University News

New contemplative studies degree blurs science-humanities line

Two concentration courses being taught this spring, first formal concentrators to graduate in 2016

By
Contributing Writer
Monday, November 24, 2014

“Contemplative studies satisfies an urge that everyone has — to investigate what it means to be experiencing, to be alive,” said Henry Langton ’16, one of the first Brown students who will officially concentrate in the new degree.

The College Curriculum Council approved the concentration in May, making it the University’s 79th field of study and the country’s first contemplative studies major. Before the concentration was approved, 16 seniors graduated with independent concentrations in the field — including three in 2012 and one in 2013, wrote Harold Roth, professor of religious studies and director of the Contemplative Studies Initiative, in an email to The Herald.

Three independent concentrators in the class of 2015 are set to graduate this year, and another three members of the class of 2016 are expected to graduate with degrees in the new formal concentration, Roth wrote.

The two contemplative studies courses being taught this spring have seen steady enrollment. Nineteen students are pre-registered for UNIV 0540: “Introduction to Contemplative Studies,” which is being offered this spring and summer, and 30 students have registered for UNIV 1000: “The Cognitive Neuroscience of Meditation.”

“We are quite pleased with the interest Brown students have shown in the new concentration,” Roth wrote.
Concentrators study the “underlying philosophy, psychology and phenomenology of contemplative experience across time, cultures and traditions,” according to the University’s contemplative studies website. The concentration offers two tracks: one in the sciences and one in the humanities.

“The field allows a blurring of the lines that are so rigid between science and the humanities,” said Misbah Noorani ’17, who intends to double-concentrate in history and contemplative studies. “We get to answer some of the big questions that are under the surfaces of many fields in academia.”

To fulfill the concentration requirements, Noorani is currently taking classes in epistemology, data analysis and mental perception. “It’s interesting to see how these concepts all combine,” she said. “The course offerings within the concentration end up working together in surprising ways.”

“There’s a logic for the course sequence that I think the (College Curriculum Council) saw, and we’re really starting to see that on the ground,” said Catherine Kerr, assistant professor of medicine and director of translational neuroscience in the Contemplative Studies Initiative.

Kerr teaches “The Cognitive Neuroscience of Meditation,” a course that counts toward the concentration. The class focuses heavily on neuroscience, though it also has a strong interdisciplinary component, she said.

“We conduct a pretty rigorous review of literature and discuss in a pretty critical way the quality of meditation studies,” Kerr said. “Media coverage often puts forward overly positive representations of studies about mindfulness and the brain. We see that as part of our interdisciplinary mission: to teach students how to be critical of various forms of hype around contemplative studies.”

Students learn about contemplative practices not only through classroom lectures and discussions, but also through weekly meditations called MedLabs. In these labs, students spend 10 to 15 minutes practicing meditation, including walking meditation and “breath focus” meditation, Kerr said.

“We do the meditation and learn to use that form of mindful thinking in everyday life,” Langton said. “It’s probably one of the only degrees that can be considered a self-help program at the same time.”

Willoughby Britton, assistant professor of psychiatry and human behavior, is teaching UNIV 0090: “Meditation and the Brain,” a course that runs during the summer. She also runs the Clinical and Affective Neuroscience lab, one of the labs within the field at Brown.

The lab “investigates the link between contemplative practices, brain function and affective disturbances,” according to its website. Noorani said she hopes to get involved in Britton’s lab over the summer.

Britton is currently working on the “K-23 study,” which looks at three different types of meditation practice and compares their efficacies and neurological mechanisms. “We want to see how certain practices affect people with depression anxiety — which ones work and which ones don’t,” she said.

In addition to participating in contemplative studies research at Brown, students interested in the field also have the opportunity to attend the annual International Symposium on Contemplative Studies in Boston.

Of the 1,600 attendees at the 2014 conference, 36 were current or former Brown students or faculty members, Roth wrote. These students and faculty members gave a total of more than 20 public presentations, Roth wrote, adding that “no other institution of higher education in the country was better represented.”

“The conference brought together a lot of people who are connecting research in the realm of well-being, human flourishing, mindfulness and meditation,” said Alexx Temeña ’16, a double-concentrator in cognitive neuroscience and contemplative psychology. Since the contemplative studies concentration was not approved until last spring, Temeña chose instead to pursue her own independent concentration in contemplative psychology.

“I love being in a field that’s so new and still growing,” she said. “It’s a community that is quite intimate but also ranging from so many disciplines, and from all over the world too.”

Temeña said she is interested in teaching others about mindfulness, which she sees as integral to good leadership. Each summer, she teaches a class titled “Leadership by Design” at an international boarding school in Japan. She said she aims to instruct her students how to be aware of and pay attention to their inner experiences.

Contemplative studies may become more involved with social activism through a potential partnership with the Swearer Center for Public Service and its Engaged Scholars Program, Roth wrote.

Summer internships will be available for students interested in contemplative studies and social activism at the Inward Bound Mindfulness Education — a nonprofit group based in Massachusetts — and the Prison Mindfulness Institute, Roth wrote. Details will be posted on the University’s contemplative studies website in the coming weeks, he added.

Despite its success, the new field at Brown faces some obstacles, Langton and Roth both said.
“The biggest challenge for contemplative studies may be making itself a serious contender to the hard sciences in general,” Langton said. “It has brain science at its core and it’s really rigorous, but there is some fluff in the neuroscience research,” he added, noting that some papers examined in contemplative studies courses manipulate data to get the desired results.

“Another challenge will be making contemplative studies a serious discipline rather than this kind of esoteric religious mumbo jumbo that people think it is,” he added.

Fundraising presents another challenge, Roth wrote.

“To this point, the University has given contemplative studies no direct financial support, nor have we been given approval to raise funds” by the University’s Division of Advancement, he wrote, adding that this lack of access to funding threatens the concentration’s ability to meet its “goals of training the next generation of contemplative scientists, humanists, artists and social activists.”

  • Euro Kidd

    Meditation and the Brain: possible implications to decrease blood pressure, anxiety, self control!

  • Are you kidding me right now

    Why yes, I would like fries with that.