His last book (2007), was the excellent Mind in Life: Biology, Phenomenology, and the Sciences of Mind. I also recommend Between Ourselves : Second-Person Issues in the Study of Consciousness (2001), and his classic book on embodied cognition, co-authored with Francisco Varela, The Embodied Mind: Cognitive Science and Human Experience (1992).
Science writer Karen A. Frenkel interviews philosopher Evan Thompson (University of Toronto) for the Foundation for Psychocultural Research about his new book in progress, Waking, Dreaming, Being: New Light on the Self and Consciousness from Neuroscience and Meditation.
Photo by Raphaele Demandre. Dharamsala, India. October 2004.
Evan Thompson, Professor of Philosophy at the University of Toronto, works in the areas of cognitive science, philosophy of mind, phenomenology, and comparative philosophy. He is the co-author (with Francisco Varela and Eleanor Rosch) of the groundbreaking book, The Embodied Mind: Cognitive Science and Human Experience, (MIT Press, 1991), one of the first books to explore systematically the relationship between Buddhist philosophy and cognitive science, and to argue for the “embodied” approach in cognitive science. Thompson is also the author of Colour Vision: a Study in Cognitive Science and the Philosophy of Perception (Routledge, 1995) and Mind in Life: Biology, Phenomenology, and the Sciences of Mind (Belknap Press, 2007), and co-editor, with Philip David Zelazo and Morris Moscovitch, of the Cambridge Handbook of Consciousness (Cambridge University Press, 2007).
KAF: You are interested in the central problem of whether consciousness is a primary phenomenon not wholly dependent on the brain and can’t be reduced or understood as anything else. And in your new book, you call for acknowledging the contribution of these traditions to understanding the mind. On the other hand, you point out that science has contributed to knowledge of evolution and brain development. Please say more about your position on how we can get these two approaches to collaborate in our understanding of the mind and whether or not it transcends the brain.
ET: I’m interested in the nature of the mind. On the one hand, we have contemplative traditions with expertise in examining first-hand the nature of the mind from within, where “from within” means through direct experience in a rigorous way that involves training attention, emotion, and awareness so that basic characteristics of the mind manifest in a clear way. On the other hand, we have our scientific tradition. Historically, the scientific tradition emerged in a way that excluded the mind—the mind was treated as subjective, and science was interested in things that are objective and public. So if you look at the rise of physics, for example, we have a bracketing off of subjective experience. But in the 20th century that method was turned back on the mind through experimental psychology. Today we can record what’s going on in the brain. Through neuroscience, due to new tools like brain scans and electrophysiological recordings, we try to see what’s going on in brain while someone is having a visual experience, or while sleeping, or dreaming. We try to investigate the mind through the brain.
I’m interested in how these two ways of understanding the mind relate to each other and can be brought into a productive interaction. This comes down to the problem of consciousness because when we look at brain recordings when someone’s falling asleep, is asleep, or dreaming, what we have are measures of the brain that have some relationship to consciousness, to the person’s experience. On the other hand, what we’re looking at in the meditative traditions is the mind or consciousness through direct experience. So the deep question that the encounter of these traditions raises is: What is the nature of consciousness? The traditional position of many contemplative traditions is that consciousness is primary, in the sense that it’s where we start from, where all our evidence comes from, and is what we always have to relate back to. So there is no way to meaningfully talk about getting outside of consciousness to see how it measures up to something else, because we’re always working within consciousness. From a scientific perspective, however, we’re looking at biological processes. It’s not as if consciousness is observable apart from a brain and a body. So our touchstone is always incarnate, embodied. We have these two inseparable aspects of consciousness—the experiential and the embodied. And so the question arises: is the biological primary or is the experiential primary?
KAF: What do you think?
We need to think about a new way of doing the science of the mind, the science of consciousness. This new way integrates biology and psychology with phenomenology and works directly with first-person experience in a laboratory setting.
ET: What I want to do in my new book, which is a work in progress called Waking, Dreaming, Being: New Light on the Self and Consciousness from Neuroscience and Meditation, is show that we can’t prioritize one over the other. We have to have a non-dualistic perspective.
