Mindful U Podcast 89. Jordan Quaglia: The Science of Mindfulness Training

What is mindfulness really doing to your mind? Jordan Quaglia, PhD, Director of Naropa’s Cognitive and Affective Science Lab, joins us to answer this and more on the science of the human psyche.

This episode of Mindful U, is out on now Apple, Spotify, and Stitcher.

Join Jordan at this science-backed training on Sept 6th, 2022 “Compassion-Based Boundaries: An Introduction with Jordan Quaglia, PhD”
“In this workshop, Director of Naropa’s Cognitive and Affective Science Lab, Jordan Quaglia, PhD, offers an introduction to what he calls compassion-based boundaries, a science-backed framework that provides practical skills for navigating complex interpersonal situations.”

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September 6 @ 6:00 pm – 8:00 pm, 2022
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“But if someone has trained their attention in a particular way to be more open and receptive, there might be even a different felt sense to someone listening to you from that perspective. So, I think that’s not a bad sort of just little example of thinking how it is that training our own mind, training our own attention and intention and awareness can have ramifications for others in our life as well. And it offers us the potential I think, to be generous with our minds. And you could say generous with our hearts. If we have more attention available in the sense that we’ve grown this capacity to pay attention, then we can be more generous with our attention without it feeling like we’re depleting ourselves.”

Full Transcript Below

Full Transcript

Jordan Quaglia

TRT 58:25

 

 

[MUSIC]

 

Hello, and welcome to Mindful U at Naropa. A podcast presented by Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado. I’m your host, David Devine. And it’s a pleasure to welcome you. Joining the best of Eastern and Western educational traditions — Naropa is the birthplace of the modern mindfulness movement.

 

[MUSIC]

 

David:

Hello, everyone, and welcome to another episode of the Mindful U Podcast. Today we have a very special guest with us, Jordan Quaglia. Jordan has a PhD and is an associate professor of psychology, the Director of Cognitive and Affective Science Lab at Naropa. And also, is the research director for the Advance of Contemplative Education, also known as CACE. He has come on to the podcast to chat with us about his work, and also his cognitive lab studies. How are you doing today?

 

Jordan Quaglia:

I’m doing good. Thanks. Thanks for having me.

 

David:

Yeah. What’s interesting is, I remember seeing photos of you when you first came to Naropa. And you’re putting all these electrodes over people’s heads. And ever since I’ve seen that photo in the magazine, I’ve been wanting to talk to you. So, it’s really cool to have you on. I feel like you have a different perspective, you’re kind of more science based than you are spiritual based, I guess. But I don’t want to assume too much. But —

 

Jordan Quaglia:

Yeah, well, we’ll talk about this maybe a little bit. But in the field of contemplative science, which is probably where I’m best situated as a researcher. People come to it in different ways. They either come to it, I think, primarily as a scientist, and then they get interested in meditation after seeing some of the data. Or maybe they come at first as a contemplative, and then they become interested in science. And so, I think I’m actually more in that second category of having been first a meditator and then become more interested in science. Of course, I did do research as an undergrad and things like that, that paved the way, but —

 

David:

Okay, yeah, that’s an interesting perspective to have of where was your foundational background coming from to interest you in the work that you’re doing now? So, you know, for our audience, could you tell us where you actually went to school, and what you studied and where you graduated from?

 

Jordan Quaglia:

Sure. So, I completed my undergrad, my BA, studying psychology and related things at the University of Richmond in Richmond, Virginia. And while I was there, I did some of my first research — original research, looking at the application of positive psychology to this therapy that’s used for dementia in Alzheimer’s patients called reminiscence therapy. And so that was my senior thesis. And in that process, I — I realized that I was kind of more interested in, as well as, some of the things happening in my life more interested in the applied side of psychology than the research side. So, at that point, I decided to pursue an MA in counseling and Naropa University. So, I actually came out here in 2008 to 2011. And I got my MA in counseling. But while here at Naropa, I sort of rediscovered my passion for research. And part of that was because I got involved in two different labs, one studying meditative cognition with Dr. Peter Grossenbacher, who’s currently still a faculty at Naropa. And the other up the hill at CU Boulder, with Dr. Tiffany Ito, which was a social neuroscience lab. And I realized it was possible to really blend my interests around psychotherapy and research. So, the applied and the sort of basic research side of psychology. And it was at that point, I went on to get a PhD, or decided to go on to get a PhD, at Virginia Commonwealth University, which took me back to Richmond, which was just just a coincidence. And then eventually back to Boulder, so I’ve sort of bounced between those two places.

 

David:

Wow. So, you were a student when I was a student?

 

Jordan Quaglia:

That’s right.

