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‘I want to understand how the mind works.’

Marieke van Vugt once dreamed of becoming a professional ballerina. Now she is a cognitive scientist at the University of Groningen. But as she endeavours to understand the workings of the human mind, she still cannot live without ballet. Or Buddhism.

Text: Ellis Ellenbroek; Photo: Anna van der Meijden; Bron: Broerstraat 5, October 2020

Marieke van Vugt

The fact that she didn’t make it as a professional dancer still hurts sometimes, admits Marieke van Vugt. When she was seventeen, the UG neuroscientist and assistant professor auditioned for the National Ballet Academy in Amsterdam and the Royal Conservatoire in The Hague. She was rejected. Perhaps she should have auditioned earlier, but when she fell in love with classical ballet at the age of eleven, her teacher at the time thought that she didn’t have what it takes. The now 39-year-old sees the upside of how things eventually turned out. ‘At least now I haven’t already had to have a hip replacement and my knees still work. Professional dancers around my age are already retired. I’m in the middle of my career.’

But ballet continues to be one of her passions. This summer, Van Vugt danced around the house for an hour and a half every day – much more than the four hours a week at a ballet school in Groningen before the coronavirus pandemic. Via her laptop and camera, Marieke takes part in online dance lessons given by teachers from all over the world. And that is proving to be a perfect replacement for the exercise she is missing now that she isn’t cycling to the Zernike complex every day for work.

At the University’s Bernouilli Institute, Marieke explores another of her passions, the human mind, which she defines as ‘the collection of our thoughts and emotions’. She is a member of the Cognitive Modelling group at the Artificial Intelligence department, which is particularly interested in how distraction and attention work in our brains. What happens when we daydream, drift off or muse? When is it useful? When is it harmful?

As part of her investigations, test subjects and advanced computer models are given the same tasks to complete. The test subjects are surreptitiously coaxed into drifting off course through all kinds of manipulations. ‘In between we ask them things like: Are you a mean person? Are you kind? What do you want to achieve in life? Or: What do you worry about? We use techniques such as EEG and MRI to measure what happens in their brains, with brain waves or eye movements, for example.’

Test subjects’ performance on the tasks is compared with computer models that simulate the functioning of the brain. ‘The models are full of empirical data based on previous experiments. The computer knows, for example, how long it takes to press a button or to move your eyes to look at something.’

Marieke is currently focusing on negative thoughts and the downwards spiral that can follow. She and colleague Marie-José van Tol of the UMCG will soon be starting a research project among people with depression. As part of the project, the researchers will also investigate the extent to which mindfulness and cognitive therapy can help to reduce worrying.

According to Marieke, who will also be using digital simulation models in this new study, very few scientists are using this approach to research depression. ‘I am one of the few people in the world who is using a simulated mind, based on computer models, to make predictions about where exactly things go wrong. Very few people are using computer models to better understand the effects of depression on cognitive skills such as concentration and remembering.’

But Van Vugt isn’t looking for an effective therapy, or miracle cure, for depression. Her mission is more academic than clinical; she wants to get to the bottom of the fundamental mechanisms at play. ‘I want to understand the mind.’ Will she achieve that? ‘No, but I can take steps in the right direction. We can now predict with just over 60% certainty whether someone is distracted, especially when looking at the brain waves. My challenge is to increase that percentage.’

At the age of seventeen she converted to Buddhism, which explains her involvement in the international project Science for Monks. As part of this project, Marieke occasionally visits Tibetan monks in India to find out what happens in their brains when they meditate or debate. To investigate this, the monks wear a kind of swimming cap fitted with sensors. At the moment, however, travelling to India is not an option due to COVID-19. ‘But I still regularly teach the monks statistics via Zoom.’

‘The Dalai Lama is also an advocate of science,’ replies Marieke, when asked whether Buddhism and science are ultimately incompatible. ‘And Buddha said: Don’t believe me because I say so, but go investigate it yourself.’

Ballet, science, Buddhism. For Marieke van Vugt the three form an inseparable whole. ‘It might seem like a very strange combination, but to me it makes complete sense. As a scientist I try to understand the mind, as a Buddhist I investigate my own mind and when I dance I explore how I can control my body with my mind and what the effects are.’

But Buddhism and ballet are not only sources of input for her work as a scientist; they are also an outlet and help her to put things in perspective. Ballet helps her cope with setbacks at the university, for example if a grant application is rejected. ‘Then I put on some music and dance for a while,’ says Marieke, for whom ballet is a ‘balm for the body and soul’.

Buddhism helps her to put her life as a scientist in perspective. ‘The academic world is incredibly competitive. To be successful you have to promote yourself all the time and participate in the rat race. It really helps me to see it as a kind of game, to be able to survive and to help the world with my research. By realizing that, I have a completely different perspective. If I didn’t do that, and things went wrong, I would completely lose myself.’

Biography

Marieke van Vugt (10 October 1980) was born in Schiedam and grew up in Lelystad and Almere. She studied at Utrecht University College between 1999 and 2002 and moved to the United States with a Bachelor’s degree in physics, mathematics and neuroscience, where she obtained her PhD at the University of Pennsylvania in 2008. Marieke has been working at the University of Groningen since the end of 2010. She is an assistant professor in the Cognitive Modelling group, which is part of the Artificial Intelligence department at the Bernouilli Institute. Marieke is a member of the Young Academy Groningen (YAG).

Last modified:21 October 2020 1.31 p.m.
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