Interview with Dr. Helen Weng

Helen Y. Weng, PhD is a postdoctoral scholar at the Osher Center for Integrative Medicine at the University of California, San Francisco. Helen is interested in how contemplative practices can improve communication within and between individuals, and how this in turn improves psychological and physical health. Her postdoctoral work is focused on developing a novel fMRI task to measure mindful breath awareness, using community-engaged approaches to adapt fMRI study procedures to underrepresented populations from diverse contemplative communities, and understanding how mindfulness-based interventions impact body awareness and psychophysiological variables.


How did you first become interested in compassion and mindfulness?

Starting in high school, I started reading books about psychology, Buddhist philosophy, and emotional intelligence. Luckily my dad recognized that interest and he gave me books. It was in high school when I read the Tibetan Book of Living and Dying by Sogyal Rinpoche, The Art of Happiness by the Dalai Lama, and Emotional Intelligence by Daniel Goleman. My interest came from the struggles I had growing up as one of the only racial minorities in my town, and from the cross-cultural clashes I had with my parents who are Taiwanese immigrants. I wanted to find a form of healing and relief from pain which I’m learning many people share.

I started to realize there were internal characteristics that can ground us in our values and what we care about. For example, compassion could become a value in responding to others’ suffering with kindness. In one of the books, I learned about compassion and it stated that compassion could be developed through meditation. The book also included instructions for compassion meditation that you could practice. I was 15 years old in my bedroom practicing compassion meditation and realized how hard it really was. It grounded me and helped give me a value that could guide me.

It became a deep personal value of mine. I reflected on compassion and tried to express it in my life. In college I ended up majoring in neuroscience and I knew I wanted to be a clinical psychologist. As one expression of compassion, I wanted to see how I could help people with mental health issues. I learned of Richie Davidson’s work where he studied the brain, emotion regulation, and was beginning to study compassion meditation. Our research interests were so well-aligned that it was clear that I should be his graduate student. I had to reach out to him.

I actually wrote about these experiences for my autobiographical essay when I was applying for clinical psychology internship. I recently shared this at the 2016 Mind and Life Summer Research Institute to give people an understanding of how my contemplative practice stems from my experience as a second-generation immigrant and racial minority in the United States, and how these experiences are feeding into my new work.

 You studied mindfulness at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, arguably the epicenter of mindfulness research in the world. Could you tell us a bit about your experience working within that research network?

The Center for Healthy Minds  is very large now. There was never a dull moment. Our central aim was to apply the most rigorous science to meditation and well-being. We tried to use as many objective measures as we could, like brain imaging. I developed economic decision-making paradigms to measure the outcomes of compassion meditation. We wanted to develop measures of compassion where people were unaware of what we were measuring, and that measured observable quantifiable behavior. That was a very tricky scientific endeavor that we eventually figured out.

There is also a very public component of the Center where we really care about disseminating the information to the general public. We believe that everyone has the right to know how to expand their own potential for well-being. We have studied mindful attention, emotion regulation, empathy, and compassion. The question becomes how do we bring this information to the public once the science has been established. To this end, we provide newsletters, classes, and seminars to educate people according to the latest findings.

The Center has grown and they expanded their outreach to schools where they have conducted mindfulness and kindness-based trainings in schools. We released more resources that people can access. For instance, the compassion-based training that I used in my study was a 30-minute daily mediation that is freely available on our site. We showed that if you practice every day for 2 weeks for 30 minutes, it’s enough to increase your generosity to a stranger through the economic paradigms that we’ve created. It was also enough to change how their brains responded to suffering, showing increases in regions associated with empathy and emotion regulation. This is a major part of our mission: to learn these things and then bring them to the greater community.

 What is compassion and how do you develop it?

Compassion is the awareness of somebody’s suffering, and responding with a sense of caring and wanting to help. It can generate a feeling of warmth and connection, and also a desire to relieve that suffering. With compassion meditation, you envision different types of people suffering in your mind and then you practice a compassionate way of responding. So first you have to tune into somebody’s suffering, either emotional or physical. Then there is a desire to relieve that suffering. We think we’re training people to get better at this with practice. Not only does it change your internal state when you encounter somebody suffering, but we think that it also change actual behavior. It transforms an internal state into an external behavior. I think that contemplative practices can affect how we act, interact, and communicate to produce more well-being for ourselves and others.

