Sunday, April 29, 2012

Synaptic juice

The San Francisco Bay Area is its own little world.  I don't mean that in the sense people sometimes mean it: the most reflexively left-leaning corner of America, one of the most pot-friendly, a haven and promised land for gays with the dubious luck to be have been born and raised in the Bible Belt.  All those things are true, of course, and are worth enjoying, and maybe even being proud of: I have to say that I savoured the rare juxtaposition of a rock musical powered by drag queens on a recent Friday night with a meditation and service with black-robbed monks in the Zen Center the following Saturday morning.  But what I appreciate most isn't the area's well-defined and well-known profile, but its less celebrated diversity: not the fact of weirdness but its multifacetedness, and even its coexistence with the humdrum.  Alongside the gays of the Catro and the Mission's hipsters, there are also the yuppies in the Marina or the retirees of Marin.  And maybe no region attracts as much interest from outside the area, and as much ambivalence from inside it, as the South Bay, not so recently rebranded as Silicon Valley.

The Bay Area's an interesting place to practise meditation for a range of reasons.  There's a certain liberal tolerance of what others get up to, an open-mindedness about spiritual practices inherited from the hippy movement, and longstanding connections with Asia, as close to SF as to any American city.  But one reason it's an interesting place to become acquainted with an ancient tradition is its hyperbolic modernity, its position at the cutting edge of scientific research and technological innovation.  The cultures of Eastern mysticism and high-tech entrepreneurship come into contact more than you think, and have settled into a comfortable enough relationship: I only recently met a young man at SFZN who leads mediation sessions at Google, a company that regularly hosts talks by such mindfulness luninaries as Jon Kabat-Zinn.  I have my doubts about the spiritual-technological complex, partly because the union of an ascetic tradition enjoining detachment and a computer industry focused on making a profit looks to me like an awkward hook-up.  Still, like many an awkward hook-up, it's hard to deny after the fact that the experience has been interesting. 

In the Bay Area, the junction of science and spirituality is something you can decide not to pursue, but which will probably thrust itself into your attention every few months regardless, so I thought I'd give you an update on a couple of recent experiences (that is, experiments) that I've had.  The first was a result of an email that was sent around to the Buddhist Community at Stanford mailing list.  Now, I've seen negative reactions to people using that list to send round requests to support the monks' protests in Burma, on the grounds that the issue was a political and not a spiritual one.  But, this being Stanford, we quite regularly get emails from researchers - research, you see, is never political, especially when it might lead to the development of an iPhone app.  And on this occasion the researcher involved offered us a coupon for Jamba Juice, and fruit smoothies can be counted on to constitute just too much temptation for any California Buddhist to resist.  I signed up immediately, and booked a slot at Stanford's Calming Technology Lab.  I never knew it existed, but as I can now assure you, it does.

I was met at the lab by a friendly young doctoral researcher called Neema Moraveji.  He fixed me up with an apparatus designed to track my breathing, which consisted of a band that I put around my torso and some wires  He then asked me to sit at a desk and perform some simple tasks on the computer: one of them was to count down from a given number in sevens.  After a certain point I was told to watch a video informing me that your brain performs better when you're calm, and that calm states correlated with states of deep, slow breathing.  After that, I was told to try to deepen and slow my breathing, something I found surprisingly easy - maybe it's all the meditation, although none of the styles I practice encourage you actively to control your breath, just to notice it.  Finally, I was asked to return to the exercises on the computer, and repeated them for a second time.  The aim, as I understood it, was to develop technology that would encourage office-workers to slow their breathing, thus increasing both industrial productivity and inner contentment.  Win-win.

The second recent experience of this type started after a pretty dry dharma-talk at SFZC.  A young woman stood up after the Ino had finished his announcements and introduced herself as Kim Fisher, a doctoral student at the California Institute of Integral Studies.  She needed meditators to volunteer for an experiment she was conducting as part of her dissertation.  CIIS is an institution that was founded in the early 70s by SF types connected with the human potential movement and interested in bringing together East and West, spirituality and science.  They offer Master's courses in subjects like 'East-West Psychology' and 'Dance Therapy', as well as doctoral programs in Psychology and related disciplines.  It's a small school with not a lot of money, so they were not able to offer me a boosted smoothie in return for breathing deeply.  But I went along anyway to one of their buildings in the Upper Market area of town, just before the street turns really nasty.

When I went in Kim immediately asked me to meditate for half an hour in whatever style I chose.  I knew that she was interested in testing intellectual performance, so I went for my concentration practice, after describing it to her.  She had cushions and mats set out just like in the Zen Center and sat next to me when I sat.  (Considering that she was doing that all day, her experiment must be affording her a pretty good chance to get some sitting in, dissertation research meeting Buddhist retreat.)  After we'd finished I was called over to a desk, told a short story, and asked to repeat it word for word.  Then I was shown a complex geometric object and asked to reproduce it on a piece of paper using only a pencil and memory.  It looked like a 7-year-old boy's design for a space-ship.  At a certain point the fire-alarm went off, which she said would probably force her to throw away some of my results.  A week later I was called back in and I did similar tests but this time without meditating first.

I asked both of these researchers more about their projects, but it's understandable that they were cagey about the details, seeing that the studies were ongoing.  On the other hand, it's not hard to guess that the basic methodology involved in both is to compare performance on mental tasks before and after meditative practices of various sorts (in the first experiment, it was the physiological correlates of relaxation that were tracked, whereas in the second meditation was left to each individual's own definition).  Both studies were extremely interesting to take part in, and it's hard to be against learning more about meditation in this way (though I've had a go in previous posts on this blog).  It will be key for both scientists, I would suppose, to restrict their conclusions to claims about the effects of meditation on subtracting by seven and redrawing space-ships, and not on global intelligence (whatever that is).  And though (to be fair) neither researcher is explicitly excluding the spiritual aspect of meditation, it's hard not to feel that, in giving people an app that reminds them to take deep breaths rather than integrating them into a challenging ancient practice, they're missing out on something.  What that something is can't be quantified; but so much the worse for quantification.

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