Interview with Dr. David Vago

Science of Mindfulness- David Vago, Ph.D.David Vago is the newly appointed research director for the Osher Center of Integrative Medicine at Vanderbilt University where he is an associate professor in the departments of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation and Psychiatry. He is an associate psychologist in the the Functional Neuroimaging Laboratory at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and an instructor at Harvard Medical School. David has also worked as a Senior Research Coordinator for the Mind & Life Institute and is currently a Mind and Life Fellow. 

Could you tell us how you started on the path of a researcher in the science of mindfulness?

It’s an interesting path. I think anybody who finds themselves investigating the things that they love can easily track the causal chain of events. I go back to my first Vipassana meditation retreat in 1996. I was a junior in college and went on a ten day silent retreat and was blown away by the transformative potential of formal sitting meditation. I was always interested in Buddhist perspectives of mind and took religion classes during my undergraduate years. I studied brain and cognitive sciences as my major but the study of religion was a nice parallel to the neuroscience. Buddhism doesn’t even claim to be a religion but rather a science of mind. Nevertheless, I never thought it would be a topic in science or method for investigating the mind. In fact I went to graduate school for basic neuroscience looking at models of learning and memory. I was focusing on behavioral pharmacology and what kind of neurochemicals in the brain affect how we encode, consolidate, and retrieve information using animal models.

I have been meditating since 1996 but I never considered that I could incorporate my practice into my science. Then in 2004, I saw a dialogue at MIT between His Holiness the Dalai Lama and great scientists and scholars who led me to discover there was a niche to study the mind in this way. The Mind and Life Institute also had this fellowship as I was just finishing my Ph.D. It was the right time and right place. I received a grant called the Francisco J. Varela Research Award and it was the flagship program of the Mind and Life Institute. It was one the most critical factors in the development of the contemplative neuroscience field. Without that grant program, many scientists would never have started with this research.

About 150 other scientists have received that award. In a time when scientists are young and growing intellectually, with a little support from mentors, this type of grant funding became a seed for future research. Much of the data to emerge from this program has led to whole programs of research. I used it first to explore methodologically the same thing I was interested in: memory, encoding, learning, emotional regulation, and executive functioning. We looked at those aspects of the mind in the context of chronic pain and how women diagnosed with fibromyalgia process pain-related information.

“I felt like that was my niche. It was a causal chain of events that I couldn’t put the brakes on. It became a calling for me.”

After I received that grant, the Mind and Life Institute was looking for a senior scientist. I successfully applied for it and stayed with them for four years as the senior scientist and research coordinator. It put me in contact with amazing people like His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Jon Kabat-Zinn, and Richard Davidson. I felt like that was my niche. It was a causal chain of events that I couldn’t put the brakes on. It became a calling for me. I did have an opportunity to present my research to the Dalai Lama at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, MN as part of Mind and Life XXV and he thought my models were “quite good”. There were six of us presenting and representing the Varela awardees. His Holiness  pointed his finger at us and said, “You are all responsible for reducing suffering in this world. I’ll be watching…” To hear that from the Dalai Lama was meaningful and I took it to heart and with a deeper commitment to how these practices can be self-transformative. The field of contemplative science and mindfulness research are now approaching a level of precision on both a theoretical and mechanistic account and how it functions. We need to understand how these practices function and how can they best serve certain populations – this is basically my research program for the next 30 years.

Do you have a personal mindfulness practice? If so, how does it inform your own scientific inquiry?

Yes I do. Just like cardiologist who exercises and practices good nutrition, you realize the benefits of what you do. Imagine a cardiologist who was obese and didn’t exercise regularly. You might not trust the insight of his or her medicine. As a meditation practitioner, it gives me more insight into what these practices do, more research ideas, it allows me to check in with myself if I get caught up with the ego-games of academia. It also allows me to be more altruistic in my motives to help others. I see this as a form of service to help others.

Without a practice I think you can remain objective in the science but you might be blinded by the available tools and methods by which we can explore what mindfulness is doing. For instance, if you didn’t have a practice, you might take one of the eight self-reported measures of mindfulness and use it in your experiment to test if high-trait mindfulness predicts improvement on attention. What you may find is that high scores of trait measure of mindfulness might not result in improvements of attention. Such results certainly have some meaning, but it may not relate to the transformative potential of sitting meditation.

“When we’re talking about why we do these practices, it’s not to sit in the corner with your eyes closed. It’s really about creating a deeper sense of connection. The whole idea behind contemplative practice is that it refers us to a reflective style of cognitive processing that allows us to engage in a deeply meaningful type of action that serves self and others.”