On the one hand, from the scientific side we have to recognize that we’re always working within experience. Scientists perform measurements that relate back to their own experience as observers and they communicate what they observer to other scientists. This takes place within social experience. So there’s no way to get outside of experience there.
On the other hand, from the contemplative perspective, experience is primary, but it’s always embodied. In meditation, you put the body in a particular posture and orient it in certain ways. You’re also in a communicative context with other individuals, such as your teacher or the practice community. So it’s misguided to think we can prioritize one over the other—the experience or the embodiment, We need a non-dualistic perspective that doesn’t valorize one over the other.
But that leads to the concrete question, especially if you’re a scientist, how do we work with that perspective concretely? What do we actually do? We need to think about a new way of doing the science of the mind, the science of consciousness. This new way integrates biology and psychology with phenomenology and works directly with first-person experience in a laboratory setting.
KAF: Can you give an example?
ET: One way in a neuroimaging experiment, for example, is to investigate attention or awareness with individuals who have trained their minds in meditation. The working hypothesis is that trained meditators can make reports about their experience that are quite refined and precise compared to the reports we get from inexperienced undergrads. I have in mind experiments where someone is in a brain scanner and we ask them to report about some aspect or quality of their perception or emotion. With more detailed and refined first-person reports we can enrich the information available about experience and how it relates to the brain.
Here’s another example. In the last five years there’s been a renewal of interest in mind wandering or “spontaneous cognition,” as psychologists call it. This goes back to William James. The mind flows in a “stream of consciousness,” to use James’ metaphor. Mind wandering reflects self-organizing activity that you miss when you put someone in a controlled experiential situation and give them a task. When left to its own devices the brain spontaneously generates images, thoughts, plans for the future. So neuroscientists have been putting people in scanners and their minds are allowed to wander. And then the scientists probe the subjects, asking them, “when your mind was wandering at a certain moment, were you aware or not aware that it was wandering?” The hypothesis is that a person who practices certain kinds of meditation would be faster at noticing when thoughts arising and be able to describe them more precisely, such as being able to say what intention or feeling was behind the thought, whether the thought lead to another one, whether there was an immediate awareness of the thought arising, or whether it was noticed later, and so on. Highly trained meditators can make these reports because meditation trains attention and awareness of the mind itself. That’s not to devalue the importance of working with people who don’t have meditative training; in fact, it’s very important to compare them and to control for other factors like age, culture, and gender.
KAF: So someone would be in an fMRI machine spacing out and if a neuroscientists saw more flow of blood in a particular part of their brain at a certain moment they would ask what they was thinking about and see if that changed blood flow?
ET: You’d be in scanner and have a repetitive task to do, like whenever you see a letter instead of a number, you press or withhold pressing a button. It doesn’t demand too much attention so your mind naturally wanders. Then the scientists randomly ask, “Were you on task or off?” and if off task, “Were you aware or not for being off task?” Then they compare the blood flow in various brain areas immediately prior to someone saying they were off task and aware, or off task and unaware. Kalina Christoff at the University of British Columbia is doing this mind wandering work and I’m collaborating with her on studies with meditators.
Here’s another example: you’re in the scanner and you see a red bar graph like a mercury thermometer and the red level goes up or down depending on what your brain is doing. You can try to make it go up or down through various mental procedures. If you’re trained in meditation, you might have greater flexibility to make the bar move.
KAF: What are some applications for this ability?
ET: The management of chronic pain. We know that some aspects of pain are sensory and some aspects have to do with whether you respond to this sensory aspect adversely or with acceptance. Brain areas that have to do with judgmental response to pain are affected by meditation training. So you can combine meditation training and neuro-feedback about these regions to try to help such patients learn mental pain management skills.
KAF: In your book you use phrases like “examining the brain from within,” “first-person exploration,” and “meditative insight.” What do you mean by them?
ET: I use the word “insight” in a precise way that comes from Buddhist philosophy and mediation. It means the ability to discern what’s happening precisely in your experience from moment to moment. It’s different from focusing your attention on one thing continuously without distraction. It requires stability of attention, but the point of insight is not simply to stabilize your attention but to hold your mind quiet and unwavering so that you can discern fluctuations like the arising of a feeling or thought, or the way that feeling leads to memory. Or the way a pain sensation biases you towards an aversive reaction so that you can work with that bias and loosen it so that you can deal with that pain more adequately. So the Buddhist practice of insight targets that discerning capacity of the mind; it’s what enables us to see things as they are instead of through all our habitual filters.
