Mind and Life’s resident neuroscientist on the past, present, and future of neurophenomenology.
By Wendy Hasenkamp | September 18, 2014
What 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.
However much neuroscience can tell us about the brain, if we are to have a complete picture of the mind, conscious experience must ultimately be incorporated into our investigations. As a way to illustrate this, imagine reading a detailed description of the neural circuitry that underlies vision—the many processes that result in detecting color, contrast, shape, and motion. While such a description could provide a thorough account of the biological substrates involved in, say, observing a sunset, it is a different thing entirely to gaze at the sun dipping below the horizon and experience its gradations, beauty, stillness, as well as the emotions or memories that arise. A similar case can be made for the majority of mental processes since most have an experiential component.
To access lived experience in scientific studies, researchers must take into account what is referred to as the “subjective perspective”—the participant’s first-person point of view on their own experience, usually reported through narrative, questionnaires, scales, or novel interfaces with measurement instruments. For many decades, however, the use of subjective report in psychological and cognitive research was considered unreliable, in part due to studies showing that memories can be inaccurate, and that introspection can be influenced by factors such as expectation or denial. As a result, subjective data was largely abandoned in favor of more “objective,” third-person measures such as behavior or physiological data. Experience was thus relegated to a black box, inaccessible to science.
Fortunately, cognitive science has begun to return to first-person approaches with renewed interest. Concerns about the reliability of subjective report remain important; at the same time, recent research continues to prove the value of subjective information. The National Research Council, for example, just released a report formally urging researchers to seek information on subjective well-being, which they describe as “the self-reported levels of contentment, stress, frustration, and other feelings people experience throughout the day and while performing different activities.”
Mind and Life’s own history is related to this shift in thinking, and an emphasis on subjective experience remains central to our mission. In the 1990s, Francisco Varela, cognitive neuroscientist and one of Mind and Life’s cofounders, proposed the scientific approach known as neurophenomenology, which seeks to integrate valid first-person subjective information with third-person objective measures. Varela, along with Mind and Life Fellow Evan Thompson, believed that relating moment-to-moment subjective experiences to dynamic activity in neural networks represents an enormous opportunity for cognitive research, and will yield a more comprehensive understanding of the human mind. Areas where this approach is highly relevant include investigations into perception, attention, memory, the self, motivation, volition, emotion, spontaneous cognition, mind wandering, and craving and addiction—all fields in which Mind and Life has sponsored research.
Of course, as cognitive neuroscience continues to advance as a discipline, the development of rigorous methods to probe the subjective contents of the mind will be increasingly essential. Standard questionnaires, for example, often do not offer enough opportunity for individualized answers, and responses are framed within a priori assumptions. Interviews are more detailed, but the resultant information is qualitative in nature and complicated to code and score in a systematic way. Further, untrained participants may be unable to introspect at a high level of detail about their internal experiences, making their reports unreliable or unclear.
To encourage exploration of both the challenges and potential of neurophenomenology, I recently joined with Evan Thompson to host a special issue in the journal Human Frontiers in Neuroscience devoted to the theme of “examining subjective experience.” This issue, now complete and available online for free, contains 18 innovative articles furthering the goals of neurophenomenology. Both primary research reports as well as theoretical and methodological papers are featured, highlighting creative new approaches for probing subjective experience in real-world and laboratory settings, and for eliciting more refined and informative first-person reports. Topics include investigating the experience and neural correlates of selflessness, detailed interview methods that can be used with untrained participants, perspectives on dreaming and hypnosis, and studies of real-time biofeedback in meditators using fMRI.
In the quest to understand the mind—and in so doing, discover ways to alleviate suffering and promote flourishing—subjective experience can serve as a guiding beacon, illuminating scientific findings in a new and meaningful light. Editing this collection of articles, I have been pleased and encouraged to see the high quality of cutting-edge research that also embraces the richness of subjective experience. It is our hope that this issue will help advance the field of neurophenomenology, and serve as a resource as we continue to study the complexities of human experience in an integrative way.
