Researchers with Dalai Lama

David Vago (second from left) was one of six scientists from around the world selected to share research with the Dalai Lama (center).

On a day in late April, David Vago, a research scientist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital (BWH), woke up thinking, “There will not be many days like this in my life.”

That day, he had the rare opportunity to present his research on mindfulness and contemplative neuroscience to His Holiness The Dalai Lama. Vago, who works in BWH’s Functional Neuroimaging Laboratory, was one of six scientists around the world selected to participate in this private meeting, entitled “Mind and Life XXIV: Latest Findings in Contemplative Neuroscience.”

“It was a privilege to meet the Dalai Lama, and an even greater honor to be able to present my scientific research to him and have a dialogue about the mind,” said Vago. “To have his feedback is invaluable.”

Vago has been intimately involved in the emerging field of contemplative neuroscience research since 2005, when he attended a summer research program run by the Mind and Life Institute. The nonprofit organization was initiated by The Dalai Lama, Francisco Varela, a neuroscientist, and Adam Engle, a graduate of Harvard Business School, to seek a greater understanding of the human mind and the benefits of contemplative practices, like meditation and yoga.

Vago, a neuroscientist who has been practicing meditation for years, presented his current research, which dismantles the concept of mindfulness as a way of paying attention. Rather, he identifies eight different cognitive functions that are active in the brain and develop during mindfulness practice. These cognitive functions exist as part of a framework for the development of self-awareness, self-regulation, and self-transcendence (SART).

The challenge? Paring down his complex study into two to three slides as a 10-minute presentation to His Holiness.

“The presentation went very well,” said Vago. “The feedback from His Holiness was that the models I presented were ‘quite good.’ ”

The validation was an incredible feeling for Vago. “It’s because of His Holiness that I’m doing this,” he said. “If he hadn’t been interested in the neurosciences or dialogue with scientists, there would be no Mind and Life Institute and no forum for me to do this work.”

Currently, Vago is involved in a research project that uses functional and structural neuroimaging studies with MRI, along with self-report and performance-based measures to explore contemplative practices that cultivate mindfulness as a state, trait, and memory-related process.

The first stage of the project involved a week-long meditation retreat in BWH’s Functional Neuroimaging Laboratory with 22 highly experienced meditators. They practiced for ten hours each day and then underwent MRI scans in an attempt to understand what is going on in the brain during particular aspects of meditation practice.  Next, Vago plans to host novice meditators for a week-long retreat and compare their scans to those of the experienced meditators.

– Liz M

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