and complex and part of your work is really kind of exploring all those complexities and looking at the neuro-mechanical dimensions of that which haven’t been studied up until recently.

David:    Exactly. It’s really driving the field of neuroscience forward, this type of work. Because what we’re realizing and I think Jud talked about this a little bit with the interview that you did with him. And the idea that most neuroimaging research that has been done since the beginning of neuroimaging in the early 90s for example, has been looking at active tasks versus the baseline. Baseline unfortunately has always been let your mind freely wander. And that’s been somewhat good because everyone’s pretty consistently doing the same thing when they’re wandering. But we’ve run into the problem that advanced meditators have a bit of a hard time letting their mind freely wander because that’s exactly what they’ve been trained to not do.

Vincent:    Right.

David:    And that actually brings me up to like another project we’re working on with Buddhist teacher Shinzen Young, you know, for example, I have to admit I’m really attracted to his model of teaching because it really articulates a very specific way of mental noting and labeling. And that because he’s sort of integrated a little bit of Zen, a little bit of Theravada, and you know, a little bit of Shingon into his model, his way of teaching mindfulness, he’s created a very specific framework that is easily testable in science. And so that makes it easier for me, for someone who’s trying to dismantle these processes into component parts to really understand, well what is it – how is it that when we’re resting and for example, he has a mental noting or labeling technique that allows us to know and label the arising, the experience of, the passing or the absence of multiple modalities of inner or outer experience. For example he uses inner hearing or auditory modality; he uses a visual modality and visceral somatic.

So the idea is you can hear your mental talk of here’s something from the outside; you can see something externally or you can focus on internal visual imagery. There can be somatic, visceral somatic states from inside or you can feel physical touch.

All those are going to be very different in the brain. And what you’re doing when you’re thinking about each one of those while resting, for example, or just noting and labeling the absence of those is going to look very different from a wandering mind that’s more discursive. And so now we’re really trying to understand using his methods what’s going on in a resting, resting mind that is focused towards a very specific modality that he uses in his system. And that’s going to just I think completely blow away our conception of what we think the mind is doing when it’s resting. So that’s going to be – that’s another sort of a level of depth that we’re exploring the neuroscience of meditation really.

Vincent:    OK. Cool. That’s awesome. Maybe to shift things towards the future a little bit because there’s a lot of things that you and your colleagues are working on now, but I’m curious, where do you see this field of contemplative science going?

David:    I think one of the great things about this field is that it’s really helping to create a framework for all popular culture to fall behind. So instead of just being a diluted self help type of practice, mindfulness is going to be incorporated into every aspect of society. And that not only includes attention training, but it includes the ethical components that are essential also.

So the compassion practice, the metta practice, the love and kindness, those are really critical to developing empathic skills or pro-social behavior. And the Dalai Lama’s behind this. He’s a smart man. He’s the one who started these dialogues with the Mind and Life Institute and he’s the reason why most of us are doing this. He showed interest in science. And that has left a large wake behind him in which … and he’s really about spreading joy and compassion.

And that’s what’s happening. I think we’re realizing that a lot of the ways that we conceptualize the healthcare system is going to change dramatically. Instead of thinking about meditation as an alternative method of healthcare, we’re just realizing now that meditation practice is just good medicine. And so now, as we incorporate mindfulness into healthcare, we’re going to have a framework for everyone to practice these – to use these practices to actually improve their daily life to reduce suffering, to reduce biases and to just sustain a healthy mind.
And that’s what’s happening. And that’s what’s going to help because – so I said that at one point that the framework we’re using is self-awareness, self-regulation and self-transcendence. And the transcendence part is dissolving the distinction between self and other. And that I think is going to be critical towards problems that we’re having in the world. A lot of them is based on the fact that we like to have our big house with a big fence and you know, “Leave me alone. I’m by myself. This is my unit, this is not yours.” Creating these distinctions between self and other. And what we’re realizing is meditation practice is dissolving those distinctions. So, that’s I think a critical component that we don’t always emphasize but it’s going to be I think the one that’s going to be transformative for society.


David Vago

David Vago is an instructor of psychology in the Functional Neuroimaging Laboratory (FNL), Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Harvard Medical School. He has completed a post-doctoral fellowship in the department of Psychiatry at BWH, the Utah Center for Mind-Body Interactions within the University of Utah Medical School, and is currently auditing the Stuart T. Hauser Research Training Program in Biological and Social Psychiatry. David has held the position of Senior Research Coordinator for the Mind & Life Institute, a non-for-profit organization dedicated to fostering dialogue and research at the highest possible level between modern science and the great living contemplative traditions. He received his Bachelors Degree in Brain and Cognitive Sciences in 1997 from the University of Rochester. In 2005, David received his Ph.D. in Cognitive and Neural Sciences with a specialization in learning and memory from the department of Psychology, University of Utah.