Friday, June 15, 2018

"I have no time." But how much should you believe your mind?

A bit delayed, but this blog is about the slogan "Examine the nature of unborn awareness". Where the previous slogan was about investigating the nature of reality, this slogan is about investigating the mind that perceives that reality. From my perspective as a neuroscientist I can of course say an infinity of things about this. Our mind feels so real when we think about it every moment. However, an interesting exercise is: how would you draw the mind? As a neuroscientist, I would draw the mind probably as a nice brain picture with colorful blobs. But also as a neuroscientist I know better than anyone that these blob-pictures are highly-processed statistical pictures, that actually say very little about the lived experience of our mind. They only say something about how large numbers of trials in one condition differ slightly from a large number of trials in another condition. So when you come to think of it, our mind does not really have a form.
busy in India (where I am now)

Even worse, we think we can control our minds, but actually, most of the time we are not even aware of what it is doing. In a very interesting article, Thomas Metzinger analyzes how little time we actually have agency over our minds. So much of our thinking is just driven by all kinds of habits, which we repeat over and over again without questioning. My personal favorite habit is "I don't have time", which I have been practising quite a few times in the past weeks (hence no blog). The more I practise it, the more my mind feels tight and my life feels like a heavy blanket. Sometimes, when I can see this is all just a construction of my mind, I can actually develop some agency. And even if not, at the very least, considering for a moment that my mind is a construction that seems much more real than it really is, creates a tremendous sense of space. At least for one moment I can take "I have no time" less seriously--because time too is a construction of my mind...

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Facing an angry colleague by turning him into a dreamlike angry colleague

This week's Seven Points of Mind Training is "regard all dharmas as dreams". Dharmas here refers to phenomena. This topic links to the Buddhist teachings on emptiness, which is a huge topic. However, very simply one aspect of it is that we take our experiences less seriously. Actually, I recently watched a very interesting TED talk by neuroscientist Anil Seth that made me think of this topic. He demonstrated how none of our perceptions are pure perceptions of reality: all perceptions are in part constructed by our predictions about the world. From a Buddhist perspective, the most important predictions we make are that things are permanent--they are not going to disappear or change, that they are singular--do not consist of multiple parts, and independent--they do not depend on other things. If we think about this, all of this makes a lot of sense, but emotionally we tend to react often as if things are permanent, independent and singular. Conversely, when we consider things are like the stuff that dreams are made of, then we can often see them with a lot more humor and we get less overwhelmed by them.

This week I had a good challenge with which I could practice this: a colleague of mine got very angry with me about some communication issues and misunderstandings. When people get angry at me, my habit is to duck away and try to avoid it. However, this of course does not solve things. So, I had to face it and go talk to the angry colleague. Here the "dreamlike" concept was really helpful. Before I walked to his room, I reminded myself of the dreamlike nature of everything. And in dreams, nothing can really go wrong--when you remember it is a dream you can change everything, and if all else fails, you just wake up. The reminder of dreams immediately gave me some space outside my thoughts, and I worried less about being hurt. And actually the meeting with the colleague turned out not to be so bad after all. If only I could remember this more often!
Ballet also allows me to enter some kind of a different reality or "dream world"

Sunday, May 20, 2018

Undermining the imposter syndrome with reflecting on hopes and fears

The first slogan of the Seven Points of Mind Training is "First, train in the preliminaries". Preliminaries are in fact a whole topic in themselves. A large part of these preliminaries includes reflecting on what is called the Four Thoughts which are reflections on (1) the preciousness of our human birth, (2) the truth of impermanence, (3) the infallibility of cause and effect, and (4) the suffering nature of samsara--the cycle of birth and death. Although the last reflection on suffering sounds quite negative, this is the one I decided to focus on this week.
So much of what I do is hoping for success (picture from Young Academy Groningen)

Where does the suffering come from? One of the most clear explanations of this is given in terms of the Eight Worldly Dharmas: hope for fame, fear of infamy; hope for gain, fear of loss; hope for happiness, fear of suffering; and hope for gain, fear of loss. I notice myself getting caught up in these hopes and fears a lot, especially in relation to my job. One of the most insidious aspects of my job is the imposter syndrome, which many academics suffer from (of course many people in other professions as well). It is the feeling that you only got to your job because of a fluke, and any time they are going to find out that you are really not capable. I often get this feeling when a grant is rejected (as happened this past week), and sometimes I get it in my ballet class as well (when I am put in the back row on stage for a show).