 

David:

In like the 20 — the 2010 —

 

Jordan Quaglia:

Yeah, yeah, I thought I recognized you. So, makes sense.

 

David:

Wow. Okay. So, it’s really interesting to hear how you had like a research based thing, and then you were doing applied science and then you went back to research. So how are you using the applied in the research science today?

 

Jordan Quaglia:

Yeah, broadly, I was — when I went off to get my PhD in experimental psychology was what my PhD was in, having been on — in counseling psychology, which is considered more on the applied side of psychology. And experimental psychology is very clearly situated on the research side. I was interested in understanding sort of processes and factors that might support good therapy. And so, I still study that today. And so, mindfulness and compassion on the side of a therapist themself is really important, I think, in the training of a therapist, and we hold that as an interest at Naropa and our counseling programs, and so on, but the data back it up as well. And so increasingly, there’s more and more evidence that if a therapist has their own background and their own depth of training in mindfulness and compassion, it’s likely that that is going to benefit their clients as well. And so —

 

David:

Weird how that works.

 

Jordan Quaglia:

Right, right. And so much of what I research is in that area of, and we’ll get to this, sort of the overlap of meditative cognition and social interaction.

 

David:

Okay, great. So, you currently teach at Naropa? And I’m wondering, what would a student experience in your class — like, what is your class title? What are some of the things you teach? And do you teach in different departments? Or are you located in one department?

 

Jordan Quaglia:

I teach in a few different areas, but primarily in the undergraduate psychology program, a few courses that I teach, I teach a course called the Psychology and Neuroscience of Emotion, which is one of my favorite courses. We learn a lot about the science of emotion and emotion regulation. In a course, like that, we observe our own experience with emotion, and there’s a lot of questions that have to do with, you know, how we work with our emotion in our daily life, or in social interaction, and so on. So, students get to explore emotion from that first person perspective. But right alongside that, we’re looking at data, we’re looking at studies and research that’s focused on what an emotion is, what emotion regulation is, how do we understand the relationship between our emotional life and our social life or our life as a citizen in society. So, we sort of approach it from a few different angles at once. So that’s one course, I also teach a course called contemplative neuroscience, which is about the science of contemplative practice, contemplative states, contemplative trainings, all that stuff. And in a course like that, of course, we do some contemplative practice, but students get their contemplative practice in other areas of the curriculum as well. So, a lot of it is more looking at sort of the movement, the contemplative science movement, and maybe the mindfulness movement more broadly, and trying to understand and situate ourselves at this unique point in time, around how our students may contribute to this field going forward, not just on the research side, but by participating with a level of depth of training that they have from the Naropa experience. And then another course that I teach, that I think is worth mentioning, is part of the — my role in the Center for the Advancement of Contemplative education or CACE, which you mentioned earlier. And that’s a compassion training course. So, if people have heard of mindfulness based stress reduction before, it’s a little bit like that, but for training compassion, in the sense that we draw primarily from science as our inspiration, as well as sort of ancient contemplative traditions, but sort of modernizing that and making it more secular in its approach. So that’s an eight week training program. And I’m part of the teaching team for that. And so that runs once or twice a year as well.

 

And it’s interesting to note that compassion in science is not something you hear compared very often unless you’re in a contemplative space. So, it’s really nice to see, you know, it’s not so hard, no science, that we’re actually involving our feelings, our emotional states, kind of how we respond to things. So, it’s really interesting to see how science has evolved over time.

 

Jordan Quaglia:

Yeah, I would say there’s been a trend in science, especially in —yeah, the fields that overlap with psychology and neuroscience, to focus on or to assume that we are primarily selfish beings. And there’s increasing evidence that that’s not the case. And that that wasn’t the case for our ancestors, either from an evolutionary perspective. So, compassion is an interesting topic in the way that it challenges kind of a core assumption that is really unexamined in certain ways. That’s been central to much of scientific research. But unfortunately, I’d say compassion is not just the only thing that is challenging that assumption. But it is a way that we can personally engage with that process of waking up to our basic goodness, as we might call it at Naropa. And training that and helping others to do the same.

 

David:

It’s Buddhist, I like it. We’re all good beings. And we have to like, either learn how to be good, or we rediscover that we already are. So, I really like hearing that. And so, what’s interesting is that you have a BA, you have an MA, you have a PhD, you have —

 

Jordan Quaglia:

Too much school — too much school.

 

David:

You have a lot of — you’re a very scholarly man, you know, and what I’m curious about is — because it seemed as though you’ve had some teachings along the way of your scholarly career. And it seems as though as maybe you didn’t have the idea of where you wanted to go, but then taking certain classes kind of propelled you in. Is that a true story? Or did you always know where you wanted to go? And what you wanted to study? And you’re here doing that now? Or — or is this kind of like somewhere you never really saw yourself?