In the context of working on the neuroscience of consciousness, the hypothesis would be that people with training in meditative insight can provide more nuanced information about consciousness than others who don’t have that kind of training. One example I find particularly fascinating is work on dreaming. In the last couple of years, it’s been recognized that lucid dreaming (knowing you’re dreaming when you’re dreaming) is a robust, valid state of consciousness that’s different from ordinary dreaming and from being awake. Some neuroimaging pilot studies have been done on lucid dreaming. Meditative traditions in Indian and Tibetan Buddhism work with lucid dreaming as a state of consciousness that can be used to train the mind and work with negative emotions, which are so strong in dreams. I hypothesize that those with meditative training would make good participants in experiments on lucid dreaming because they can inhabit this state in a robust and stable way and report on it by making certain kinds of eye movements while dreaming.
KAF: Meditators can report on their eye movements?
ET: The way this works is when you’re in a dream and you know you’re dreaming, and your dream ego looks left and right and so on, that shows up as regular eye movements in the REM stage, when the eyes start out moving irregularly. If you have a pre-established code for what these regular eye movements mean, you can use that as way of making reports, and as a marker of when the dream became a lucid dream. The dreamer can report on some quality of the dream. You could ask the dreamer to jump up and down 10 times in the dream and signal when they begin and finish. Then you can compare that to jumping up and down when they’re awake. Why is that interesting? It tells you about the time course of motor activity in the brain and the subjective sense of time in the dream state compared to the time it would take to make those movements in the waking stating.
KAF: It enables us to compare brain activity to what’s going on in the mind during a lucid dream.
KAF: Let’s go on to religion and science. You object, in your book, to the bifurcation we see today between religious extremism and the scientific materialist tradition because they don’t recognize the contemplative traditions. What’s the best way to get them to recognize the contemplative tradition and use it so that we may survive together?
ET: We have to create a scientific culture that recognizes the value of contemplative experience, and we have to create a culture of wisdom or spirituality that recognizes the value of science. We have to hold the two together. If we can’t or don’t, we will slide into one or other extreme—the resurgence of anti-scientific religious fundamentalism based on outmoded belief systems that are not valid and sustainable, or sustainable only in violent, terrible ways, or a scientific reductionism that doesn’t recognize the value of contemplative traditions, including the way that religious traditions have been the home where contemplative traditions have developed and flourished.
To be fair, many elements in religious history have been antagonistic to mysticism and contemplative experience, so it’s not as if reductionistic scientific trends are the only problem for contemplative traditions.
We have to move beyond this situation if we’re going to be a wholesome and healthy culture. The way I see forward is to working within both science and contemplative traditions to create a science that recognizes the importance and value of these traditions, while also transforming these traditions with scientific knowledge. I see this as potentially leading to a new post-religious or secular spirituality. I mean “secular” in the sense of a place where many different traditions can meet and hold something in common for the common good.
KAF: It’s interesting that your way out of this is that scientific culture should modify itself rather than the religious extremists. Why is that?
ET: Religious extremists should modify themselves. It’s important to challenge religious extremisms in a multitude of ways including from within the religious traditions themselves. I don’t mean to exclude that. But my strategy in this book is to show how science can be enriched and to point to different ways of thinking about science and religion from what we see in authors like Daniel Dennett or Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and Sam Harris. Sam Harris is actually a bit different, in that he ends his book, The End of Faith, by talking about consciousness and meditative experience. It’s important for him that this be something that’s seen as valid. Hitchens sometimes says similar things, so there’s diversity among these authors and their positions. But the critical dismissal of religion most associated with Dawkins takes religion at its absolute worst, but has no discussion of how religion is not the same as theism, or how religious traditions have been the home for contemplative experience and how that kind of experience is a source of wisdom and insight relevant to science.
KAF: Is it more important to bridge the gap now than ever before?