The interesting thing about the Eight Worldly Dharmas is that they completely undermine this imposter syndrome thinking. Imposter syndrome and the feeling that you are not good enough can only exist if there is a need to succeed, to be better than other people, to not suffer. The moment I realize that actually all these hopes and fears are only leading to suffering, and kind of short-sighted, I can feel a lot of space open up. The whole question of not being good enough becomes irrelevant when you are not hoping for fame and being afraid of infamy; instead you just focus on doing your best and trying to benefit others. Of course understanding this intellectually is not fixing it straight away, and you need to go through this reasoning many times, but it is worth the effort.

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Introducing the #lojongchallenge

Last weekend I was at a retreat organized by Rigpa Netherlands about the topic of Lojong. Lojong means literally training the habitual mind. The Lojong text we focused on was the Seven points of mind training. What is amazing about these teachings is that they are very practical ways to bring kindness and compassion in your life, and at the same time to give you some tools to work with your emotions. Note that these blogs are not intended to be teaching tools, so if you want to know more about these teachings, I suggest you read some of the excellent books that are around, such as Training the Mind, The Intelligent Heart or for a more contemporary application to the workplace: Awake at Work. Or you can of course take a course at your local Tibetan Buddhist centre if they offer it.
Picture taken in my hotel room in Amsterdam at the retreat

The retreat was an interesting one for me, because Rigpa has been in a lot of turmoil because the main teacher Sogyal Rinpoche has been accused of sexual abuse, physical abuse and financial mis-management, and consequently he stepped down as the director of Rigpa.* This was the first retreat without him, quite a searching process for the sangha that is very divided on what they think of the matter. In the midst of all the rampant emotions and the general happenings in the world, it was magnificent to study and practise Lojong.

While I think these teachings are amazing, my main problem is that I always forget to actually put them into practice. For this reason, I came up with the #lojongchallenge, where I challenge myself (and whoever would like to join) to write a blog/tweet/facebook/instagram post on a Lojong topic every week. In these blogs I plan to not regurgitate the teaching, but rather write a short story on how I worked with the teachings in my life as a practitioner and as an academic (or even as a dancer). I will probably start by going through the 59 Lojong slogans in order, because that gives a nice structure, but I may deviate from that as time continues.

Note also that these stories are not intended as a showcase of my realization (which I clearly don't have), nor a teaching tool, but only as a motivation to take the Lojong teachings seriously, and maybe to inspire others as in the process...

An example of a story could be like what happened to me during this retreat. In the first day I felt pretty much everything went wrong: folding bicycle that was supposed to transport me every day from hotel to venue broke down (its chain kept falling off and cannot be repaired), my watch stopped working, the balloon that is inside my meditation cushion broke, and I lost my coat (meanwhile found). As all this happened, I felt my familiar tendency to catastrophize, to feel that "everything is going wrong" started to emerge. Then the slogan "all dharmas are dreamlike" came to the rescue. When you realize that all of these things are natural properties of the world (things will disintegrate, disappear, break...--that is called impermanence), it is no longer such a surprise, and I felt suddenly a lot more relaxed.
a dreamlike image...

So, this was my first contribution to #lojongchallenge. If anyone else wants to join me, please do so, and add the hashtag #lojongchallenge.