 

Jordan Quaglia:

I saw myself exactly here. No, it wasn’t that way. Yeah, I mean, it’s consistent with advice I often give to undergraduates. So, in case there’s people listening, who are still undecided on their career path, my orientation was really just to keep as many doors open as possible as I went on my education journey. I sort of had a broad sense of how I wanted to make a difference in the world. A lot of that had to do with aligning my own strengths with what I saw as being needed, right. So, I knew I was a big picture thinker. I like to think creatively. I like to write, I like, you know, to help people with their mental health, things like that. So that was a through line, I think, throughout my journey, but it concretized into different ideas throughout that process of getting my different degrees and so on. But it was very much kind of a nonlinear path for me. I didn’t just know that this was the goal that I had to become a professor. So, I think that if you can go through your education journey, keeping as many doors open as possible — and what I mean by that is that someone may not know that they want to get a PhD in the future, they might know that they don’t want to, for example, but your mind could change on that. My mind changed at a certain point in the journey. So, you know, keeping up with your grades and all that other stuff, you know, getting some research experience, things like that, that might keep that door open were all very helpful to me when I did decide that I wanted to get a PhD.

 

David:

Okay, yeah, and I can resonate with that, too. One of the new things that I think about that I came up with in my mind is like, don’t have a plan, have principles. Because if you have principles, and you kind of know where you want to go. It’s like a plan can get in the way of the plan that you don’t know, that’s going to show up in your life. So just to leave all the doors open, because you never really know.

 

Jordan Quaglia:

Yeah, I like that. Yeah, I mean, it has to do with I think, not getting too concrete in an sort of external way about exactly what you want. But more sort of knowing the feeling that you want or the values that you want to live from, and allowing your experience to shape the exact manifestation that takes place, rather than having a fixed or sort of dogmatic view about that.

 

David:

Yes. Okay. Great. So now we’re gonna get in the good stuff.

 

Jordan Quaglia:

All right.

 

David:

I’m excited for this part. You’re directing the Cognitive Lab and Affective Science Lab also known as C-A-S-L.

 

Jordan Quaglia:

“Castle” is how you say that.

 

David:

“Castle.” Also, CASL. So, can you share with us a little bit about CASL and what you do? What is the focus? And what — like, how do they work with Naropa?

 

Jordan Quaglia:

So yeah, first about the acronym — you know, when I was a PhD student, I had some colleagues who worked in a lab. And it wasn’t focused on the acronym when the principal investigator named the lab and ended up abbreviating to H, E, L. And so, the students would talk about having to go back to HEL. And so, I thought, when developing the name for my lab, I better pay attention to the acronym and make it sort of more interesting. So, the Cognitive and Affective Science Lab or CASL for short, broadly focuses on factors that might help to advance you know, wellbeing for people on a personal level, social level, psychological well being. And there’s three broad topics that we study — meditative cognition, or I like to use the term contemplative cognition. It’s a bit broader than saying something like mindfulness, although that’s in that ballpark, for sure. The second topic is emotion regulation. And the third topic is our social life or social interaction. But rather than sort of focus on one of those things at a time, although there’s certainly research projects that kind of focus squarely on one or the other. Most of the work that we do in CASL sits at the intersection of two, or even all three of those topics. So, a good example right now is my primary focus is on compassion, and compassion training. And that very clearly situates at the center of those three topics, if you imagine them kind of like three overlapping circles. Compassion is something that we can train through meditation training, it impacts our emotion regulation. You can actually think of compassion as an emotion regulation strategy. And it’s a unique emotion regulation strategy that has, I think, distinct benefits for our social life.

 

David:

Yeah. And I find that very useful to distinguish between contemplative and mindfulness because they kind of like hanging out together, but sometimes they’re not always the same.

 

Jordan Quaglia:

Yeah, the field has gotten a little bit, in my opinion, overly narrow, and it’s focused on mindfulness. And now fortunately, it’s broadening to include things like love and kindness and compassion. But I think contemplative which we’ve long held as a core principle at Naropa invites in a much more inclusive understanding, the space of meditative cognition, all the variety of contemplative practice that exist and are yet to be invented, even right. So, there’s potential for I think innovation when we think about contemplative. And I think one way of thinking about that distinction is that just very simply, is that mindfulness is primarily a Buddhist term. And contemplative is much broader than that. I think it leaves room for many more traditions.

 

David:

Contemplative feels like a more scientific term of saying mindfulness. But when you said it was too open, what did you mean by that? The contemplative world was too open in the scientific field?