You studied how compassion training alters altruism and neural responses to suffering. What were the results of this study and why is this important?

We found that compassion meditation training increases altruistic behavior and also how the brain responds to suffering. We came up with an economic behavioral paradigm called the Redistribution Game, which we developed from the behavioral economics literature. Working with my colleague Drew Fox, PhD, we developed a paradigm where the participants witness an unfair economic exchange between two people. They themselves have money, and if they choose to do so, they have the option to spend their own money and redistribute the unequal distribution of funds. The game was described in purely economic terms; they didn’t know we were trying to measure compassionate behavior. That money actually came out of their paychecks so it really meant something. It’s a model for altruism: spending one’s own money to promote equality. You can see how this model theoretically translates to other forms of inequality that we encounter every day.

We took members from the Madison, Wisconsin community who had no meditation experience. Twenty of them learned compassion meditation using a guided audio practice. In the compassion mediation group, they practiced envisioning different kinds of people suffering: first a loved one, themselves, a stranger, and then somebody they might find difficult. They have to imagine each person suffering then practice wishing them relief from their suffering. They repeat compassion-generating phrases such as “May you be free of suffering.” The compassion group did that every day for two weeks.

Twenty-one people in the control group learned cognitive reappraisal. Participants learned to think about situations in different ways to make them less stressful, essentially changing their thoughts to improve their feelings. We put both groups in the brain scanner before and after the two weeks in their respective courses to measure how their brains would respond to images of suffering. We showed them pictures of people in pain, both emotional and physical pain. Then we also showed them pictures of everyday neutral situations.

The compassion group had to evoke compassion for the people in the pictures, and the cognitive reappraisal group had to reinterpret the meaning of the pictures to decrease their negative feelings. What we found is that after only two weeks of practicing, the compassion group spent more money in the redistribution game to help out a stranger compared to the cognitive reappraisal group. This showed that just two weeks of practice was enough to change how the compassion group treated other people.

“This showed that just two weeks of practice was enough to change how the compassion group treated other people.”

We then learned how much a person was willing to spend was associated with how much their brains changed from the meditation. So people who showed a greater increase in the brain region involved with empathy, called the inferior parietal cortex, were also the ones who gave more to the stranger in the game. This links objective neurological responses to behavioral outcomes. Within this context, this data suggests that the way you perceive suffering is related to how you treat someone.

One of the implications is that compassion is not just something you’re born with. We all have a certain dispositional level of compassion. However, we can practice and get better at it. Using the parallel of practicing an instrument; the more you practice, the better you get. If you practice compassion, it might shift the meaning of what somebody else’s suffering means to you, which might change the way you treat people and could ultimately make you a more caring person.

“If you practice compassion, it might shift the meaning of what somebody else’s suffering means to you, which might change the way you treat people and could ultimately make you a more caring person.”

Is the heightened neurological activation seen in the brain permanent, or do effects weaken over time without continued compassion training?

We don’t have the data yet to know that. We would need more data that measure our participants over time. We do see differences in long-term meditators who practice compassion meditation. Those practitioners show more activation in regions associated with empathy like the insula. We would need some studies that follow people over time as they practice. I am curious to know how much you need to practice to maintain a stable level of compassion. As with most things, if you continue to practice, those skills become more stable.

How did you become involved with the Mind and Life Institute?

I read the books that they were publishing and was introduced to Richie Davidson’s work. I started going to the conferences at the Summer Research Institute, which invites scholars in the field from difference disciplines and encourages interdisciplinary discussion.

I applied to a Varela Award in 2006, offered by the Mind and Life Institute, to fund part of my compassion meditation study. I was fortunate to receive the award and they started to invite me to speak as a Varela awardee. Last year, I was awarded another Varela Award for my postdoctoral work to increase the racial and ethnic diversity within studies of contemplative neuroscience. At this year’s Summer Research Institute, they invited me to be a faculty member to speak on my new work, which was a great honor. My teams at the UCSF Osher Center for Integrative Medicine and the UCSF Neuroscape Center, directed by Dr. Adam Gazzaley, are collaborating with the East Bay Meditation Center in Oakland, CA.

