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!

Sunday, February 05, 2017

How to activate students? Ideas for juicing up your teaching

me teaching during the Artificial Intelligence teacher of the year award ceremony. Picture by Niels Taatgen.
I recently attended a workshop at my university about innovations in teaching. There were several ideas that I thought were useful, so I decided to blog about them. Firstly, I attended a workshop on MOOCs by Tom Spits. There are more and more MOOCs. You can actually use those MOOCs to complement your classroom teaching. For example, you can use them in the flipped classroom: students watch the MOOC at home and then you spend the time in the classroom doing assignments and discussing difficult points. I think this makes a lot of sense, because sometimes lectures on MOOCs are excellent, and why would you waste your own time and effort on that? For example, I found this MOOC on methods and statistics excellent. I may actually refer students to that for some components of my Research Methods class. This could be also helpful for students who need a bit more explanation or background information. The only thing you have to watch out for is MOOCs taking place asynchronously with your class, so that students are not able to sign up and watch the lectures.

MOOCs can also be a helpful source of assignments. Of course you should check this with the MOOC teacher, but reusing some of these assignments can save you a lot of time (given that creating assignments takes *a lot* of time...). Moreover, many of these assignments even give automatic feedback, which can help students to practise the material well. Another potential use of MOOCs could be to remedy deficiencies. For example, in a multidisciplinary field like Artificial Intelligence, some students are weak on programming, others on psychology or machine learning. There are plenty of MOOCs in all these areas that students can do to remedy these deficiencies. Advantage of MOOCs over regular university courses is that they can be done at your own pace, and in your own time.

A significant challenge with MOOCs is finding the right one. One place to start is a MOOC search engine: moocse. There are also websites with reviews of MOOCs, e.g., class central. And of course you can follow your favorite academics on twitter and find out when they are teaching a MOOC.

Another teaching innovation are learning communities. mentimeter in the lecture to keep students engaged. And finally, a very simple thing you can do to have students take charge of their learning is to provide lecture slides before the lecture so that students can click links and explore during the lecture (of course this is also tricky, since it may be very distracting for the students...).

In summary, I got quite a few new ideas for enhancing active learning in my classroom. I am planning to check some of these ideas out in the next few weeks, when I am starting to teach again.

Monday, January 30, 2017

A new way of dieting or other habit changes: quantifying your wants

There is a cool new research project called qwantify.org in which some of my friends from the Mind and Life Institute participate. The project seeks to investigate what people think about and want and how those things influence each other. They do this study by means of a smartphone app, which everyone with a smartphone can download and try out. I downloaded it and have found it very insightful.

I often find myself wanting things, ranging from food to consuming media to--in fact--consuming anything. The app prompts you to investigate these wants. A few times a day, it buzzes you and asks you whether you want anything, a question that is immediately followed by questions like: how do you want to feel? (e.g., accomplished, comfortable, connected...).This is fascinating because it draws the connection between what you want immediately and why you might want that. For example, often I may want to check the twitter or consume other media. But why? Do I want to feel comfortable? Connected? Or actually, is feeling accomplished more important? If so, is social media the best thing to want right now? The app also asks you about your emotions and your social situation. For example, it asks you whether you feel content, angry, etc. It also asks you whether there are currently people around you, and whether you are interacting with them. Do you want more things when you are by yourself, or when with others?

After you have filled out a few prompts, the app starts to give you charts that index many different aspects of your behavior. For example, I found out that apparently, I am a pretty happy person, because my predominant emotions are content and happy. Also, want things more when I am alone than when I am with others. This makes sense to me, since when I am with others my mind is sufficiently occupied that I don't really need much more. Moreover, I want things more badly when I am in a bad mood compared to when I am in a good mood. Overall, I am pretty amazing that there are even such patterns in my own data. Quite interesting.

Most importantly, the app drew my attention to the kinds of choices I make in my life. Normally, when I want things, I unquestioningly follow those impulses (or resist them), but I don't investigate what is behind them, or whether they actually make me feel better. As a result of working with the app for a few days, I became more aware of what impulses make me really happy. For example, creating things and accomplishing things for others is what makes me happy, while my wants are usually quite the opposite: consuming things (mostly food and media). So, if I take a moment to reflect, I could actually become happier by following the longer-term goals of creating things for other people rather than simply following my mindless impulses... Do you want to try it out as well (and help science along the way)?