 

Jordan Quaglia:

Oh, I don’t know if I said exactly that. But I think it invites us to think in a more open minded way about what exactly we mean by meditative, you know, or it invites us to think about the broader variety or diversity of contemplative practices that may exist as well as contemplative states of mind, and so on. So, in my contemplative neuroscience class, for example, the students at the beginning of the semester, choose their contemplative practice. And they might choose things that for us may not be intuitively contemplative practices, such as learning French is a good example. And when the students have to justify why exactly the thing that they chose is a contemplative practice. And sometimes they might land and decide, okay, in my case, learning French isn’t a contemplative practice. But you sort of get to think a little bit broader and a little more open minded about what exactly a contemplative practice is. And when you dig into the details, even from a research perspective, you find there’s these core cognitive processes that seemed to underlie almost all contemplative practices. These are processes like attention, intention, and awareness. And so, when we think about it from a psychological perspective, we actually get broader as well. So, it’s not just this fun exercise to kind of just decide that something is a contemplative practice, but there’s a possibility of a sort of evidence based understanding that so many things can qualify as contemplative practices, if they are approached in a particular way.

 

David:

Yeah. And it gives you the ability to notice what is contemplative and what isn’t, because you might be doing something — you’re outside gardening, or you’re cooking, and you’re like, wow, this is kind of contemplative.

 

Jordan Quaglia:

Yeah, okay. Exactly —

 

David:

You’re practicing more than you think you are?

 

Jordan Quaglia:

Yeah, it could be, you know, and I think it’s a fine line between kind of allowing for this inclusive understanding, and then having some boundary conditions around it, right. Because someone might say that watching Netflix is their contemplative practice, right. But most of the time, in most cases, that’s probably not a contemplative practice, for reasons that could be justified. But if we approach things as we’re not just doing the thing, for the sake of doing the thing, but we’re doing the thing as an opportunity to work with our attention, our intention and our awareness, then it’s much more likely to be in the ballpark of a contemplative practice.

 

David:

The thing is an apparatus to develop more contemplative mind —

 

Jordan Quaglia:

Yeah, mindsets.

 

David:

Practices and or having that ability to look through that lens a bit more?

 

Jordan Quaglia:

That’s right. Wonderful.

 

David:

So okay, you’re talking about your lab, the CASL lab and some of the work that you do? Can you tell us a little bit how you gather your data? And what are some of the methods that you use to do that?

 

Jordan Quaglia:

Sure, we rely on a variety of methods within CASL. I’m an experimental psychologist by training, as I said, so people may not know exactly what that means. But one way I like to think about experimental psychology in particular is that the question really drives the methods for us. It may be that somebody in my field specializes in one method or another, like they might be an fMRI person, right? So, they’re really focused on using that particular tool to study the mind and brain.

 

David:

Can you say what that is?

 

Jordan Quaglia:

It’s a functional magnetic resonance imaging. So yeah, fMRI people might be familiar. And they might have gotten an MRI before, sometimes people get an fMRI for medical reasons, or they participate in a study or something. But that’s what we’re most commonly introduced to, or that we see in the news or whatever, as being, oh look at this image of the brain, you know, and it’s like a slice of the brain. And there’s colors on it showing where there’s more activation or less activation, that kind of thing. But anyways, some people might specialize. And so, in their lab, whatever question comes their way that they’re interested in studying, they look through that prism, right of that particular method. And I prefer to let the question drive the method. So, in my opinion, there’s some questions that are really well suited for neuroscientific measures. And then there’s some questions that are better — a better fit for a different kind of approach. And so, in our lab, we use things like EEG, which is a neuroscientific measure, but we can also use self report questionnaires, something called ecological momentary assessment, which is a way of gathering data via smartphone based surveys, qualitative interviews. Just recently did my first study involving qualitative data collection, meta analysis, which is a kind of quantitative review of other people’s research, so it just really depends on the question guiding, what’s the best approach toward this question?

 

David:

What’s interesting to hear, too is, if a science is based on a dead set question, and then they’re like looking for a certain region in the brain to see if it’s activated from that question, they’re kind of like, as we were talking earlier, not leaving doors open for things to happen. But it seems as though the science in which you’re working with is you allow the question to guide, instead of you saying, like, this is my question, I want to see where it activates in the brain.

 

Jordan Quaglia:

Yeah, there’s — there’s a bit of a trade off, you know, you could think of the phrase like Jack of all trades, master of none, or something like that. There’s definitely a need in the field for people who specialize in one particular method or the other. And they look at questions primarily through that lens. It’s just not been my approach. I’m much more interested in the diversity of methods and choosing which method may be the best fit for that particular question. But yeah, I think there’s trade offs. And it’s not necessarily that one’s — one approach is better than the other.