ET: It’s more important than ever because these extremisms are stronger than ever before. Religious extremisms are particularly troubling and it’s very important to transform religious traditions in a why that maintains and enriches what’s best, which are the contemplative traditions and the social ethics informed by them, while leaving behind regressive and outmoded belief systems. That’s never been more important than now in world history. In the case of science, it’s very important that we have a deep inner appreciation of the mind and ways of working with it in a wholesome manner because this is a culture that suffers from a variety of ailments like ADHD that we treat try to treat with exclusively pharmaceuticals means. Our population is also an aging one that needs to deal with sickness and death. Our culture also inculcates certain habits of attention in children through video games and texting. I don’t mean to criticize these technologies in and of themselves, but they’re unhealthy when not placed in a richer, wider context of wholesome attentional functioning and mental wellbeing.
KAF: When you were talking about reporting states of mind, I wondered about having to overcome the language barrier, that is, the difficulty of describing them and interpreting how they’re reported.
To create a rich science of the mind that’s adequate to the complexities of mind, we need a more precise language for talking about the mind, especially at an experiential level…. Indian and Tibetan traditions … have very systematic, precise descriptions of mental processes from the perspective of experience.
ET: First, to create a rich science of the mind that’s adequate to the complexities of mind, we need a more precise language for talking about the mind, especially at an experiential level. In western philosophy this was of concern to William James and philosophers in the phenomenological tradition, like Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Edmund Husserl. In Indian and Tibetan traditions we have very systematic, precise descriptions of mental processes from the perspective of experience. These are arguably very helpful to recent developments in western science. For example, neuroscience and psychology have recently challenged the idea that there’s a sharp separation between thinking and feeling, or between reason and passion, or cognition and emotion. If you try to map these distinctions onto the brain, they make no sense. There is no area of the brain that is a thinking area vs a feeling area. If any area can be described as a cognitive area, it’s also a crucial area for emotion.
Interestingly, Indian and Tibetan Buddhist traditions have very detailed taxonomies of mental phenomena, but no sharp distinction between cognition and emotion. Things are taxonomized in a different way—according to whether they’re wholesome states of mind, like compassion, or unwholesome states like envy or hatred. Attention is neither wholesome nor unwholesome in itself. These taxonomies have to do with looking at the mind so it can be trained and shaped in wholesome ways. Within that framework, some things we would call cognition are in some places and some things we’d call emotion are in other places, but there’s no distinction between cognition and emotion. This kind of taxonomy can be a useful and refreshing perspective for western science. I’m not saying we can take it and impose it on the brain. That’s too naïve. But it could provide a shift, a different way of looking at how the mind works. That could be and has been very inspiring for neuroscientists like Richie Davidson, who’s done a lot of work on the neuroscience of meditation.
Second, when working with foreign cultural and linguistic traditions, for example long-term Tibetan Buddhist practitioners, immediately a complicated dialog has to take place in order to do psychological or neuroscientific investigations into how their meditative practices might affect the brain and its structure and functioning. We need to understand what these practitioners are talking about when they describe their experiences. That understanding requires second-person perspective in a laboratory where we work with someone who is skilled in mediating between western science and the Tibetan language and meditative philosophical perspective. To do this kind of experimental research on meditation, you need a multi-talented team. So we get a different kind of neuroimaging lab—one with people who have an array of skills in meditation, Tibetan language, philosophy, and neuroscience. We’re creating a much richer field of knowledge than what happens when we just run studies on American undergraduate students. It’s not as if this field is just there, waiting to be put into action; we have to create it.
KAF: Are there a few such labs now in the US?
ET: There are a number of teams in Europe, the US, and Canada. Richie Davidson has spearheaded a lot of this research. He has published major scientific studies and has a big lab devoted to this kind of research at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. There are others in various places. Amishi Jha at Miami University works on mindfulness training and its impact on attention. Kalina Christoff , who I already mentioned, is working on meditation and mind wandering. Adam Anderson at my university, the University of Toronto, uses mindfulness based stress reduction, which is a clinical secular adaptation of yoga and Buddhist meditation, to investigate emotion and how we experience the self. Tanya Singer in Leipzig at the Max Planck Institute is working on empathy and compassion and meditation. Within neuroscience it’s a small group of people compared to the majority.
