Intersectional neuroscience: meditation and diversity

Session Date: 
Mar 13, 2021
Academic psychology and neuroscience have typically centered viewpoints of the dominant culture (WEIRD: Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, Democratic), which has influenced both the process and content of contemplative neuroscience. By incorporating more diverse perspectives through a lens of social justice, I present an Intersectional Neuroscience framework that center viewpoints of meditators who belong to minority groups, and use contemplative practices to heal identity-based suffering and build community. I highlight two main approaches to studying this deep contemplative work: 1) community engagement to incorporate diverse perspectives and participants, and 2) individualized multivariate neuroscientific methods to measure meditation skills, which rigorously measure diverse mental states within and between individuals. Community engagement with the East Bay Meditation Center was used to culturally-adapt research procedures for racial and ethnic minorities, LGBTQIA+ people, people with disabilities, the fat community, and people with less income. Importantly, community members were involved at each step, thereby empowering groups that have been historically oppressed in scientific research. To accommodate experiential and neural diversity, we designed the EMBODY Task which uses individualized machine learning applied to functional MRI data to measure diverse mental states during meditation. Machine learning classifiers were trained to learn and recognize brain patterns associated with internal attention states (breath attention, mind wandering, and self-referential processing), and then used to “read the mind” during meditation by estimating the internal focus of attention second-by-second. The EMBODY Task honors each individual’s unique brain structure and function, and provides novel metrics of attention during meditation (such as time attending to the breath) that can be analyzed at the group level. These methodological advances not only improve research in diverse populations but enhance the scientific rigor for the entire field. Throughout, I will highlight the importance of cultivating diverse scholars for enriching the field of contemplative research.