Willoughby Britton, contemplative scientist and neuroscience researcher, spoke at the Buddhist Geeks Conference 2012 about mixing Dharma with scientific enterprise.
Scientific research of meditation is undoubtedly one of the forces behind the proliferation of the Dharma, and offers much promise as a “Dharma technology”. However, Britton asserts that significant challenges remain before we can harness the full power of scientific enterprise.
Willoughby: Hi everyone.
Willoughby: It’s good to be here today. I’m a contemplative neuroscientist and I’ve been in the field about a little over a decade. So I thought I might share with you today what I see as the science of meditation, where it’s been, where it is and where it’s going. This conference I was here last year as well and it seems like a big theme is to integrate and the tension between the old and the new, conservers and adapters, tradition and modernity.
And for the last 20 years I would say science has been firmly on the side of the adapters, and as an adapter has thrown out anything that is not congruent with the modern world view and also makes an effort to appeal to the values of modern society. So it’s probably not surprising that karma and rebirth haven’t really made the cut off in the scientific part of the dharma.
Now as the Dharma and meditation has made its way into medicine and now is being applied to pretty much everything from back pain to writer’s block, there’s been another quiet casualty of modern dharma cherry picking and that is that…posture, that’s one of them. That is the liberative teachings of the dharma itself. Pretty much the center piece, if you want to call it enlightenment, that’s also been dismissed as really just folklore.
Now if you’re going to dismiss liberation you might as well just throw out Buddhism too. So science finds itself in a bit of a bind. On one hand there’s this like massive everyone is going crazy for meditation. There are actually more than a million new meditators every year in America alone. So that’s on one hand. And on the other hand, this sort of dogmatic distancing against anything that’s considered religious.
So how are you going to describe the point and the goal of meditation if you’re not allowed to use talk about enlightenment or Buddhism. So that’s kind of the bind that science finds itself in. Now you have to remember that science is actually really good at precision. Think about chemistry lab in high school. You have this like specific chemicals. It’s all in the manual. The goal is preset. You do step 1. You put them together. It turns black and bubbles. You do step 2. It’s systematic and its precise, right.
That’s what scientist is really good at. But something really bizarre is happening in contemplative science which is that we’re using really unbelievably vague language. It’s really uncharacteristic of science. So, one of the most obvious examples of this is just the word meditation. As you know that doesn’t really actually mean anything. And we use it all the time. And actually if you look in scientist articles it would be the effect of meditation. And we use it like it’s this monolithic entity but it’s actually like really really vague term.
We improved a little bit on the meditation front. Now we have three practices I think in medicine and science. Now there’s sort of a new iteration of this vagueness and that’s the term mindfulness. Mindfulness is now standing for both a trait, a state, a practice, and the goal all in one. In fact, Jon Kabat-Zinn recently in an article in contemporary Buddhism said, “You know I never meant the term mindfulness to be anything specific. I actually meant to be a place holder, an umbrella term for the entire dharma.”
So people who were kind of looking to him for the definition of mindfulness as something specific especially scientists were like what. We didn’t realize that he never meant it to be something specific. So it’s also probably not surprising that the term mindfulness has proliferated well beyond whatever Jon Kabat-Zinn meant. And also what was meant in the original Buddhist tradition.
So the term mindfulness is not only caught on and become very popular not only in pop culture but also in science. This graph is actually a graph of NIH grants. And you can see in blue, the two bottom ones are meditation and yoga, which are actual real things. And mindfulness has actually bypassed those. So scientists are also just using this word as if it were something real.
One of the culprits of this mindfulness explosion is the popularity of mindfulness self-report scales. Now self-reports are a lot easier to use in medicine and research than to actually make people meditate and measure something before and after. That’s a lot of burden. It’s a lot of easier to just use mindfulness as a self-report scale. It takes about 2 minutes to fill out.
So one of the problem with the self-report scales is that they give us a very simplistic way of the way they think that maybe the path is going to outline. So you show up at the clinic here in extreme misery at some point you’ll be totally okay. If you keep meditating even better than that and then someday you’ll be the best. And as we know that’s not really the way it happens. We’re all laughing but actually people think this is the way it’s supposed to go.
And when it doesn’t go this way they become very disheartened and sometimes ashamed. It’s actually kind of terrible thing. The other problem is that we’re using these scales actually to measure expertise. Because scientists are not trained and we’re really ignorant about the traditional definitions of contemplative development we’re using these scales to define what contemplative development looks like.