 

David:

Okay, beautiful. So, I had the opportunity about a year ago to interview Dan Siegel and Richie Davidson, and within the beautiful — beautiful, intelligent people, and within these conversations is they will talk about contemplative research and same with you, you talk about contemplative research. And I’m curious if you could explain the difference between research and contemplative research? So, what’s the difference — so once you add the word contemplative, how is it different from normal scientific research?

 

Jordan Quaglia:

Yeah, unfortunately, I don’t think there’s necessarily a shared understanding of this at this point in time in the field. However, I’ll say that you can use it, or I use the term in two different ways. And so, this part of what maybe contributes to the confusion around it if people have heard this before. In a sense that contemplative research might just mean sort of a synonym for contemplative science, which is this, you know, use of scientific methods or psychology and neuroscientific methods to study stuff that pertains to contemplative states, traits and trainings, right, or practices. So that is the probably broadest understanding, or the most common understanding of the term contemplative research is that it pertains to the content of what we’re studying, right? We’re studying stuff related to contemplative practice. But I like to use the term in another way as well, which is that the research process itself or being involved in research, studying anything, really, it doesn’t have to be studying contemplative practice can be seen as a contemplative practice, right? In the same ways that we were talking about before. To the extent that we can bring more complete attention, intention and awareness to the research activities, they can become vehicles for our own personal and collective transformation. So, within CASL, we have a set of values that are captured by the acronym core, C-O-R-E. And this is one way that you can think about — or one way that it manifested within CASL, these different values of using research as a contemporary vehicle. So, the C is for co-creative. And this is this idea that — science is a process of building community. There’s a community within science, and we need to stay open minded to diverse perspectives, not only diverse perspectives in the way of sort of first, second or third person perspectives, but maybe theoretical perspectives that don’t align with ours or something like that. An example might be that once people started studying mindfulness more directly, it also coincided with a rise in research on mind wandering. So, we might think of mind wandering as being antithetical to mindfulness. But in fact, there’s a lot of complementarity between those two areas of research. And I think they’re learning from each other in really creative ways. So that’s part of what’s meant by co creative there. And then the O stands for open minded. This is this idea that at its best, as scientists, we can go beyond our own thinking, you know, that the data itself can inform us in ways that are surprising that maybe disrupt some of our expectations in helpful ways. So that’s open minded. R, what is R? This interesting, rigorous is R. And so, this is this idea that, you know, yeah, in the process of doing research, there’s these training opportunities for our attention, intention and awareness, if we just lean into that process. And there are many of these, you know, whether you’re working in an Excel spreadsheet, or you’re doing a complex literature review, you’re having to lean into that next moment. And actually, if you approach that as an opportunity to train attention, intention and awareness, I think it makes it a little more palatable to do that kind of effortful work. And then the E stands for energizing and that has to do with this bigger aspiration for our research that if we understand that the research, we’re doing isn’t just to pat ourselves on the back, but actually serves a potentially bigger purpose than us, there’s this opportunity for feeling energized in our work rather than burning us out. So, I think for me, those values were one way of articulating how the research process itself could be a contemplative practice.

 

David:

I liked hearing about the — the mind wandering, because I am guilty of that. I love my mind wandering. And sometimes when we talk about meditation, we talk about the monkey mind and how your — how you need to like rope it back in. But what I’m hearing from you is sometimes the mind wandering could be useful in a contemplative setting, but I don’t think we associate mind wandering with being contemplative. So, it’s really interesting to hear that from you of how it can be if it’s done, right, I guess.

 

Jordan Quaglia:

Yeah. So, there’s a big distinction between — that’s made in the field between mind wandering with awareness versus mind wandering without awareness. And so probably the most ideal is to mind wander with awareness or even mind wander intentionally, you know, if you put your mind on a certain problem, or whatever. But more broadly, if we look at the actual content of much of mind wandering, I think maybe we have this assumption that it’s not helpful, that it’s sort of just a distraction, because it’s not relevant to what we’re currently doing. That’s kind of the definition of mind wandering that most people use in the field, which is that it’s task irrelevant thinking. So, we might be focused on this podcast, and my mind might travel elsewhere to what I’m doing this weekend or something like that. But most of the content of mind wandering is goal relevance still. What do I mean by that? I mean, that it’s related to another goal that we have in our life situation at that particular time. So, it may not be directly relevant to what we’re doing right in this moment, right. But it’s relevant to something we care about. And so, mind wandering in that way from that frame is still an expression of care. You might even look at it as an attempt, maybe sometimes it gets distorted in ways that are maladaptive, but in an attempt at self care, that part of our mind is spontaneously bringing to mind other things that we care about, or that are important to us. So that we make sure that we prioritize them and invite them in, right? And if we were just to be single task, and to ignore these other parts of our life, that would be detrimental to us, right? So, mind wandering has evolved for a reason, there’s a reason that our brains prioritize it so much. And it has the potential as we grow more aware, and we have a better relationship with our mind wandering, to be seen as less of a distraction and more as a tool.