Within clinical psychology there many people examining mindfulness based stress reduction and mindfullness-based cognitive therapy. There are a number of groups in the US, Canada, England, and Europe. This kind of research is much more widespread than the neuroscience research on meditation.
KAF: Cultural neuroscientist Shinobu Kitayama believes that studying the brain with fMRIs and EEGs will make it possible to see how culture might be transformed into a biological process. He believes the brain is very malleable and designed to incorporate cultural information. Your work is very cross-cultural too. So do you think Western and Eastern minds may be wired differently, so that each may implement contemplative or meditative traditions differently?
ET: I wouldn’t say it that way. “West” and “East” are very general categories. “West” includes North American, Europe, and South America, and “East” encompasses Japan, China and Korea and India.
KAF: OK. But you know what I’m getting at. Might an Indian do mediation differently than a New Yorker like me?
ET: We don’t know because we don’t have enough studies and evidence that speak directly to that. But given the kind of work being done in cultural neuroscience and at the interface with anthropology, we have very good reason to believe that culture strongly shapes how the brain and the body develop. Connecting this work to meditation is speculative because we don’t have evidence that speaks directly to the way culturally different practices or styles of meditation affect the brain. But it’s reasonable to think that the way attention is trained or the way different cultures support habits of attention might be reflected in the way brain systems for attention are structured and organized. It’s reasonable to believe this. One caveat is that many people think everyone in Asia meditates. But in many Asian cultures, the majority of Buddhists don’t meditate, though they participate in social practices that have a meditative dimension. And those who do meditation don’t learn to meditate as young children. Most Asian cultures don’t start training in mediation until adolescence—maybe 15, 16 or 17. You may be trained in other things, such as memorizing texts if you’re a young monk, which indirectly train attention. So all of this is to say we really need much more research that relates the culture to the meditative practices to the brain systems, and this research hasn’t been done. But cultural neuroscience has a great perspective for looking at the kind of research that needs to be done here.
KAF: Do you think the contemplative traditions can enhance neuroplasticity and how flexible the mind and brain may be? Has this been shown?
ET: We do have some evidence from Richie Davidson’s lab. He looked at how attention is changed as a result of intensive insight or Vipassana meditation practice. He tested visual attention along with EEG measures that are well-known and well-understood markers of attentional processing. He ran attentional tests on individuals before they went on an intensive three-month retreat and after the retreat, and compared their performance also to non-mediators. He found that three months of Vipassana meditation significantly improves the function of attention and that this is reflected in EEG brainwaves associated with attention. There are other studies that show there are pretty significant changes to attention as a result of meditation. They tell us that, yes, intensive mediation practice leads to significant changes in attention and that these changes are reflected in brain functioning.
KAF: I’ll just be devil’s advocate for a moment. The contemplatives that you describe who have observed their own process of dying, have had the luxury, it seems to me, of dying during peaceful times or circumstances. I wonder if you think this tradition would help when someone is dying in an emergency or a time of war?
ET: That’s a really great question. One centerpiece of the contemplative traditions is practicing to increase awareness of death and mortality and to try to create a wholesome frame of mind that can meet death when it happens. We do have anecdotal reports of Tibetans who’ve been tortured and imprisoned who say that what got them through the torture and helped them survive was their ability to recognize that the torturer was also a sufferer, in the sense that the torturer was committing an act that was destructive to his own mind, ordered by someone else, and who was ignorantly perpetuating his own suffering. Not necessarily in the same way as the person tortured, obviously. But that he was in a predicament, that he was unhappy and in a condition of suffering.
This ability to feel compassion for someone who is severely mistreating you suggests that these monks may be exceptional individuals. This also relates to scientists who are interested in why some people who suffer severe trauma, such as these monks, don’t develop PTSD, and what mediation might or might not have to do with this kind of resilience. In any case, this kind of resilience suggests to me that the ability to deal with death in variety of situations as a dying person or caregiver could be significantly improved by having contemplative ways to face suffering.
