Sunday, August 27, 2017

Pondering work and meditation

Some reflections from my stay at Ngari Institute of Buddhist Dialectics in Saboo, Ladakh.
Morning story: I woke up to run with the kids at 5:30. Since I wasn't sure where to go, I ran up to what I later found out to be the monk's quarters. Two of the institute dogs came with me. When there was nowhere to go, they guided me back below to where the kids were running. I joined some of them. Together we struggled up the hilll, panting for breath, looking at the beautiful views together, meeting yaks and people on our way. What a beautiful fresh way to start the day!\\
Contemplation:
From Andrew Harvey--''A journey in Ladakh'': ``Those who reject the materialism of the West, who despise it and separate themselves from it, are in danger of refusing to look at it, they are in danger of not being responsible to the facts of life as it is lived, and must be lived, now. We must find a way to work within the world, within science, within industry, even within politics; we cannot simply pretend a superiority to those things, for they are the forces that largely shape mankind. To work within the world we will have to be strong, and in the world our inner strengths will be greatly tested. But that is good. That will dissolve any pride we may have, any sense of virtuous invulnerability. It will take away from us any sense that we are "special'', that we deserve "special treatment'', that we are "unique.''
My continuous struggle is to figure out how to be living a "vita contemplativa.'' What does it mean to be a scientist and yet to also live a spiritual life such that the life and the science are not wasted, but are in fact of benefit to both myself and others. It seems from this writing that what is truly crucial is humility: to just work without expecting anything in return, without any recognition. And also, to drop any thought of being special but just focus on being of help. It is difficult to really live this, because in the West and especially in a career in a competitive profession we are conditioned to continually try to prove we have the best and we deserve recognition. So how can we resist that? Maybe one way would be to contemplate again and again on how we are interdependent with everything. Everything we do cannot be done without the kind help of many others (if only for the food we eat, the electricity we use, and so many more things).
Another helpful quote from the same book: "Be quietly detached from what you do and dedicate it to the good of all created beings, and you will be safe from disillusion or vanity.'' Every time when I go on retreat I realise how important it is to dedicate time in silence. Even just being here, I can see my automatic tendency to ditch meditation in favor of "something useful''--typically processing some information like reading a paper. It is hard sometimes to see the true value of meditation, yet this is the only way we can remain detached from what we do and put it into perspective. And only when we do that can we remain joyful in the face of difficulties, because we see there is so much else that is involved in all of our successes and failures.

Saturday, August 19, 2017

Science at the monastery gets real


I just returned from another study visit to Sera Jey Monastery in Bylakuppe, India. We are studying the effects of monastic debate and analytical meditation on emotion and cognition. Since this was already the fourth visit of the project, it was time to get real and get down on scientific rigour. In our EEG study, instead of just exploring different types of debate, we now developed a procedure in which each pair of debaters debated the same topic (a text on bodhicitta), got some chance to refresh their memory before the debate by studying the text for 15 minutes, and we used a standard classification for the triggers that the observing monks were using to score the debate. We even asked our observers to give the debates a grade, so we can in the future see whether the quality of the debate is related to some patterns of brain activity. In addition, the most interesting new feature of our EEG studies was more related to the frequent power outages: we bought a big car battery to run our EEG system off of!
We also took major strides in standardizing the behavioral tasks that we have been running by filming one of the monks explaining it while demonstrating on a tablet, and then showing this same video to all of our participants. The video demonstrations nicely combine standardization of explanation with a hands-on demonstration.
Monks pouring over a computer running JASP in stats class


In addition to spending time on standardizing experiments, we also spent quite a bit of time making predictions with the monks. This was a significant challenge, because obviously monks do not have the same space of possibilities in their heads that we Western scientists do (e.g., things either differ in their magnitude or there is a linear or non-linear relation between them). The monks found it a challenge to make predictions--maybe because guessing is not really encouraged in monastic debate you are drilled to be absolutely certain of what you are talking about (and in predictions you can never be). Nevertheless, we managed to get some predictions, and at least some of the EEG predictions were actually borne out! This is always a major happy moment for a scientist.

monks getting ready for EEG
Of course predictions are not always borne out, and we are also still sorting through a lot of confusing data that we still have to make sense of. Actually, the hard part of doing psychological science is that when you present a person with a task, quite often do they behave in quite a different way than we expected. This is mostly because the tasks we use to learn about the mind are really mostly geared towards Western college students (see this paper for a great discussion of that issue). As we slowly see all these interpretations of the tasks happen, we develop more appropriate instructions, and hopefully in the future also new tasks that are made more for our target population. As a first step in preparing for this, we held a methods and statistics class, which was actually met with tremendous enthusiasm: almost the whole monastic core team showed up voluntarily for this class on their free day! We had a lot of fun talking about t-tests, anovas and different kinds of variables, and we even played around with Bayes Factors in JASP!