* Please note that I will not be discussing matters related to the Sogyal Rinpoche controversy here on this blog. This is not because I want to ignore it or think it is not important. Rather, I think this blog is not the correct forum for that. I am very much working with it in more personal ways in the organization and beyond.

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

(Some) monks enjoy statistics and other lessons from a recent India trip

Kalden presenting our research in Allahabad
I recently went to India again to continue my collaboration with the monks of Sera Jey monastic university, who are learning to become scientists. This time, we started the visit with the International Conference on Meditation Research, at the University of Allahabad. For the first time, three of the monastic collaborators presented our joint EEG research on Tibetan monastic debate. It was amazing to see them present in a real scientific forum, which was even covered by the Times of India. As one of the monks reminisced, it was also quite historic that the presentation was held in a location quite close to the ancient Buddhist university of Nalanda. The conference also hosted many Indian and international scientists who talked about topics ranging from computational models of meditation (myself) to Hindu philosophy of meditation and its clinical use.

Video scoring in action

Getting our project overview ready

After this exciting meeting I flew to Bangalore, where I gave a few talks, followed by the most important part of the trip: a visit to Sera Jey monastic university. This time, the main goals of our journey were to start a questionnaire study and to improve the rating system of our EEG videos. When we record EEG during a monastic debate, we ask one of the monks to press buttons to indicate events such as agreement, disagreement, distraction, and more. But of course, a problem with this approach is that we do not know how reliable such ratings are. In scientific studies, it is then important to compute inter-rater reliability. We talked about this concept, and then proceeded to re-rate the videos of the EEG sessions we collected, such that it is possible to look at the agreement between raters. This turned out to be quite an interesting experience that led to a lot more discussion between the monks about how to decide when to press a certain button.

Talking about statistics
During this visit, we also had another important realization: that we actually never talked very much about project management. To accomplish a complex team project of the type we are working on, it is crucial to actually divide tasks between individuals, and to have a shared vision on what needs to be accomplished and when. Once we realized this, we put together a big scheme that is now decorating the walls of the Sera Jey science centre, which indicates what the questions are that we are trying to answer, and who is responsible for what part of the work. Such discussions are probably even more necessary when you are working with a multicultural team of Tibetan monks and Western scientists compared to when you are working in a small collaboration with a PhD student at a Western university, because there are just so many more hidden assumptions. Moreover, work cultures are very different, where the West tends to have fixed schedules and predictability, in the Tibetan monastery things happen when they happen, and it is hard to plan ahead (especially given things like power outages).

Despite all this, what was the most surprising thing I learnt this trip? Maybe it's that Tibetan monks like statistics (at least the ones we have been working with). They did not only seem to enjoy geeky conversations during the conference in Allahabad, but also were excited about statistics lessons we ran at the Science Centre.

Friday, March 30, 2018

Open science: do we need that? And if so: how can we get started?

Recently, I organized with the Young Academy of Groningen a workshop on Open Science and Reproducibility. What is open science? Isn't science supposed to be open anyway? Keynote speaker Simine Vazire showed us how this is not always the case. She took us back to the fundamental ideals of science, sharing Merton's norms, which distinguish science from other forms of knowing. Science has a sense of universalism, in which the validity of a scientific claim does not depend on who is making it--there are no arguments from authority. Another ideal is "communality"--the scientific findings belong to everyone and everyone can check them. Science should also be disinterested--all results should be reported without bias. Science should not withold findings that are unfavorable to the scientist. Finally, nothing is sacred in science, and all claims should be tested. But is this really how science proceeds in practice? How many scientific findings can really be checked by everyone? How many scientists are really unbiased? Studies show that even scientists think that most science does not adhere to these ideas. So, we need a change in science to become more open such that it becomes easier for everyone to check scientific claims.
keynote by Simine Vazire