So this is a term, I didn’t make it up; this was a term that was floating around a lot last year. I just found this awesome graphic to go with it. McMindfulness is really pointing to this really amazing enthusiasm behind meditation that’s not backed up by a lot of precision. And that’s sort of what I mean by McMindfulness. McMindfulness has a lot of real world consequences that are quite problematic.
Now for the average person that’s learning to meditate it’s just a lot of confusion. What exact practice am I supposed to be doing and what’s going to happen if I do this practice and how do I know if I’m doing it well. And these are just some of the ideas that are kind of floating around and nobody is really sure which one is right. So we have no afflictive emotion, selflessness, refined attention, compassion, positive emotions, acceptance. These are all things floating around.
And then the goals are even more vague, happiness, end of suffering, well being. Think back to chem lab. This is not what the path is looking like. So this is sort of just for the average practitioner.
Now for the scientist the lack of precision about states and stages is actually pretty devastating. This is a little bit complicated. So what we have here is “experienced” meditators on the right and controls on the left on some measure of interest. This is just a made up graph.
So I just said put attention in there cause that’s a really common one. And again because scientist don’t have the background in what makes up contemplative expertise, what types of practices that there is any different kinds of practices. Scientists have defaulted into hours of practice as that what makes somebody a good meditator. And so you can see this is one of the problems that happen.
So these guys on the bottom they’d been meditating 5,000 hours, an hour everyday, and following their breath really diligent. They have no idea why. If you have asked them what’s the difference between Shamatha and Vipassana is they’ve been like I never heard of those words. This is a common thing in America by the way. Up here these guys, they trained with U Pandita and Pa Auk. They know exactly what they’re doing but they’re both considered equal because they all have 5,000 hours.
There’s euphemism which is practice doesn’t make perfect, perfect practice makes perfect. So the quality of your practice matters. And as scientists we haven’t been taking that into account. So one of the devastating consequences of that is that in this model the mean which is these red lines that you can maybe not quite see they’re not different than each other. This is basically saying that there’s no difference between meditators in controls on attention.
There’s no effect of meditation on attention. And so basically meditation has no effect. You think like well scientists don’t really think that. Well actually they do. This is actually the most recent government report on the state of the research of meditation. So this is sort of like the official word of the government. It was over 400 pages. It reviewed over 800 studies and it’s really long. So you have to find the actual conclusion at the bottom.
And they say as a whole firm conclusions on the effects of meditation practices in health care cannot be drawn based on the available evidence. Basically, there’s no effect in meditation. The central problem: confusion over what constitutes meditation. So how can this be the case? I think for a lot of people we think that there’s so much proof that science is proving that meditation works and all these things. That’s way over hyped compared to the actual reality of the situation.
So how could this have happened. And I think that it’s not all our fault as scientists. I think there’s a deeper cultural phenomenon going on which I’m going to try to illustrate with what I call the Blobology effect. The Blobology effect very simply said is that when you show people….when people see colorful blobs on a brain scan, they can be convinced of anything. They can be convinced of anything even if what you’re saying makes no sense or if it’s absolutly preposterous. And even further people will believe brain scans over their own experience.
And so there’s a study they found that the same brain areas light up when you see your cellphone as when you see your loved one. And so people have been concluding that my god I must be in love with my cellphone like I didn’t know that. Should I tell my wife? The Blobology effect on a deeper level is really a symbol of the imbalance between the inner and outer technologies. Our sense of ourselves, what’s going on in our own minds and bodies is so impoverished that we have to look to colorful blobs on a brain scan to tell us whether we’re in love or in pain.
And I know there’s a lot of excitement about these brain imaging technologies to sort of be this dharma technology to move things forward. But we’re not really there yet. The technology is not there and it’s not because this technology isn’t there, it’s because this one isn’t. The inner technology isn’t developed enough. And until those two technologies become even and that inner technology catches up with the outer one, we won’t be able use brain imaging technology to its fullest extent. And until then our love affair with colorful blobs is really just a marketing opportunity and represents the poverty of our inner technology.
So I think everything that I’ve told you so far has been kind of a buzz kill. But it’s going to come around. Don’t worry. It’s going to be better. So I told all of this to the National Institute of Health. And I said, listen based on your report that you just released, it looks like the state of meditation research is in crisis. And that the scientists, we really don’t have any precision about states and stages or contemplative expertise. We pretty much have no idea what we’re talking about. And I think that you should pay me as an ignorant scientist for 5 years to study Buddhist text.