This trip also was one of lots and lots of discussions. Actually one of the things that became obvious to me this time around is that the most insightful discussions actually happen when you are working one-on-one, not when having a large group discussion. For example, I spent a good amount of time sitting with my monk-colleagues to translate the debates (well, they translated, I wrote down the translations). In the course of this process I learnt a lot of tricks that happen while debating, such as interpreting a question differently when you do not know the answer to this question.
behavioural testing in action

This time we also met for the first time some Western monks studying at Sera Jey. Both with them, and with some members of our monastic collaborator team who studied in the West, I had some really interesting conversations about how monastic university training differs from Western university training. One thing that differs is the extent to which it actually informs how one practises and lives one's life. In addition, the debate training is a tool that is very confrontational: if you do not know something in great detail then there is no place to hide. This has as a result that you learn to really understand things in depth, but probably also that you build up quite an emotional resilience to being continually challenged. In short, it was a very illuminating visit, and such a precious chance to get to hang out in the peaceful monastery environment and the amazing group of monastic collaborators!
Last but not least: our study was featured in the Times of India!

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Where meditation meets reasoning: analytical meditation


Over the course of the last two years or so I have been studying, with several American colleagues, the practices of monastic debate and analytical meditation. As I am writing this I am once again in India for that study. It is a tremendous gift to be able to spend time in India working with a fantastic group of monks in the context of my work. During this visit, we had a short panel at the monastery on analytical meditation in which I shared some words about how we measure the brain with EEG, but most interestingly, two very bright monastic scholars shared textual and practical information about analytical meditation and debate. To ensure that I do not forget it, I decided to share it here on my blog (doing my best not to misrepresent what I have heard).

While analytical meditation (Tib. che gom) can be traced back to the historical Buddha (described for example in the King of Concentration sutra), and even Hindu saints before that time, it really became popular with the Buddhist saint Tsongkhapa. Tsongkhapa was the founder of the Geluk school of Tibetan Buddhism which has a strong focus on study and reasoning. Apparently there is also the criticism from other schools in Tibetan Buddhism that say that analytical meditation is just fake meditation invented by Tsongkhapa. Analytical meditation is complemented by stabilizing meditation, in which the mind is placed on an object and tries to stay there without moving. This stabilizing meditation is more well-known in the West, where meditating on the breath is a quite popular component of many mindfulness courses and interventions. However, it is said that such calm abiding does not really help to transform suffering in the long term--it can only give calm in the short term. Analytical meditation seeks to investigate the true causes of phenomena and thereby can lead to wisdom and new insight into the nature of phenomena.

However, neither type of meditation can exist without the other ones. Without stabilizing meditation, the analytical meditation cannot really thoroughly accomplished, because the mind is just too wild. Without analytical meditation, stabilizing meditation is just a brief respite from our crazy monkey mind (if we manage to get it quiet). Also interesting: in this tradition, meditation is referred to as familiarization (see also Dreyfus (2015) for an excellent discussion)--meditation is becoming thoroughly familiar with its object (such as the breath) by bringing your attention to it again and again.


Analytical and stabilizing meditation differ on various dimensions. As I mentioned above, the results of analytical meditation are more stable than the results of stabilizing meditation. While stabilizing meditation is only practised individually, analytical meditation can also be practised in smaller or larger groups, such as in the debates that we have been recording in the lab. While in stabilizing meditation, the body should remain still, in analytical meditation, it can also move (as it does in monastic debate).

This movement dimension is also the feature of analytical meditation that is fascinating to me, given my experience in dance. It seems like a genius way to make meditation palatable to young men in a monastery that have lots of physical energy: meditation in action! Analytical meditation is characterized by a continuous questioning of the topic at hand, looking at it from all directions and asking "why" and "how"? These questions then allow the practitioner to become more familiar with the topic at hand (traditional topics include concepts such as impermanence and interdependence) by thoroughly investigating it. Debating in the physical way that is used in the monastery (see this clip for an example makes it more interesting than just sitting down. In addition, the monks say that standing makes your thinking quicker and more clear. It brings all the senses together. Through a repeated investigation of concepts like impermanence, but also negative emotions like anger, slowly your mental patterns start to change, such that eventually thoughts of impermanence or patience come up more automatically in daily life, and in situations where you are about to become angry.

