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Report from 2009 Scientists Retreat at Spirit Rock

I've been wanting to pass on a few things that came to my attention during a retreat last month.  I went to a "Scientist's retreat" at Spirit Rock Meditation Center that was open to neuroscientists - the focus being on the intersection between meditation/mindfulness and "western" neuroscience.  There was some interest from some DIY folks, so I thought I'd put together some of my notes to share.

First off - two of the main speakers from a didactic point of view were supposed to be Richard Davidson (University of Wisconsin) and Diana Winston (UCLA).  Richie had a family emergency and couldn't make it and Diana made it, but got quite ill and had to leave.  I was disappointed - but as it turned out most of the work at this kind of thing is internal anyway, so feeling 'disappointed' was a good lesson in itself.

Before Diana left she mentioned the Mindfulness Awareness Research Center (MARC) that she works for at UCLA (http://marc.ucla.edu).  They conduct a lot of research into mindfulness and have put together a fantastic bibliography of peer-reviewed scientific research into mindfulness in various contexts.  I've attached this for people to see, as it's too long to excerpt.  They also have a great summary of "what is mindfulness" from a research point of view.  The site is worth a visit if you're interested in these kinds of questions.

Richie Davidson (and western neuroscience) was represented by a guy named Cliff Saron.  By lucky coincidence, Cliff was attending the retreat anyway when Sylvia Boorstein had the idea to recruit him to speak in Richie's place.  Of immediate interest, Cliff is working with Alan Wallace something called the Shamatha Project at the Shambhala Mountain Center.

The Shamatha Project (http://www.shambhalamountain.org/shamatha/) is a controlled investigation into how intensive practice over a three-month retreat changes an array of measurable factors.  The control group for this study - which is always extremely difficult to design- is pretty amazing.  The 64 individuals in the study were randomly assigned to one of two 3-month retreats, those attending the second retreat were flown out to Shambhala to undergo baseline testing with the first group, and then went back for their own retreat six months later.  This is complicated, but allows the kinds of before and after controls that were missing from lots of the early work on mindfulness.

Cliff gave two talks on the early progress of the project.  The data hasn't been made public yet, as they're still analyzing it, so I won't try to reproduce his talk here.  But, anecdotally, I think it's safe to say that they're discovering a number of things which are altered by intensive practice.  Just as an example, they're looking at physiological representations of emotional reactions using facial muscles.  They're working with Paul Ekman (http://www.paulekman.com/) who has a system of categorizing every muscle in the face from video clips of study participants to come up with an objective measurement of "micro-expressions".  You may say "I feel disgusted", for example, while looking at images of violence or injustice.  But underlying these verbal responses is an immediate, physiological, response (perhaps, "non-dual"?) that it's possible to measure.  As part of the Shamatha project they've been looking at the agreement between subjectively reported emotional responses and objectively measured "micro-expressions".  Cliff suggests that practice can improve the correlation between these two things, which implies that mindfulness works.  There is a lot of data like this that he discussed and alluded to that will be coming out in the next year or two.

There were some interesting presentations of people's work the last day.  These short talks are archived as part of the retreat audio stream here on DIYDharma.org.


Here are a few people who's work might be immediately interesting:

Johnathan Schooler, professor of psychology at UCSB - Is studying "Meta-awareness" - being aware of when the mind is wandering.  He suggests that there is a correlation between 'creativity' and meta-awareness.  Cliff suggests that meta-awareness is improved during intensive practice, so if you're trying to finish your novel you should keep sitting.

Stuart Eisendrath (http://ucsfdepressioncenter.ucsf.edu/), director of the depression center at UCSF, is working on mindfulness based cognitive therapy (MBCT) for depression.  He's working with people who have treatment-resistant depression, essentially people for whom anti-depressants don't work.  Individuals who underwent an 8 week MBCT course showed a 45% reduction in depression - which is remarkable response in this population.

Daniel Levinson
is a PhD student in Richie Davidsons lab (http://psyphz.psych.wisc.edu/).  He has an interesting thesis project working with fMRI.  Usually when people conduct this kind of brain activation study they look for changes - like, what does looking at a picture of an apple do the brain?  What Daniel is interested in is what is the *basal* signal of the brain?  When people enter a scanner and look at a blank screen waiting for their task, their brains are still doing things.  He wants to know what brain networks are involved in this basic, background, brain function.

Lisa Lindeman is also a member of Richid Davidsons lab.  She's working with a concept that psychologists and philosophers call "embodied cognition", which is the idea that our brains use physical metaphors for many ideas.  She suggests that we have physical correlates of emotions - moral indignation evokes the feeling or oral disgust, while social exclusion evokes feelings of cold.  I think this is a really interesting idea, which has parallels with lots of contemplative practices that emphasize being in the body.

Anyone who's interested in this stuff can drop me a line...

Jeff Carroll
Centre for Molecular Medicine & Therapeutics
University of British Columbia

P: 604.875.3825
F: 604.875.3819
E: [email protected]

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