There is a complexity that is associated with having a practice; it isn’t just a quick fix to common everyday stressors. It’s a life-transformative way of being that can have profound effects on all levels and not just on attention or emotion regulation. There are whole elements of systems that are influenced by these practices that are often missed in research. If you don’t have that practice, you might miss out on the subtleties of the practice. There is also the idea of an ethical transformation that improves our prosocial tendencies or altruistic motives. When we’re talking about why we do these practices, it’s not to sit in the corner with your eyes closed. It’s really about creating a deeper sense of connection. The whole idea behind contemplative practice is that it refers us to a reflective style of cognitive processing that allows us to engage in a deeply meaningful type of action that serves self and others. Broadly speaking, contemplative practice is much more experiential and has the potential to reveal the nature of mind, which can be extrapolated to others. Further down in the practice, you could have deeper insight into the nature of reality and that is much more profound than some of the simple stress-reduction techniques that we’re throwing out there for people with symptoms of anxiety or depression.
Functional Neuroimaging Laboratory at Brigham and Women’s Hospital at Harvard Medical School

Do you think insight derived from personal contemplative practice could be useful for somebody who is studying the science of mindfulness? Is it enough that you could be a good scientist and still get to the essence of mindfulness as the science defines it?

I think its’ really important to have perspectives from across disciplines and it’s good that we have scientists who don’t maintain a practice. It might overcome some of the positively-oriented biases that we see. We typically see positive effects but there are lots of null effects that many researchers aren’t reporting. I will say again that having a practice gives a level of insight that improves our questions and research design, especially when it comes to focusing on a neurophenomenological approach. This really combines traditional neuroimaging methods with a first person introspective method. Our Mapping the Meditative Mind Initiative, combines the first-person introspective experience with the third-person neuroscientific method. From this approach we gain more insight into the whole spectrum of experience. The ideal method that we can use to map the meditative mind is combining the first-person perspective, from people who are trained in interrogating that subjective experience, with that third-person perspective using neuroimaging techniques.

How did you first become involved with the Mind and Life Institute? Why is their work significant?

It all comes back to the intention of the Dalai Lama. You’ve heard the story about how he was so curious about how things worked when he was young; he took everything apart and rebuilt it. Because of his interest in science, I am doing what I am doing today and we are having this discussion.

The Mind and Life Institute manifested through Francisco Varela, a cognitive neuroscientist, Adam Engle, a business man, His Holiness the Dalai Lama, and Joan Halifax, a Zen Roshi and medical anthropologist. The confluence of their interests and work generated through the Mind and Life Institute has created this new field called contemplative science where dialogue has remained key. The dialogue on the nature of mind from varied perspectives has caught everyone’s attention. The field needed research to gain traction, and it wasn’t enough that Francisco Varela was doing it; it needed more people. That’s why the Mind and Life Institute created this grant award program after he passed away and the seed funding has contributed to this “mindful” revolution. The seed funding nurtured the field and has allowed researchers to pursue this formally. It’s really been within the last decade that interest and associated research has changed dramatically.

The concept of ‘mindfulness’ is elusive; what are the challenges of operationalizing what mindfulness is? Should the components derive from contemplative traditions, as described by the Buddhists, for instance, or should they derive from the western definition as described by scientists like Jon Kabat-Zinn?

I always draw this contrast between the 2500 year old tradition and 30 year-old tradition of Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction. If we put them side by side, there are different goals, different context, and a different process by which mindfulness is practiced. For instance, a self-report measure, which requires no meditation experience, knowledge of Buddhism, or inner reflection, may have some correlation with some behavior. You might get what we call ‘mindfulness induction,’ which might be 10 seconds or less  of paying attention, with the intention, non-judgmentally- you can do that right now.

What we want to understand is that maybe there is a trajectory of self-development and transformation that happens between 10 seconds of mindfulness induction to 20 years of regular, continued practice. We begin to see the difference between the continuity and the intensity, then we can put that onto the map and understand the nuances of the practice and we can start understanding the mechanisms by which these practices function across contexts and who will best benefit from certain practices.

One thing we can investigate is the similarities between the traditions. What we see is that the core of these practices is similar. The focused attention on the breath, ‘anapansati’ was the original meditation prescribed by the Buddha, which is a concentration on breath. Other core practices include insight meditation, otherwise known as ‘vipassana’, and non-dual practices that cultivate open awareness. There is also a foundation of cultivating compassion and altruistic motivations, ‘metta’, that is essential in these practices. There are also other elements as well.

In the Buddhist model, there are specific components including effort, equanimity, clarity, to name a few; mindfulness is only 1 of 7 factors of enlightenment and is one of many factors that is associated with the spiritual path in Buddhism. So you have to put the pieces together- focus attention, open monitoring, and loving-kindness. Not only could we call that a mindfulness-based approach, but we could also say that those are consistent across the MBSR model as well as the 2500 year old Buddhist model that you see in the monastic settings. It’s important to contextualize it. As the science develops, we will see a developmental trajectory, and that will help us better understand the progress by a practitioner and by the particular individual that will benefit with certain amounts of practice. There are benefits to both models; we just have to be clear which model we’re talking about.

pc: your latest paper you explore the nuances of mindfulness and mind wandering. You posit that the resting state networks might utilize the same network as mindfulness-based practices. What are the major neurological substrates responsible for these similarities and what are the implications of that?