A major problem in science is the emphasis on significant results as a precondition for publication. Unfortunately it is quite easy to obtain significant results with enough p-hacking (trying out many different tests on different subsets of your data) and HARKING (hypothesizing after results are known--presenting the obtained significant results as the original hypothesis). Probably as a result of the commonality of these practices, many studies do not replicate, which was most clearly shown in large-scale attempts at replications (e.g., the Reproducibility Project).
Here I open the workshop

So how can we improve? A good step would be to share all materials and data so others can check it. A good resource recommended was the Open Science Framework. Candice Morey for example has all her materials and data from various projects there. However, during the data management panel the Research Data Management Office mentiond that this does not adhere to the new European regulations on privacy. Better options would be to work with for example Moreover, it is important to really think carefully about you deidentify your data, because with the current machine learning algorithms it is surprisingly easy to identify someone's data by combining a few different sources. Another challenge in opening up your data is that you may not remember the connection between all your graphs and the raw data, or you may feel your data analysis scripts are too messy. Laura Bringmann shared some knowledge about Rmarkdown, which allows you to seamlessly integrate data analysis with code, avoiding the need to have code and graphs and data live in different places. This also makes it really easy to do revisions, because you can easily reproduce the original analyses that lead to specific numbers and plots. Of course even if you decide to open your data, many others may not do so. One practical step individuals can take to enhance openness in science is to participate in the Peer Reviewers Openness Initiative, in which you pledge to only review articles which make their data open (or provide a good excuse why they cannot do so). Of course another way in which openness can be improved is if universities consider the extent to which an individual makes their data and materials open in hiring and promotion decisions.
Candice Morey talking about pre-registration

In addition, what helps to promote open science is to formalize your hypotheses and deposit them somewhere before you collect the data. This procedure is called pre-registration, a topic also discussed in a keynote by Candice Morey. Preregistration can be done quite easily on the Open Science Framework. Another interesting method is to write up your hypotheses in a Registered Report format (offered by more and more journals), in which reviewers decide on acceptance based on your introduction and methods before you collect the data, and then you are guaranteed (in principle) acceptance, independent of how your results turn out. Of course academic incentives should also change to promote this: rewarding these research practices instead of rewarding high-impact publications.

A further step in improving would be to stop overselling our results and better understanding statistics. Rink Hoekstra talked about common misunderstandings about statistics. Most notably, almost everyone's intuitions about p-values are wrong. P-values cannot ever tell you that your statistical hypothesis is true, but it only provides some evidence against a null hypothesis, and it always carries a certain level of uncertainty. It is therefore never possible to make very definite claims about your data, unlike what journals, and even more the media, wants. A very insightful visualization of how little p-values really mean is the Dance of the P-values. Instead of blindly relying on p-values it is critical to instead focus more on visualizing your data, for which Gert Stulp provided some useful resources.
The data management panel

In short, there is still a long way to go to open up your science, but more and more resources are available. The full slides and materials of the meeting can be found here. You can also check out the hashtag #RUGopenScience.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Working with (against?) work pressure in academia

Today I followed a workshop given by Jeanine de Bruin and Brigitte Hertz on work pressure in academia. This workshop followed at the end of a monthlong writing challenge for academics, in which the goal was to write for two hours every day. I really enjoyed the challenge of consciously shifiting priorities towards generating content and away from responding to things, because even if producing is harder, in the end it is more rewarding (see also my earlier blog post here.

The first insight from the workshop was that the main tool for dealing with work pressure is trying to make the right decisions. It is very easy to get swept away by the onslaught of things to do, and the implicit attitude of "I am busy, so I am working hard and doing it right" instead of thinking about WHAT you are doing.