The crucial point here is that we are a culture that refuses to face the reality of dying, that flees from it, that does everything it can to hide it, and creates horrific hospital environments in which to end one’s days. A scientific culture that has a contemplative mindset and allows itself to recognize the reality of death, and works with that contemplative perspective to create situations more socially harmonious and beneficial to the dying and those dealing with the dying, is something we desperately need. There are people already working with this in hospice care. Joan Halifax, Roshi, a Buddhist teacher in Santa Fe, NM, has a contemplative training program called “Being with Dying” to help clinicians be more effective with end-of-life care. That’s where I see real value of the contemplative perspective on death.
The crucial point here is that we are a culture that refuses to face the reality of dying, that flees from it, that does everything it can to hide it, and creates horrific hospital environments in which to end one’s days. A scientific culture that has a contemplative mindset and allows itself to recognize the reality of death, and works with that contemplative perspective to create situations more socially harmonious and beneficial to the dying and those dealing with the dying, is something we desperately need.
KAF: You write that attention is unstable and that meta-awareness is hard. I think it’s getting more unstable with people multitasking—kids listening to iTunes while playing video games and doing homework these and other technologies on in the background. I worry that they spread attention thin, whereas video games are one-pointed concentration, to use your phrase. So how can we get kids who grew up with these technologies to be contemplative? What if they don’t want to be?
ET: That connects to work people are trying to do with mindfulness and education. What may be the most important is to develop mindfulness training methods or programs that aren’t religious but secularize and can be used in public school settings. Mindfulness methods with no religious content and acceptable to those you come from one religion or another, or no religion.
KAF: Is there an attempt to do this with religion?
ET: Within religion there are contemplative movements within Christianity and Judaism in religious schools. I don’t know about Islam.
KAF: You’d like to see it secularized?
ET: I’d like to both see secular and non-secular. Both are essential. I also think it’s urgent to restructure schools in a way that doesn’t simply import these mindfulness methods into the schools and leave everything else unchanged. They need to be integrated with other ways of restructuring curricula so that they’re integrated in a meaningful way.
I’m a child of the ‘70s. I was raised around yoga and meditation. Some of it was funny and was the silliness of the times but other aspects of it were very important and had lasting value for me. I learned a very simple breath-centering mantra when I was around seven years old. It was crucial for me to have the sense that there was a place to go mentally to center myself in order to deal with the difficulties you face when you’re a kid. That’s a human birth right. We all have that ability and we should all be a given some training that gives us that ability just as we’re trained to learn the multiplication tables and play basketball. That would be really important. Kids who want to resist it will and that’s not worth directly fighting. It’s more important to make this available. Kids fight things at different developmental stages and it’s important for kids to fight certain things so that’s part of life and not troubling to me. But if all we have are texting and video games and iPods and things like that to capture our attention, then we’re unbalanced. It’s not that we should get rid of those things and they won’t go away anyway. It’s that they should be situated in broader, richer context.
KAF: The New York Times recently ran two stories about meditation and Yoga coming back. “Look Who’s Meditating Now,” was in the Fashion and Style section. There’s a celebrity and it references celebrity faddism with the Kabala. It mentions that the squash team at Trinity College begins its meets by mediating together. The other story, “Agent Pursues a Cut of the Yoga Boom,” was a local piece. But there was a meeting in December and there were some statistics about how meditation may reduce hypertension and diabetes. Can you comment on whether there’s fashion here or whether the contemplative tradition can get diluted.
ET: On the one hand, anything that improves quality of life is great. On the other hand, it’s a dilution of the real point and purpose of contemplative traditions to assimilate them into the American self-help agenda. The self-help agenda is about a self that is very egotistically conceived and the meditative traditions are about breaking that down and creating a sense of compassion and connectedness and empathy for other suffering beings—not just humans but also animals. There is an element of fashion and faddism. A self-help agenda can assimilate something new that’s driven by marketing. I’m don’t think that’s of particularly deep, lasting value.
KAF: Whom do you most want to reach with your new book?
ET: My hope is to reach a wide audience of scientists, clinicians, and philosophers—professionals and clinicians who have an interest in nature of mind and consciousness and want to know how meditation and neuroscience are creating a new, richer picture of the human mind and consciousness. I especially like the idea of reaching graduate and undergraduate students because they’re the future of knowledge. To inspire them with this vision, that would be a great accomplishment.