It seems to me that analytical meditation is worthy of more attention by contemplative neuroscientists. We have begun to do the first EEG studies and behavioral experiments. This surely is a slow process, frought with dangers of misunderstanding, but I think it is well worth our while. It is important not only because of potential applications in education or in therapeutic interventions to manage maladaptive thought patterns, but surely also because there is so much interest in science in the monastic community as well. I hope to be able to share some preliminary results in this space in the near future.

Monday, July 10, 2017

What I learnt about research on human trust

Last week I went to the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, United States to learn about research that is being done on trust. Mostly for the benefit of my future self, I will make an attempt at summarizing what I learnt about this somewhat foreign (to me) area of research. Trust is actually measured in lots of different ways, ranging from tightly controlled lab conditions to the messiness of the real world and foreign cultures. Trust models come larger from Roger Mayer. Fundamental components of trust appear to be ability, benevolence and integrity. In other words, you trust someone when you believe they can do things (ability), when you think they are meaing well (benevolence) and when you believe they act with integrity. Trust is most crucial in situations of risk, and when you are together with someone you trust, you are more willing to take risks in this relationship. Mei-Hua Lin discussed that trust depends on the amount of interaction you have had with a person, the similarity, affect, status, as well as situational factors. Mayer mentioned an interesting experiment to measure trust in a person, is to ask people how likely they would give ths person a project that is important to them when you cannot monitor them. Across the world, the integrity dimension appears to be the most important predictor of trust. Although mostly trust is considered to be positive, Alan Wagner is studying situations in which people overtrust. Most frequently people use Mayer's questionnaire for measuring trust, but another possibility is Rotter's Interpersonal Trust Questionnaire.


Trust in the laboratory can be related to confidence. It has been known for some time that confident testimony has greater influence, especially when it comes from people that also calibrate their confidence to their probability of being correct (Tenney et al., 2007). As such, you can examine trust in the laboratory by looking at how people take the advice of advisor that vary in how confident their advice is (see some cool new work by Yeung and Shea). It is apparently even possible to create computer models of trust, which update trust in an opponent on the basis of previous experiences (Juvinaet al., 2015). One interesting context in which these models were used were in peer-assisted learning of paired associates, in which your partner can inform your answers to the paired associates. In a slightly less cognitive lab setting, trust can be assessed by looking at people's facial expressions as they perform a task collaboratively (Social BART task). Even more, humans can extract trust from body odors, although this effect is modulated by gender. Extraction of social information from smell is also disrupted in people suffering from autism spectrum disorder.

Another dimension of trust occurs in teams of humans and robots collaborating. Antonio Chella thinks about whether recovery of trust can occur when we let a robot say "sorry". You can also look at how humans trust automation (e.g., in a factory) and look how often they notice failures of this automation, such as in the AF-MATB task. Apparently errors by the automated system can even elicit an error-related negativity ("oERN"). As the machine/factory makes more errors, people evidently trust it less. So in fact the reliability of one artificial agent affects how reliable we think another agent is: trust calibration.

On the other hand, do humans consider machines in the same ways as other humans? Jonathan Gratch looks at what aspects of robot behavior make us treat the robots like humans vs machines. Appararently the relevant dimensions are a sense of agency and displays of emotion--together he calls that mind perception. Humans treat robots unfairly and exhibit different emotions when they feel they are just machines. When you add emotions to the robot, people start to treat it more human-like. Apparently you can even decode from human brain activity whether people think they are dealing with humans versus machines. Also gaze is an important cue that humans use to decide whether to trust a robot. Angelo Cangelosi uses investment games to study how much people trust robots, and observed that people invest more in nice than in nasty naos. Amazingly enough, even rats prefer helpful robots over non-helpful robots! Also team interactions can be modelled with ACT-R, as Chris Myers' work on synthetic team mates shows.

Slightly less related to trust, but more to influence was work from Matt Lieberman, who showed that activity in the mPFC could predict behavior change in many contexts such as smoking cessation, wearing suncreen and more. Now what happens between two people are they are succesfully influenced? In experiments at Mount Jordan, Matt Lieberman showed that people's brains are more synchronized when they are watching a video together and are engaged and share a common reality. Also synchrony in speech (speech entrainment) can create social connectedness, because it is associated with increased positive feelings. However, this is not a simple phenomenon, because apparently it's not just more entrainment is better; rather, more variation in entrainment is better. The amount of speech entrainment seems to even affect whether people take advice from an avatar, although that is again a messy process. Less biological ways to measure connectedness include a questionnaire of social presence, which Kerstin Daubenhahn found to be sensitive to whether robots synchronized to the interaction with humans or not.

