The symposium started off in the evening with a keynote by Tania Singer about her research on compassion. One of the important points she made was the difference between compassion and empathy. While compassion is very much action-oriented and also rewarding, empathy is very distressing. In the brain, it even activates the pain network. While in compassion you focus on the other, and what you can do for them, in empathy you feel the other's pain, but since it is very much focused on your feelings of that pain, it actually is very exhausting. To know more about this, including a lot of science, you can check out the compassion ebook.
Every one of the following days started off with some yoga and meditation. I always very much enjoy having that in a scientific conference, for it brings the communication to a different level. The participants are no longer just communicating with just words, but go beyond the verbal level. There were some interesting lectures by Wolf Singer, who has been one of my heroes since I started neuroscience. He talked about how neuroscience is inconsistent with the idea that we have a single localized self, and this is a point that Buddhism makes too. I never thought about it that way! Matthieu Ricard then took it even one step further by asking "how do we even know we have a brain?". Interesting contemplation! But we did not stay there very long, and very quickly the discussion moved into questions about ethics, with Matthieu Ricard making the point that we need to focus on the goodness in our society more, so that it can flourish.
Also very special were the contributions by Mark Williams, one of the developers of Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT). He showed how MBCT tends to work even better for depression than an active control group, and is now recommended by the health services in the UK as the preferred treatment for depression. Interestingly, MBCT does not work when the teachers do not practice themselves. In that regard, he shared his personal story of finding mindfulness, and finding authenticity, which moved us all to think about our own authenticity and commitment to practice.
During this conference, I was also lucky enough to be able to give a talk, which was about the work I did this Summer on developing a computational model of meditation practice. I was very pleased that a lot of people seemed to appreciate the talk. Bethany Kok in Tania Singer's lab showed interesting work on how feeling social closeness could be a mechanism behind the positive effects of loving kindness practice on health, self-regulation and the immune system. These presentations about effects of contemplative practice on the individual then led to a series of talks on the effects of contemplation on society. For example, Felicia Huppert talked about how mindfulness is brought in the school system with cool terms like FOFBOC (Feet on floor, butt on chair--intended to make you tune into your body) and ".b" sms messages. Arthur Zajonc shared his insights into using contemplative practice in higher education, which also inspired me to rethink the courses I teach.
On the last day, several multidisciplinary teams shared their experience working on contemplative practice. For example, a group of scientists from Aarhus and Paris, including Martijn van Beek and Andreas Roepstorff showed how they integrated the first-person accounts of meditators, with special interview techniques that reflect a second-person account of meditation practice and the third-person account in terms of scanning and behavioral studies. Their main message was that it is important to take experience seriously. This same message was conveyed by a group of mainly UK-based scientists who work on ADHD and mindfulness as a potential treatment for that. Ilina Singh let us hear some actual voices from children talking about their ADHD, and sharing remarkable insight into their own functioning. They are now studying what it is like for children to use medication vs receiving mindfulness training for their ADHD. Overall, the Symposium was very rich, and I think it is very exciting that this diverse group of scientists and other people interested in contemplative science connected here for the first time in Europe. Hopefully there will be many more such meetings to come!