 

David:

Okay, as you’re saying this, I’m realizing I actually do actively do some mind wandering. So, when I prepare for podcasts, and I have to, you know, ask some questions that might feel out of my league, and I’m talking to like contemplative neurobiologist, and scientists, it’s not necessarily my field. But what I’ll do is I’ll play my drum set, I’ll play music. So, I’m like doing this pretty intense activity, because it’s body and mind. But then I’m sitting there and thinking about what I want to say. So mid beat, I’ll stop, and I’ll grab my phone and I’ll write the question that I thought of in my notes, but I actively do a activity that allows me to wander, it provides a space to wander, to activate, you know, some of the things that I’m looking to do.

 

Jordan Quaglia:

I think that’s a great example of how you’ve developed a relationship to your mind wandering over time, that has transformed it into a tool for you, rather than it being something that you see as a burden.

 

David:

Yeah, I mean, it can be, you know, sometimes the — the beat gets a little squirrely, but yes, for the most part, it does feel like a tool and I’ll go over there to do that.

 

Jordan Quaglia:

Yep. And you can see, you know, I don’t want to, yeah, have rose colored — colored glasses about this, because there are plenty of examples, especially in clinical psychology, where mind wandering goes wrong. You know, could say, and that it becomes maladaptive, that it becomes something that can actually, you know, be part of a depression experience for someone or something like that. So, I think that that’s why we have to cultivate more awareness of our mind wandering so that we become more choice full in the ways that you’re describing about when we want to mind wander and when we don’t, when it might be constructive versus destructive mind wandering, or counterproductive mind wandering, or something like that. But that all starts with awareness.

 

David:

Yeah, I’m assuming over here, but it seems as though if you unintentionally might wander, it has more of a possibility to go in a direction you don’t want. But when you purposefully mindful wander, then, you know, it’s a little bit more intentional, and you might have boundary or emotional guidelines in which you need to follow.

 

Jordan Quaglia:

Yeah, I think so. It’s just like any other relationship. You know, if you think of it as having a relationship with our minds, just like a relationship in our life, sometimes we have to set boundaries with our own mind wandering.

 

David:

Very cool. So how does a scientist go about studying feelings and behaviors in comparison to another hard set science like physics or engineering, something that is more substantial to the material world and not based in psychologies. You know, when we think of science, we’re measuring the weather, we’re — we’re finding the melting point of something. But when it comes to like feelings, it’s a little bit more, it’s different. So how does one study like feelings and behaviors?

 

Jordan Quaglia:

Yeah, one way of thinking about this, I think, is to recognize that every scientific discipline, regardless of whether it fits more with people’s preconception of what a science is, or not, you know, or a hard science versus a soft science, sometimes you hear that phrasing, is that every scientific discipline has to develop its own tools and methods to study the phenomena that are of interest to it. And they generally — this generally involves some innovation, right of new approaches, depending on the phenomena of interest. So, I think a good example would be astronomy, right, which is a study of outer space. And then we can compare that to the study of inner space, which is more of the territory that I’m interested in. And outer space involves some unique challenges for scientists, you know, we have to develop and innovate new methods, like the use of satellites and telescopes and the Mars Rover, right? So probably the Mars Rover is not that helpful for other fields of science, like chemistry or biology, unless it’s some sort of interdisciplinary collaboration where they’re looking at, you know, the soil of Mars or something.

 

David:

I think they do take like samples.

 

Jordan Quaglia:

Yeah. Yeah, so but a telescope, you know, is that really going to be that helpful for certain other areas of science. So similar in the study of inner space, psychologists and neuroscientists have had to develop their own unique approaches, right, because of the phenomena that are of interest. And it just so happens that the phenomena of interest in psychology and neuroscience tend to be invisible, you know, they’re not entirely because we’re interested in the study of behavior as well, human behavior. But a lot of things like thoughts and emotions, and so on, are mostly invisible processes. So how do you study that, right, and you have to innovate new approaches. And I think that this has led some people to, you know, when you’re not in the field, you may think like, okay, psychology is just asking people how they feel that’s not reliable, because people might not be telling the truth, right? Or it’s asking people whether they’re mindful or not. And that’s useless, right? Because people could lie about that, or there’s a social expectation to be mindful. So, they’re somehow bias biased in their reporting, but —

 

David:

Maybe not even skillful enough to voice what they’re feeling and maybe not have the language.