WENDY HASENKAMP, PhD, serves as senior scientific officer at the Mind & Life Institute. As a neuroscientist and a contemplative practitioner, she is interested in understanding how subjective experience is represented in the brain, and how the mind and brain can be transformed through experience and practice to enhance flourishing. Her research examines the neural correlates of meditation, with a focus on the shifts between mind wandering and attention. She has also contributed to neuroscience curriculum development, teaching, and textbook creation for the Emory-Tibet Science Initiative, which aims to integrate science into the Tibetan monastic education system in India.
* * * * *
Contemplative science begins to unpack the critical elements of caring
By Wendy Hasenkamp | September 18, 2014
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.
Not surprisingly, the brain mechanisms for processing self-related experiences are also used for interpreting the mental states of others. Neuroscientific research has implicated a region called the temporoparietal junction (TPJ) as important for theory of mind. The TPJ is also involved in processing self-related information (e.g., the spatial unity of self and body, or “embodiment”), and is key for distinguishing between self and other. Several medial frontal and parietal areas appear to work with the TPJ to form a brain network that underlies theory of mind.
So, if we want to become more caring, the first question we might ask is whether it’s possible to enhance our theory of mind? In psychology, theory of mind has not historically been viewed as a skill that might vary among the population, or be trainable. Until recently, theory of mind has been viewed as a capacity that is either “normal” or grossly impaired, as has been suggested in autism. However, psychology research is now beginning to examine differences in theory of mind ability in healthy adult populations. For example, it was recently shown that people who read literary fiction have improved scores on theory of mind tests.
Researchers have not yet examined whether meditation affects theory of mind ability directly, but some contemplative practices appear to target exactly this capacity.
Richard Davidson and colleagues at the University of Wisconsin studied expert and novice meditators, scanning their brains while they performed a compassion-based meditation. During the scans, participants were also exposed to emotional sounds. The study showed that both during meditation and in response to the sounds, expert meditators had greater brain activation than novices in several areas including the TPJ. In fact, more than any other area, activity in the TPJ was most strongly related to meditative expertise. This suggests that experienced meditators might be more primed to share emotion with, or take the perspective of, another person.
Another study, at Emory University, tested people’s ability to infer others’ emotions by looking only at their eyes, a standard test of “empathic accuracy” that is closely related to theory of mind. Compared to a control group trained in healthy living, participants trained in compassion were more likely to improve their accuracy on the test, indicating they were better able to judge the emotions of other people based on subtle cues. In addition, the improvement in scores correlated with increased brain activity in frontal cortical regions known to be involved in empathic accuracy and theory of mind.
Finally, a recent longitudinal study of brain structure at Harvard found that the TPJ and other regions implicated in theory of mind had increased grey matter density after eight weeks of mindfulness training. It is generally assumed that increases in grey matter (neurons) result from repeated activation of a brain region, through a process of experience-dependent neuroplasticity. This study suggests that just eight weeks of training may induce neural rewiring in brain structures important for social cognition.
Taken together, these studies indicate that meditation impacts brain areas that are critical for theory of mind. However, when interpreting such results, it is important to remember that all of these brain regions are also involved in other mental processes. For example, the TPJ has been implicated in various forms of attention, as well as aforementioned self-related processes. Of course, one can argue that these other functions are important for developing theory of mind. Still, conclusions about the specific cognitive implications of these brain changes must remain tentative until more standard behavioral and cognitive testing is applied. In future studies, it would be fascinating to examine whether people who practice meditations that involve perspective-taking show changes in basic theory of mind tests, as well as related neural alterations.
Based on all we know about how the brain changes with repeated practice of any skill, it is reasonable to assume that theory of mind can be improved through intentional exercises. In some ways however, we don’t need brain scans to show this; you can engage in these kinds of contemplative practices and see if there are effects in your own life. Can you more easily imagine how others might be feeling? Are you moved toward caring and compassion? These will be the true indicators of meaningful change.