Other very interesting work by Clara Pretus looked at what is different in the brains of people who are wlling to fight and die for sacred values compared to people who don't. The main difference seemed to be less reliance on the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex for making these kinds of decisions. On a more positive note, very interesting work by Daniel Fessler showed how watching brief videos of prosocial behavior promotes real-world prosocial behavior (donations). The emotion of elevation appeared to be driving this real-world behavior. An important determinant in video content appeared to be reciprocation between the actors. Other happy news is a study by Adam Cohen who showed that when you ask people what kind of fictitious characters they would friend on Facebook, they trust Muslims and Christians equally, and the people they find most trustworthy are those who engage in costly religious practices (such as adhering to a kosher diet).

On a larger scale influence can be measured on twitter. People such as Vlad Barash have been developing network methods to study social contagion on this social media platform. Tim Weninger showed that social rating systems have a huge influence on how much other people like images/posts: to the extent that people are very poor at predicting what image will be more popular on social media, and popularity ratings are driven primarily by other users' ratings. In short, trust and influence are highly complex topics, on which very multidisciplinary research is done from many angles and perspectives.

Some useful tools I learnt about:

Thursday, June 15, 2017

advice from successful scientists

I recently attended an evening with Spinoza laureates organised by the Young Academy of the University of Groningen, who shared their career advice.
Here you can find pictures and a collection of tweets about it: https://storify.com/mvugt/evening-with-spinoza-laureates-organized-by-young-

Saturday, June 03, 2017

Running around a retreat with cell phone in hand--an opportunity to find spaciousness in busyness

I attended a retreat with my teacher Sogyal Rinpoche over Ascension day weekend. As I am writing this, after four intense days, I cannot help but feel tremendously spacious and relaxed. That is actually pretty odd given that I went there with a healthy dose of aversion, feeling tired and somewhat sick, and then spending the full four days of the retreat running around with phone in hand from 7:15 am to 9:00 pm. How could this be?
Sogyal Rinpoche teaching in Amsterdam (picture from Facebook Rigpa Nederland)

People attending the teaching; the dots dress on the far left is me (picture from Facebook Rigpa Nederland)

Going on retreat with Sogyal Rinpoche you know one thing, and that is that everything is going to change all the time. The only thing that is certain is the time at which the first session starts, and from that moment, everything is in a constant flow. The reason I was running around with the phone in my hand this time around was that I was the so-called "teaching services coordinator", who has to make sure that changes in the program are communicated to all the relevant teams, that every team is doing its work properly and that everyone has the materials they need and know what to do. In other words, this roles requires you to constantly be in touch with everything that is happening in all the different places, and to constantly be "in the change." It felt a bit like the retreat was an organism, and I as a teaching services coordinator had to feel what it was doing.

One of the big themes of the retreat was the "twit-twit mode"--a mode of being very busy and not being aware of what is actually happening. This mode of being sounded very familiar to me, and therefore the retreat was a fantastic way to work with it. The idea is that if you are connected to the awareness that is always present in your mind, then you will be able to hold your ground, instead of being swept away by busyness. I noticed that I was able to get a flavour of this at the retreat, because I was able to listen to the teachings on meditation in the nature of mind, and then immediately go back to working to hold the retreat. In that way it was quite easy to experiment with that awareness. Another beautiful idea that Sogyal Rinpoche used to describe this state of mind was that our ordinary mind would be consumed by the awareness of our nature of mind, instead of our ordinary being consumed by confusion. And when we are confused, we are easily burnt out because we cannot prioritize.

An important part of being aware is also being able to listen. Sometimes working together is benefits from less focus on results, and more focus on just getting together and listening. In fact, when you are with people, it's not what you say, but how you are. What is incredibly helpful is just to be open, loving, and compassionate, and then things may resolve themselves. This is both the case for situations between people and for our own mind: when we leave our mind in its pure awareness, then we can also find our true home. This is a true friend that is always there, whereas all other friends will some day disappear.

A further theme was the "throwaway culture" in which we live nowadays, in which we always want quick fixes yesterday, instead of going for more durable solutions. In particular, we are not willing to spend time and effort on a spiritual path that does not give very quick improvements. Moreover, we always want new things, and quickly get bored. I found that this analysis of present-day society rang true to my own experience, especially our consumerist society.