In your latest talk at the Mind and Life’s Summer Research Institute, you delivered a proposal to include more diverse contemplative communities in your neuroscientific research paradigms. Why is this important?     

There is a larger cultural phenomenon in this country where the mindfulness field mainly consist of people in higher socioeconomic status and it tends to be more Caucasian practitioners.

I’m working with the East Bay Meditation Center in Oakland, California. They provide safe spaces for underrepresented populations to practice a variety of contemplative practices, and offers guidelines for members from different group identities to interact. They have groups for people of color, LGBT, people with disabilities, and those with chronic health conditions. We know that people from different group who are minorities encounter different stressors and meditation practice can really help with improving their sense of well-being and promote healthy emotional regulation.

Photo Credit: East Bay Meditation Center

I’m working with them to create community-engaged approaches, meaning that I get continuous feedback from people in their community as we’re conducting our latest neuroscience study. Using community engagement and dialogue, my Varela Award will help increase the diversity of meditators studied within contemplative neuroscience, including racial and ethnic minorities, the LGBTQ population, and people with disabilities.

“The field is recognizing that mindfulness practice and research need to be accessible to many different type of people, particularly people who encounter more oppression, which is a type of suffering.”

The field is recognizing that mindfulness practice and research need to be accessible to many different type of people, particularly people who encounter more oppression, which is a type of suffering. There is so much potential for these types of practices to help minorities.

Could you tell us about your current study?

In the EMBODY study, I’m using a new fMRI methodology to study meditation. It uses machine learning or pattern recognition technology, which has been around for 15 years in the field, to identify mental states during meditation. This is in contrast to standard fMRI methods, which averages brain activity together within a person as well as across people. Because mental states during meditation are fluctuating and changing, and different people may have different patterns of brain activity, using pattern recognition approaches that are individualized to each person make more sense. The way my brain works during meditation doesn’t have to look the same as somebody else’s when they meditate. So we’re developing these methods to first study focused attention to the breath in order to see when people are paying attention to their breath or not, based on individualized brain data.

Presentation slide from Helen Weng, PhD, at the International Conference of Buddhism and Science in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia

Since this methodology is more individualized to each person, it’s more conducive to including a greater diversity of people in these studies. There are a lot of biases and assumptions in neuroscience. These assumptions carry out when we analyze data. We assume that brains act similarly, to the extent that we actually average the activity, which means we exclude certain people’s brain activity who might be considered “abnormal.” For instance, we typically exclude left-handers, people with neurological disorders, people who have had head injuries, or mental health issues. We end up with a pool of people who don’t represent the greater population. Once we have methods that accounts for each person’s unique activity, we no longer need to have all those stringent study criteria.

I’m working with the East Bay Meditation Center to reexamine these assumptions. It comes down to who can lie still in the scanner for two hours comfortably and who can pay attention to their breath. That includes a lot of people. That’s the beauty of contemplative practice; it’s available to most people. I’m trying to infuse these principles of honoring diversity and inclusivity into the populations I study and how I study the brain.

You were recently invited to participate in a dialogue with His Holiness the Dalai Lama at the International Conference of Buddhism and Science in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. What was that experience like?

International Conference of Buddhism and Science in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. Photos Credit Fadel Zeidan, PhD

This was an amazing experience and such an honor! Institutions in Mongolia put together the first Science and Buddhism conference with His Holiness the Dalai Lama, and reached out to the Mind and Life Institute for some scientist speakers. I was invited along with Fadel Zeidan, PhD as junior scientists to represent Mind and Life by the president Susan Bauer-Wu. This was a dream come true for both of us, observing dialogues with scientists and His Holiness since we were young graduate students, and now being invited to participate. Four Mongolian speakers also spoke on Buddhist ethics, Buddhism and quantum physics, and perspectives on biomedical advances such as stem cell research.