This is important. We have to keep in mind that when our mind is at rest, using methods of neuroimaging, we can identify at least 10 different networks in your brain. One of them is called the default mode network that is particularly robust and active during this state. But there are also at least nine other networks that are active during this state, such as attentional networks, a frontoparietal control network, executive control and salience networks, sensory, and language-based networks – all of these are identified during rest. It depends on what the mind is doing while resting. As we know, it fluctuates; it doesn’t come to some still point. It’s always consuming energy and is always active. It has to match the network with the content, the mentation. Most of the research at this point has targeted the Default Mode Network as a network that is associated with self-evaluative thinking and has attributed that to unhappiness, for example. There is data suggesting that when that network is active, the content is negative and can interfere with other tasks. It’s a form of distraction and it is causally linked to distraction. Most of our life we can be consumed with mind-wandering activity. We have to keep in mind that are certain benefits with activation. Some of the primary nodes are consuming more energy than other parts of the brain simply for maintaining continuity with a sense of self in time.

A great scientist, Tulving, referred to this form of consciousness as ‘autonoetic awareness’, where one creates a sense of self through an automatic process. Without this sense of continuity through time and space, you would have a hard time knowing who you are. There has to be some sort of process that helps knowing who you are and having some link to the past and some direction for the future. And that default mode network is really important for that. It is helpful for creative incubation and planning for the future. Conversely, mindfulness has been attributed to positive things, but there is also a warped sense that mindfulness has to be a present-moment focused. Jon Kabat-Zinn created a definition of mindfulness that was helpful about paying attention, with intention, non-judgmentally in the present moment. It might confuse people because it gives the impression that you should not evaluate the world at all. If you examine the Buddhist model, there is an element that comes together that is paired with mindfulness called ‘samprajaňa’, and in some context, is translated as clear comprehension. It is also described as a form of meta-awareness.

There is also an element of discernment critical to mindfulness: evaluating the world very rapidly without engaging the world too deeply and getting stuck. The idea is grabbing a concept and holding onto it too closely. This leads to rumination, which may cause suffering. What I’m arguing in this paper is that rapid discernment is critical to mindfulness awareness and if you want to have the benefits of being present-focused, non-judgmental, and have equanimity and sensory clarity, there has to be a very rapid engagement of certain elements of your experience, where you’re evaluative and discerning, then disengaging. By using that framework and using the data out there, both functional brain activity during states of meditation and data on functional connectivity, we can better understand how these networks are interacting with one another. What we see is that it’s not just one network associated with attention that is activated, but rather these networks are flexibly switching between each other and are modulated by one particular network called the frontopartietal control network that allows your mind to be aware of where it is. If it is in the narrative mode, it knows it’s in the narrative. The increased connectivity between the networks allows for more flexible switching between discernment and awareness. My paper argues that in order to understand the benefit of the silent and resting mind, we have to consider the possibility that the default mode network is actually beneficial in helping us with discernment and giving us wisdom. That’s where the field is starting to move towards and that’s what I’m interested in exploring in meditators.

There is also an element of discernment critical to mindfulness: evaluating the world very rapidly without engaging the world too deeply and getting stuck. The idea is grabbing a concept and holding onto it too closely. This leads to rumination, which may cause suffering.

You mentioned that one of the benefits of mediation is achieving a still point. Could you expand on that?

The ultimate goal from the Buddhist model is reaching a still point in one’s mind, which is sometimes described as self-transcendence or a non-dual state where there is no distinction between self and others. My experience is no longer mine, but is causally connected and experienced as just one state of pure awareness. Different traditions describe it differently where time and space disappear, but in contemporary settings in sports and music, people might describe this as a “flow state”. All these states are actually very similar to each other in that there is a sense of selflessness. There is no thinker. You’re getting out of the way of yourself in that you’re able to directly do what you set out to do. That state is cultivated through meditation practices and these states aren’t often stable or long lasting, they are ephemeral. These states of selflessness can be considered markers for what have been referred to as ‘awakening’ and experiencing such states may also facilitate joy. In this context, there are elements of what is described as ‘enlightenment’ that we might be able to put under the neuroscientific lens and better understand what subtle and profound states people are experiencing.

In your life do you think there will ever be distinct neurological signature that characterizes that experience?