In addition, we often look for happiness outside ourselves. But actually, the source of happiness is inside ourselves: in a sense of joy and appreciation for what is always there. This ability to transform everything that happens into something good is the essence of Vajrayana buddhism. It reminds me of a Dutch poem: "if you look carefully, then you see that everything is colorful." Everything is in fact a display of clarity, joy, and wisdom, but it's so easy to forget that in the nitty-gritty of our everyday experience. Similarly, we can find joy in our work--even when we are very busy--when we are inspired by bodhicitta and caring for others. But if we just do the work to get ahead and to gain recognition then we will quickly burn out.

In summary, I felt the retreat was very much about bringing together the absolute teachings about the nature of awareness with the nitty-gritty of everyday life. I was able to get a taste of what happens when you get let go of the "twit-twit mode" and instead expand your awareness to everything that happens in the retreat, being in touch and not so much worried about little things. An inspiring way to find space in my own mind!

Sunday, April 23, 2017

What happens when you try to transplant cognitive science to a Tibetan monastery

After a short night on the plane from Frankfurt to Bangalore, and a long drive to the monastery, we arrived safe and sound from hustling and bustling in India to the quaintness of a Tibetan monastery. Our mission? Trying to learn about the effects of the debating that Tibetan monks engage in on their cognitive and emotional functioning. But (obviously) none of it was as easy as that may sound.
cow in front of Sera Jey's science centre, where we conducted our studies

a visit by NIMHANS scientists




Doing research in India reminds you of how we take so many things for granted: drinkable water flowing from the tap, warm water to take a shower, steady internet, and electricity. The first few days, internet was mostly absent and electricity was intermittent. This meant we were really coding like monkeys, because apart from talking to our monastic collaborators, there was no distraction! We had brought a few tasks that we routinely use in our laboratories to study logical reasoning, working memory, and decentering (this is the ability to realize that your thoughts are just thoughts, and then to step outside a train of thought). We thought that translating the tasks and their instructions would be quite trivial, since it mostly involved common words like 'shoebox' and 'baseball bat.' But of course, shoeboxes and baseball bats are actually not that common in a Tibetan monastery! So we had to had long conversations about what the best Tibetan equivalent for a particular word would be. This really makes you realize how western-centric the psychology tasks that we normally use are! Another example of that came up in a working memory task that we use, in which you have to intersperse memorizing a visual object and making decisions about words. As it turns out, monks are really not used to doing two things at the same time (or maybe we should say: Westerners are chronic multitaskers). So is this actually a good measurement of working memory?

a testing session in action (with a visiting dog)
But doing research in India is not only being a crazy coding monkey: relationships with people are also very important. We received a visit from Prof. Shantala Hegde and Shivarama Varambally from the prestigious National Institutes of Mental Health And Neuroscience in Bangalore. They gave talks to the monastic core team about their work on how music affects emotions, and what goes wrong in patients with schizophrenia. And imagine, the tasks had to be improvised without slides because we still had no power! Nevertheless, we had a wonderful time together and learned a lot. We also were invited by the abbott of the monastery. What was very exciting was that some of the monastic collaborators actually presented the data and graphs single-handedly to the abbott, who was very inspired, and gave his blessing to the project. Not unimportant for a project that takes place at a monastery...

After a few days, and lots of struggles with Tibetan fonts, we got the tasks to show up on the little tablets we brought and we were able to start testing (victory!). We started doing our usual thing: trying to rush through the tasks to get in as much data as possible. However, this just doesn't work for the monks. As we slowed down, we realized the process was much more pleasant for everyone (and much more informative!) if we took a break after every task and asked the monks about their experience in doing the tasks--what worked, what didn't, whether it was related to things do would do in their debating or analytical meditation practice, and so on. We also quickly discovered the meaning of "Indian time"--groups of monks could show up 15, 30, 45, or even 60 minutes late! On the other hand, it is also quite rewarding when your participants tell you that a boring task is "good mind training." Even more rewarding was the fact that our monastic collaborators really manifested and single-handedly took charge of the testing sessions.
Monks taking charge of the testing sessions!

Altogether, it was a wonderful gift to hang out with my monastic collaborators once again. They are some of the most kind, funny, and joyful people I know. Quite illustrative for this was Easter, which fell in the period that we were visiting to conduct some studies. My collaborator Amir and I hid some chocolate easter eggs, and the monks playfully went around searching for them, and even rehiding some of them after they had found them!