What happens in your brain when you are daydreaming, or when you are making decisions? How, where and when are we distracted? Neuroscientist Marieke van Vugt creates models that can explain this. She has integrated her personal interest in Buddhism and dance into her research – she is investigating the effects of meditation on cognition.
Thoughts are almost impossible to keep under control. Even when we work really hard at maintaining concentration, our minds are easily distracted. Neuroscientist Marieke van Vugt investigates how such mechanisms in our brain work, but also how we can influence them. To do so, she looks – in part based on her own background as a Buddhist – at what we can learn from Eastern meditation techniques.
The amazing process of mind-wandering can be pleasant and useful when we daydream, but is sometimes expressed in less desirable forms, such as worrying or fretting. It can even lead to psychopathology, including depression, when people become caught up in negative thought spirals they are unable to escape. And we all know how annoying it is when you have to perform a task and your concentration is broken every few moments due to all kinds of random irrelevant thoughts. It slows down our activities and makes them much less efficient. It also has consequences for decision-making.
Van Vugt is affiliated to the UG’s ALICE institute, which focuses on Artificial Intelligence and Cognitive Engineering. For her research, she uses computer models that simulate the way in which our brains work, but also other techniques, including EEG tests and MRI scans. ‘In my research I want to figure out how our minds become distracted while we are busy performing other, focused tasks. There is sometimes a veritable hotchpotch of processes at work in our heads. When that happens, what is going on in the brain? I also look at the consequences for mental wellbeing. We can get a computer to perform attention tasks and at the same time simulate distraction processes, such as daydreaming and worrying. I want to understand when daydreaming is useful, and when it changes into worrying and leads to stress. And to what extent can the distraction process be influenced and controlled. Can we learn to focus better or unlearn harmful distractions?’
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Moreover, Van Vugt , who has been a Buddhist since the age of 17, is particularly interested in how meditation affects our cognitive system and consequently our behaviour. ‘The point of meditation is not to stop daydreaming or worrying and to halt your thinking, but to become more aware of those processes, enabling you to have a choice. You can learn these kinds of techniques. Mindfulness, for example, teaches practitioners to become friends with their thoughts. In effect, you learn to look at distractions in an introspective way. There are also more and more indications that such meditation techniques have positive effects, for example in reducing depressive thoughts. To understand this better, we have programmed the computer so it is able to meditate. And guess what? Attention tasks can be performed better following meditation.’
Since 2015, she has frequently travelled to India to study the meditation techniques Tibetan monks use to train their minds, together with Tibetan monks and supported by the Science for Monks organization. These monks do not practise mindfulness but analytic meditation and debate. The debating technique has a very special physical form, whereby one debater is standing and the other is sitting. The standing monk claps his hands, bends forward, and calls out a premise to which the sitting monk has to respond as quickly as possible without being inconsistent with regard to his earlier expressions. This exercise helps the monks to develop a very deep and embodied knowledge of Buddhist philosophy. As part of the study, they get monks to debate whilst wearing an ‘electroencephalogram hat’, which measures their brain activity.
Van Vugt ’s other huge passion is ballet. She started at a young age and still practises about four hours a week. ‘There are parallels with my research into daydreaming and meditation. You go with the flow when dancing, into a different world in which you can’t do anything but think of what you are doing at that moment. There is no room for distraction. At the same time, the art of dancing is a good counterbalance to cerebral academic research.’
Does Van Vugt , as a Buddhist and a ballet dancer, stand out among her colleagues and students? ‘I did not talk about it much at the beginning, but as time went on people got to know me and then it appeared that they thought it was quite interesting. Furthermore, many colleagues do interesting things beside or outside their work that you would perhaps not expect.’
Does it have advantages or disadvantages that she is studying the process of meditation whilst also practising meditation herself? ‘It is possible that some people think that I am too close to the subject and that it could have consequences for the reliability of my research. I try to address this by collaborating with researchers who are explicitly critical outsiders. On the other hand, it is an advantage for me that I am an expert with practical experience, because this also gives me a more detailed understanding of the matter. Moreover, I continue to be passionately involved in academic research because of my personal involvement. I don’t draw a distinction between my work and private life: I try to understand how the human mind works in both situations. It is incredibly cool that I am able to combine all this.’
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