Presentation slide from Helen Weng, PhD, at the International Conference of Buddhism and Science in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia

I spoke about my new work with the EMBODY Task, showing how pattern recognition technology applied to brain data can actually identify when a meditator is paying attention to their breath or not. I also spoke about the collaboration with the East Bay Meditation Center (EBMC) and working with diverse populations such as racial minorities and the LGBT population. His Holiness was particularly engaged when hearing about how EBMC cultivates a culture of understanding between different groups of people, particularly between groups who hold more power or less power. I was thanked by many Mongolian women after the talk, and I am excited to help represent Asian women in the sciences. The conference organizers expressed wanting to inspire young people in Mongolia to be involved in the intersection of Buddhism and Science, and the dialogue was broadcasted on Mongolian TV. I hope I contributed to that inspiration.

“I was thanked by many Mongolian women after the talk, and I am excited to help represent Asian women in the sciences.”

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

I really like creating new things and understanding my own experiences. I’m working to make my science a part of my contemplative practice and become more vocal about this. My deepest wish is to become a more loving and compassionate person and have my life that truly reflects this. One way is through my work, as these are the topics I study. I approach life as a person who practices compassion through various means, sees how compassion may affect me and those around me, and then I channel that into my work. I process and examine my personal experiences, and then I design an experiment to test whether my understanding of them is right. It’s another form of practice.

The learning goes both ways, and I will change my understanding based on what my science says. I learned from my first compassion meditation study that when people witness an unfair transaction, the more they spend in the game is related to how compassionate they are. But if they witness a fair interaction, and they still spend their money on one person, they are actually punishing the other person. This illustrates how compassion is contextual. I had to learn to not to be helpful all the time, especially if someone acts poorly; that my decisions to care and help are based on the specific situation. This is one example of how my science feeds back into my own experience, and it creates a continuous dialogue and invites the scientific process as a part of this dialogue.

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

So much more! I am really interested in developing these machine learning methods to identify mental states during meditation. It’s really the wave of the future. One of the cool things that it can do is that it can get a count of how much somebody paid attention to their breath. We really don’t have that at this point in time. Using brain data, we can begin to quantify these processes.  I want to bring these methods to many kinds of meditation, and eventually use them to study loving-kindness and compassion meditation again.

I want to work on creating better brain-based measures of meditation that are specifically tailored to different types of meditation. A lot of the tasks that we use come from literature that already exists. But meditation is a very interesting, dynamic process. So we also need to design experiments to optimize measuring meditation differently, since there are so many types of meditation practice. If I had unlimited resources I would try to develop really good tasks to measure each type of mediation skill that people practice and learn. Then we would be able to determine which skills contribute to decreasing anxiety and depression, building relationships, and promoting compassionate behaviors. Also, there is the need to improve measures of the psychological and the behavioral effects of meditation. I think it’s all about measurement development. That will be a core of what I do.

Is there anything I haven’t asked you (related to your work) that you would like to share?

I’m also trained as a clinical psychologist and I’ve been a therapist for four years during my graduate training. I had to individualize therapy for each person, and different approaches worked for different people. For example, someone chose cognitive behavioral approaches (changing thoughts to change feelings) over mindfulness-based approaches to help with his anxiety. I would suggest that people should experiment. People need to look within themselves to understand what they enjoy and what seems to work with them. There seems to be a cultural thing that people assume that meditation will work for them or “should” work for them. I think people should try and take a class and then later reflect whether they will actually integrate that into their lives.

I think mindfulness and compassion skills have more of an effect if you do them consistently. The act of meditating is not for everyone. There could be a different way to access compassion or become present and centered. I would encourage people to reflect what helps them settle down, connect to themselves and others. It could be through a myriad of things, music, exercise, or having deep conversations. I do believe mindfulness and compassion can help all of those processes because it trains qualities of attention that should help in everything we do. It’s fine if meditation isn’t what helps someone best. I really encourage people to understand their own minds and processes.

“The act of meditating is not for everyone. There could be a different way to access compassion or become present and centered. I would encourage people to reflect what helps them settle down, connect to themselves and others.”


Participate in the EMBODY Study
Watch Helen’s presentation at the International Conference of Buddhism and Science. It starts at around 1:36:00. 

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