 

Jordan Quaglia:

Sure, yeah, no having introspective access to what it is that the researchers are interested in studying. But for that reason, psychologists have developed a kind of very rigorous approach to self report assessment. That is, I think, quite different than people — how people understand it. The questionnaires that we use aren’t just made up on the fly. They have to be validated through a very rigorous process. And it takes sometimes years to develop a new questionnaire, right? And the reason for that is because we are looking to make sure that it is valid in relation to what we would expect with other measures and constructs that exist out there. So that’s kind of myth sometimes that like self report is not rigorous, right. And another couple examples, I think, in psychology neuroscience, one is fMRI, which we’ve already talked about. That’s an innovation that, you know, has driven a lot of interesting research over time, because we can actually peer under the hood into people’s brains and see brain activity happening in almost real time. Same with EEG, right. And another example would be ecological momentary assessment, I mentioned earlier is the use of smartphone based surveys primarily these days. And that allows us to survey people’s experience in the midst of their life, in the midst of right after you and I have a social — have had a social interaction. If I was part of a study, I could answer surveys right now, right? And so, it’s in the midst of my life situation that I’m answering these questions. It’s closer in proximity to the time of the event itself. And it’s much more likely than to reflect valid information because it’s not subject to the kind of memory biases that sometimes happen in hindsight.

 

David:

Memory biases, oh, yeah. Because if it’s not in the moment, it might be hard to recall. I had a thought too where you can think about how you felt about something in the past. You can feel what you’re feeling now. But it’s hard to predict feelings in a futuristic way. You might know where you’re — like I’m going on vacation, so you might know where you’re gonna be located. But you might not know how you’re gonna feel, and I’m realizing how feelings are very either momentary or like past. It’s hard to present future feelings.

 

Jordan Quaglia:

Yeah, I think that’s a interesting observation that reflects — there’s a field of research on something called affective forecasting. Here, affective as with an A, and it reflects, you know, an affect as emotional — emotional forecasting in some sense. And yeah, some of that research shows that people are pretty bad at predicting how they’re going to feel in the future situation. One clear example is how we might feel after winning the lottery, right? So, people might think if I win the lottery, I’m going to be happier than I’ve ever been, you know, and then research suggests that after some time, after the kind of initial shock wears off, people return to their baseline level of happiness before they won the lottery or sometimes end up worse off as a result. So that’s just one example. But vacation is another one. You know, a lot of times they say the benefits of vacation come from the anticipation leading up to the vacation itself. There’s some interesting research on that. Whereas the vacation, yes, it’s a pleasant experience, but the actual psychological benefits of vacation have a lot more to do with maybe the anticipation than they do with the event itself.

 

David:

Hmm. We are very interesting creatures, look at this. So okay, while I was reading your bio about CASL and the work they do, I saw that you have multiple approaches to advancing your scientific research, like using first, second and third person perspectives in your study. And I’m wondering why you use multiple perspectives within your research? And how can using all three of these approaches help further the research you’re doing? And what do those perspective look like? Like, how are they different?

 

Jordan Quaglia:

Yeah, it’s a great —

 

David:

That’s a big question.

 

Jordan Quaglia:

No, it’s a great question. We’ll geek out a little bit on this idea. I would like to think that psychology and neuroscience as a field is moving more and more in this direction of understanding and acknowledging that no one method or approach is offering us the whole picture, right? So, in some sense, the use of first, second and third person approaches are that we acknowledge that there are different ways of knowing and those different ways of knowing come with different strengths and weaknesses. And so, by relying on all three of them, whether in the context of a single study or across studies in a field, we’re going to have a much more complete picture of the phenomena of interest. And so how this has shown up in my own research is an example would be from my dissertation research where I looked at the social side of mindfulness, in some sense. I examined the effects of mindfulness training on people’s social life through first, second and third person measures. And so, the first person measures relied on existing validated questionnaires to sample from people’s experience, and they self reported on their well being, and so on before and after the intervention. But also, ecological momentary assessment, that tool that I was talking about earlier. So, smartphone based surveys were administered for a week before the intervention and a week after the intervention. So that’s the first person approach. Second person approach is that I recruited people that were in a long term romantic relationship only. And the reason that I did that is I was interested in collecting data, not just from the person who was undergoing the mindfulness training, but also from someone who knew them quite well. Right? So, if you’re in a romantic relationship with someone, your spouse or your partner is likely going to be able to observe things in you. And see changes in you that you may not be aware of yourself, right, because they know you so well, it’s almost like they’re an expert on you, in some sense. So that’s an example of a second person approach. And so, they also completed surveys, you know, before and after the training about the person that was undergoing the training. And then the third person approaches were more common to thinking about psychology and neuroscience, things like EEG, measuring how the brain responded to different stimuli, in this case, facial expressions, as well as task performance measures, which have to do with how well people you know, can discern between one facial expression and another. So, all three of those different lenses provide different kinds of information, provide different kinds of information, hopefully, it’s clear exactly how that might be the case. But it’s almost like we’re looking at that phenomena of how mindfulness training may impact relationship or our social life from different angles, right? And an understanding, almost a kind of intellectual humility or methodological humility, that no one of those if we just look at them in isolation is going to offer us the complete picture of how mindfulness may change our social life.