And they said okay. Seriously. So that’s my job now. But I’m just one tiny little sliver of a much larger revolution which is what I call Contemplative Science 2.0 the hybrid revolution and this is something that was masterminded by the Mind & Life Institute founded by the Dalai Lama, the neuroscientist Francisco Varela and entrepreneur Adam Engle who I think is here. Adam, are you here? There he is back there.
So their idea was to create a new generation of contemplative scientist hybrids who are duly trained both in the traditional and sometimes contemplative, sorry, monastic aspects of the dharma but also the scientific and neuro-scientific training. So here’s a picture of this new generation. This was taken at the first International Contemplative Studies symposium that was in Denver actually in April.
And don’t be thrown off by their burning man-esque attire because they represent more than 70 peer reviewed articles in high top tier journals and more than $15 million in research funds. This year was a very important year for the new generation. Mind & Life officially passed the torch to this new generation at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. And they’re doing things really differently.
Because they have the inner technologies themselves they can see the McMindfulness and the Blobology and say hey wait this is a distraction. This isn’t really what this is about. We can do better. And they’re really going back to the text. So one of the new developments is to go back to the [Visuddhimagga], see if you can create the Buddhist personality scale from that based on [inaudible] and this is the psychometric analysis of that coming out soon. Maybe we can actually define mindfulness by the four foundations of mindfulness through the Satipatthana sutta.
This is [0:15:00][inaudible] helping us with that. He’s not only Thervadin but he’s also German so if you want precision we got it covered.
So challenging McMindfulness. Another thing that new generation is doing is taking on McMindfulness. It’s very general scale and really challenging at its root level which is face validity. If a scale is worth anything it should be able to differentiate between, if it’s measuring mindfulness it should be able to differentiate between somebody who should be mindful like everyone agrees that person should be mindful and the opposite those people should not be mindful.
So for example comparing long term meditators with binge drinkers. And this is one of the studies. Thai monks with American college students, an 8-week training in meditation or tango lessons. So how do these scales do? In all three cases, these groups were deemed more mindful by this scale. So this is just an exposure that these scales are not measuring something that we want it to be measuring and it’s just a nail in the coffin of McMindfulness.
Another project that I wanted to tell you about because I think its particularly promising is the Contemplative Development Mapping project which is an interdisciplinary attempt to identify sign posts of contemplative development by combining both inner and outer technologies. So we have two Mahasi monks, a sociologist, two neuro-scientists, two clinical psychologist, a philosopher and a comparative religion scholar and then lots and lots of dharma teachers giving us feedback.
So remember the linear progress is what we’re trying to improve upon. So maybe by going back to the text and also actually talking to practitioners about their experience and now thankfully with the new pragmatic dharma movement people are actually talking about their experience and we can get a sense of kind of what’s happening. Maybe the path isn’t this simple. Maybe it looks more like this. This is the progress of insight from the Visuddhimagga. This is just the worst of it.
But noticing that it’s not linear and then it’s also not all calm and bliss. We have a study on this looking at people going through the stages of insight and especially the difficult stages and maybe that will be an unconference session on its own. Maybe this is just a snapshot of the contemplative path and maybe if you practice long enough it actually looks more like this. You cycle through these cycles many times. That there’s many insight cycles or actually what we’re finding is probably closer to this. Is that there’s many cycles within a meta-cycle. So there’s both cycles within cycles.
So again the new generation is basically taking this really oversimplified view of things and merging inner and outer technologies to give us a little bit more nuance and more accurate version of what it might be like. This is Jared Lindahl. He’s our comparative religion scholar and he’s mapping contemplative development across traditions Theravada, Mahayana, Vajrayana. You know, seeing whether anything can match up and that’s a complicated endeavor I’ll tell you.
But we’re trying to see whether to get rid of a lot of the religious and value laden language and move into a more universal and descriptive language. So saying things like this person has established attentional stability or they have a sensory sampling rate of greater than 40 Hertz. Using descriptive language rather than words like this person is an Anagami or an Arhat. That type of value laden and religious language has caused a lot of problems. It tends to piss people off a lot.
In the next talk Daniel Ingram will be filling in the universal and descriptive section with a lot more detail of what he thinks should go in there.
Basically, I think that this group, this new generation along with all you guys which is all you guys is really bringing together, bringing the inner and outer technologies that science really craves and also putting science and liberation where they belong which is not in one camp or the other but as timeless and eternally relevant.
And the one last thing I wanted to say was that last year somebody said I think it was Rohan, that radical innovation and transformation never comes from incumbent power structures. And I’d like to say I think that things might be changing. Thank you.