Full text of cognitive neuroscientist, David Vago’s talk: Self-Transformation Through Mindfulness at TEDxNashville conference. In this talk, Dr. Vago explains that a systematic form of mental training involving meditation and mindful awareness has the potential to transform our Self and our mental habits in a positive way. You will also learn how every moment is an opportunity to change our brain and strongly influence our health and longevity at both conscious and non-conscious levels.
Dr. David Vago – Cognitive neuroscientist
We are all born with a brain that has 86 billion neurons. And throughout our life, we make relatively few new neurons. In fact, we lose about 2 billion neurons throughout the course of our lifetime.
So you may wonder: if we’re losing billions of neurons and we’re not making a lot of new neurons, what’s changing in the brain to support all those mental habits and behaviors that make up our self-identity?
Well, the answer is activity-dependent plasticity. This is the function by which the brain is continually modified through the 150 trillion cell-to-cell synaptic connections that are made in response to your everyday experiences.
One main point that I hope you take home today is that not only are they contributing to your self-identity, but they are continually changing your brain and they are strongly influencing your health and longevity.
I hope to also demonstrate that a systematic form of mental training involving meditation can potentially transform your Self and your mental habits in a positive way.
In 2002, I was a graduate student in cognitive neurosciences — that was me. I was studying the brains of rats to better understand the neural circuitry of learning and memory.
And activity-dependent plasticity was a really important concept for studying memory, but I was interested in how that concept could be applied towards a neuroscientific understanding of the self through the lens of meditation and mindful awareness.
Now, mindful awareness can be simply thought of as a way of paying attention in a way that is continually watchful and discerning for what is arising and passing in our minds and in the external world.
Now, when I was in graduate school, there was barely any science of mindfulness. In fact, before the year 2000, there was the grand total of 39 peer-reviewed scientific articles on the topic.
So for good reason, maybe, my mentor sat me down one day and said, “Dave, you will not be successful in academia by focusing on meditation. Forget about all that Zen stuff.”
And I walked out of his office feeling rather disappointed, discouraged. But it did not deter me from this calling.
Fast forward 10 years, I was a faculty member at Harvard Medical School, studying meditation in a neuroimaging laboratory. And about that time, I was invited to present my research directly to the Dalai Lama, along with five other emerging leaders in the field from around the world.
Thank you. That is very kind.
Yes, this was really an amazing opportunity. And the advice he gave the six of us is something I will never forget for my lifetime. He said, pointing his finger at each one of us:
“You each have the great responsibility for helping to build a happy, peaceful world. Millions of people want a happy, peaceful world but are lacking the knowledge of how to do so. Through carrying your experiment month by month, year by year, you will gain evidence to convince others. I will watch you, whether you are really — whether you are really helping to build a happy, peaceful world or not.”
He then jokingly threatened, hopefully, that he would be watching from beyond the grave and that even if he were in hell, he would come back as a demon and hunt us down to make sure we were doing this work.
No joke. Well, hopefully.
Now, when the Dalai Lama points his finger at you and threatens you in that way — or challenges you, really — you can’t really say no.
So aside from providing a sense of purpose and meaning for me, that experience really provided a pretty solid research career plan for the next 30 years.
So fast forward to 2016. I was provided the opportunity to come here to Nashville, to Vanderbilt University, to direct research at the Osher Center for Integrative Medicine.
So my interest in the Self through the lens of meditation comes back full circle to today, where I have the resources and the support to do the science I originally intended to do back in graduate school. I’m currently leading a team of scientists to continue mapping the meditative brain or meditative mind and to better understand what a flourishing mind, brain, and body looks like from the neurobiological, the psychological, and social levels.
So as we contemplate the self together today, I want you — well, I invite you to think about how all of your life experiences, even the guy all the way up there, have led to who you’ve become today and to explore how all of your thoughts and emotions that you’re having right now, today, may lead to who you become tomorrow.
The Dhammapada, one of the greatest known collections of the Buddha, describes
“Our life is shaped by our mind, for we become what we think.”
The basic idea here is from birth to the present day, our self, our experience of being someone, our wants, our fears, our desires, our hopes, our values, our expectations, our whole self-identity is continually constructed by a string of moment-to-moment processes of selfing.
(Selfing – A String of Moments)
And these moments can be further broken down into processes of perception, sensory awareness, and evaluation, all of which happen on a timescale of half a second, 500 milliseconds.
And through neurophysiological research, it’s been found that the brain stem and the subcortical regions are helping to filter out information that is irrelevant to you and to prepare your mind for action.
Now, this part of our mental experience is all happening without conscious awareness.
In the second half of each moment, our primary sensory cortices, located throughout the outer surface of our brain, is integrating information coming from perception and awareness and preparing inferences and predictions to inform our behavior.
And only by the end of each moment — around 300 to 500 milliseconds — does awareness arise, and then we begin to evaluate what it is we’re experiencing. And that evaluation takes place in aspects of our prefrontal cortex.
So this string of moments is sustaining our mental habits and dispositions that are self-conditioning and self-perpetuating through repetition. It’s continually informing our present state of awareness and coloring our memories for the past and making predictions for the future.
And this basic idea here really supports the idea that this little guy here has had about 3 billion moments in 42 years to become the guy who’s standing before you today. And somewhere along this string of moments, I developed a bad habit — maybe you can relate.
When I was eight years old, my mother gave me a punching bag to deal with my anger and frustration. Thank you, Mom. This was effective on the short term.
I would go down in my basement and hit that bag every time I got angry or frustrated. Then, eventually, as you can imagine, that punching bag broke and got thrown out with the trash.
But the conditioning did not go away. I never hit any people, but I continued to hit walls and doors and windows. I even have a scar on my hand to go with it.
A little over a decade later, when I was 20 years old — my sophomore year of college — I had the opportunity to go on a meditation retreat — a 10-day silent meditation retreat. First time.
Not because of my anger but more so for my curiosity about Buddhism and my interest in studying the mind. This was a profound experience for me on multiple levels.