Yes, I think we can characterize it in many ways. The neurophenomenological approach is probably the best way. We have had people who have claimed to have a complete dissolution of self – described in some contemporary Buddhist circles as “cessation”.  We take these people and evaluate these states during a neuroimaging session. The hard part is identifying when it happened. When people indicate that it happened they usually claim it happened retrospectively at the end of the session. We have some temporal markers to determine whether there was a noticeable change at that time. It’s important that we have these temporal markers coupled with the subjective experience. Such a characterization of these experiences can be replicated and any consistencies can then be used as targets for therapeutic purposes. By identifying the mechanisms by which these practices work and the patterns of neurobiological and physiological brain-body interactions, we can identify those patterns and put them on our map and it becomes a therapeutic target or a diagnostic marker, potentially leading to helping other people attain those states with real time feed back.

You mention a particular mindfulness system developed by Shinzen Young called “the basic mindfulness system.” It is premised on teaching individuals to note and label any experience in three modalities: visual, auditory, and somatic. How is that depicted on the neuroscientific level and how can that distinction be valuable?

Shinzen Young’s model is very helpful because it creates an algorithmic approach to the phenomenological experience. In one particular state that Shinzen teaches, you are encouraged to note and label  wherever your mind goes. Shinzen calls it “do nothing,” in the sense that you’re letting your mind goes wherever it wants, but with an open awareness.

There is the interplay between the mind wandering experience and meditation. In mind wandering, there is no awareness and there is a tendency to have it negatively influence your future behaviors. Conversely, meditation has positive influences on behaviors. But the content of the mind is similar in both. Shinzen’s model allows us to focus on different modalities of noticing. Not only does it allow us to use very specific modalities to see if we can track stable attention in these different modalities, but you can also look at the difference between external focus and internal focus on an object in that modality that is arising. One thing that we are interested in is what characterizes a truly resting mind. It’s not one that is free of wandering, but one that is absent of sensory stimuli.

During these methods, these practitioners are able to stabilize concentration during the absence of mental objects and it’s something that is typically described as the rising and passing of an object. After it has passed, he calls it “gone”.  Now that the object is gone, is the individual still going to pay attention within the visual domain in which there is an absence of visual stimuli? You can study this interplay by asking where is their mind as they are focusing on different objects. It creates a very nice algorithm. We’re not wedded to any one contemplative tradition but we think that his model is helpful in this particular context. We want to also go across traditions like Judaism, Islam, Christianity, and other traditions that have an element of contemplation or self-transcendence.

What has been the most rewarding part of being a researcher of mindfulness-based interventions over the years?

The most rewarding part is being able to come to work every day and loving what I do. I see the value for myself and other people, and I am really trying to take the field forward, really help reduce suffering, and improve the human condition. I see that as incredibly valuable and it feels good to do that for others.

What does the future of the science hold? What more is there to learn?

The technology will be the ultimate factor that determines how this field progresses. We’re limited by methods that allow us to understand the brain-mind-body connection. The model itself is going to be the same: how do you achieve enlightenment, how do you improve awareness, regulation, transcendence- how does this all happen? How we map it out better will be determined by technology. And because we’re so technologically driven as a society, it’s in inevitable that devices like phones will be part of our integration and development of mind-body awareness. That being said, I think that even within 5-10 years, I think it’s safe to say that we’ll have different biosensors that give us more physiological feedback and insight indicating our states of mind and body. This will allow us to check in and examine the elements of physiology that are bad to us and regulate those elements more effectively. We’re going to have these elements of mindfulness in every sector of society, whether its education, workplace, health: it’s all about improving our awareness about what our mind and body are doing. These models are going to help us improve the human condition across various domains. We already see it happening now, there are many books, and new mindfulness educational curriculum being developed, but we’re still in the infancy of the science. We still have a long way to go.

Is there anything I haven’t asked you that you would like to share?

One thing that we focus on is brain networks and their patterns and matching that with phenomenology. Another thing is dealing with all the hype out there. That’s one of the problems to raise awareness to.  There is so much information that comes from media that often says mindfulness can cure everything.  We have to be wary that it can’t cure everything. At this point, there isn’t enough data to show that mindfulness can even improve attention. It’s very weak in the literature. That should give us a sliver of skepticism, but a healthy dose of it in the sense that the science is still new and we’re trying to still demonstrate the benefits and identify which populations will benefit from meditation and which will not. We have a long way to go. Some of the findings are certainly exciting but we have to approach it cautiously, and be cautiously optimistic about it. We cannot forget that this is a young science and we still have a lot to learn.


1 thought on “Interview with Dr. David Vago”

  1. The experience of Doctor Vago is most interesting, in particular because it is the experience of a neuroscientist. I am also a disciplined meditator and I became such through Vipassana. I would like to make a comment on my search experience before my first retreat. We must expect nothing when we sit to meditate. Before Vipassana my pursuing of I-do-not-what (transcendence, nirvana, not-dual-state…) made my path very difficult. There were no explanations prior the first sitting. And at some point ‘the flow’ showed up. Thanks.

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