In managing your work you can think about three levels. The first level is working on a day level. You can start the day with the things that are important to you (e.g., writing this grant application). Moreover, do not have the illusion that you can multitask, because you can really not, and not only the quality of your work suffers, but you also feel much more stressed (at least I do). In addition, I find it very helpful to focus the energy in my day by looking at the goals I defined by means of emacs orgmode; a plain text system in which I stick on my projects with todo items and due dates. This system ensures that no projects are forgotten. I also really like to use it to keep track of each student I am supervising (each student has their own file in which I write a few notes after every meeting with what they have done and what they will do for the next meeting). You can also think about time management at the project level, in which you want to make sure you pick the right projects, and are not afraid to drop projects if they are not leading to something fruitful. Two things I learnt there are first, to take regular space for reflection on how it is going with a project and what is next and so on. This is difficult because the busy woodpecker in me would like to continue doing something "productive", but reflection can really save a lot of time and increase quality in the end. One particular thing to think about are potential roadblocks or plans B: what could go wrong, and what should we do then. I think too little about this, and maybe this wastes a lot of time. On the really long-term level time management is also thinking about what is important for the long-term. What is my passion, where do I want to be 5-10 years from now. I usually only think about this when writing my tenure dossier or a job application, but it is important in deciding what projects to pursue and even what to do in a single day as well. One skilful way of forcing yourself to reflect on this is chatting about it with a mentor over lunch. I highly recommend that. It also made me realize I should review my toggl time log a few times a year to check what my time is being used for, and whether that is what I want. Right now I only review my toggl logs every week when the system mails me the hours tracked.

We then talked about the famous Eisenhower quadrants with urgent-not urgent and import-not important. I have thought about this a lot, and I think that most stuff I do is in the "important" section of the matrix. One thing that I never grasped until this workshop was the distinction between "being important for me" and "being important to do". For example, helping a colleague is a good thing to do, but won't generally help my career ahead. So maybe in the matrix it falls in the category of "not important" in that sense. I realized that I spend too much time following news (partly news, partly news related to science and academic how-to). I made the resolution to limit my news intake to 15 minutes a day, so I won't waste too much time on it. In the end, that won't really get myself too much ahead, apart from staying up to date with the world and getting ideas for lectures, student assignments and grants. Another skilful means for reducing the "not important stuff that needs to be done" is to wonder whether not someone else can do it. I put this into action by requesting a student assistant for the next course I am teaching. While initially this is more work in instructing the person and making all procedures more explicit (grading sheets!), in the end it will save me time. And of course, it is always helpful to remember that saying yes to something means saying no to something else (also described in the book Busy by Tony Crabbe). A final insight from the Eisenhower quadrants was that focusing on the things that are important and not yet urgent will help to increase quality (because you can let the projects rest and then realize you have made some mistakes), and improve your health.

We also discussed what our university can do to reduce work pressure. One important thing I think is that I waste a lot of time searching for information on how to do things, reinventing the wheel, not being aware of procedures. Sharing knowledge more efficiently would really help. We also need to work on more delegation and most importantly better delegation: the insight here was that delegation is not just dropping the task onto someone but also training them how to do it. On the short term training takes time, but on the longer term it reduces errors and therefore headache. It would also be cool if promotion weren't so focused on grant acquisition, because grant acquisition is such a highly risky process that is a lot of work with very uncertain outcomes. I learnt that Utrecht University also has a career path focused on teaching, which sounds really cool. Finally, it would be nice to build more of a collaboration culture at university, rather than the current competition culture.

The last part of the meeting focused on recognizing stress in your work. I think I am blessed in this department because while I feel sometimes exhausted, I never have trouble sleeping and I feel generally happy. I credit the ballet dancing that is a fixture in my schedule, together with the meditation practice that I do every morning and every evening. I think it is really important to stick to those things as priorities in addition to work priorities, because otherwise you waste a whole life working and being unhappy.

In the end, reducing work pressure relies on the confluence of both individual action (trying to work on what is important and inspiring and taking good care of yourself) with institutional action; the universities will have to change because in the long run the current work culture in which many academics put in way too many hours compared to their contracts, and especially in which evaluation is biased towards metrics of grant acquisition that you have little control over is not sustainable. It is helpful to reflect on this both at the individual level and to think together with colleagues and decision makers on how to improve the work culture.