 

David:

Yeah, and it seems, you know, fairly important to have a holistic view and research approaches if you are going to study feelings and behavioral patterns and it seems like you’re gonna want to gather all the information and not be a bias entity about it. So, considering the discoveries and the outcomes of your research over the years, how has developing an understanding of our mental life and cognition been beneficial to understanding how people engage with their bodies, their surroundings and others?

 

Jordan Quaglia:

Yeah, I think the clearest example from my own research has just been this long standing interest I have in connecting the dots between one’s own personal practice with things like meditation, or mindfulness or compassion, and their social life, right, how it might impact the relationships, as well as how the consequences of learning something like mindfulness or compassion may be beneficial not only to the individual practicing that, but to those that they interact with, or to society more broadly. And so, connecting those dots might be somewhat easy for us to do just at a theoretical level, right. But from a scientific perspective, that requires evidence, right. And so, I think it’s important to understand and to study the mechanisms that might be at play, to help us understand how it is that one person’s practice may have ramifications for their social life and for others. And so, in my research, one way of getting at that is thinking about attention itself as an expression of care. So, when we are a good listener to someone, if you think about the last time that someone really paid full attention to you, while you were speaking or talking about a problem or something in your life, there’s a huge difference. And it’s — you can feel it, there’s a felt sense difference between someone who’s half listening and kind of on their phone, right? I mean, that’s one extreme maybe, but even somebody who’s looking at you, but kind of half listening, right?

 

David:

Versus that dead look in their eye, like uh —

 

Jordan Quaglia:

That’s right, versus someone who’s really fully listening, right? And then you can go further than that, in the sense of, we have our kind of ordinary level of attention. But if someone has trained their attention in a particular way to be more open and receptive, there might be even a different felt sense to someone listening to you from that perspective. So, I think that’s not a bad sort of just little example of thinking how it is that training our own mind, training our own attention and intention and awareness can have ramifications for others in our life as well. And it offers us the potential I think, to be generous with our minds. And you could say generous with our hearts. If we have more attention available in the sense that we’ve grown this capacity to pay attention, then we can be more generous with our attention without it feeling like we’re depleting ourselves.

 

David:

Sounds like mindful space holding.

 

Jordan Quaglia:

Yeah.

 

David:

Skillful space holding for someone.

 

Jordan Quaglia:

Yeah, I think that’s right. I think that how we hold our mind has a lot to do with this idea of how we hold space for others. Another insight that comes from my research, though, is that it’s not just about attention and awareness, a lot of it has to do with emotion regulation. So, it seems to me that emotion regulation is sort of a key mechanism that helps us to connect those dots between personal and social transformation, in the sense that a lot of the rubber meets the road, in our relationships, through our emotions, and through our reactivity, and so on. So, I think a big part of holding space also has to do with being able to be present in the face of others’ emotions and our own emotions, and have more space in that — a bigger gap or a longer pause, in some sense, subjectively, at least between what we take in and our reaction to it, or our response to it.

 

David:

Okay, beautiful. So, while you’re conducting your research on the mind and the brain, has there been any perspectives of cognition living in the body, as well as not just being contained to the brain? You know, I’m thinking of, does the body have its own sense of how the brain works?

 

Jordan Quaglia:

Yeah.

 

David:

Does the body feel emotion? Or does the brain assume what it should feel and then the body reacts?

 

Jordan Quaglia:

Yeah, I think I get what you’re asking. I’m not an expert in this area. But I can point listeners in the direction of this term, embodied cognition, as a very active and exciting area of research that kind of challenges this assumption that was present in cognitive science for some time, this metaphor of the mind as a computer, right? That’s not an embodied metaphor, right? And it’s problematic for a variety of reasons. But one of the reasons is this role of the body and cognition. So embodied cognition holds that — our body is intrinsic to the process of how we think and how we understand the world. And an example of that, as far as I understand, I’m not again an expert in this area, but if you think about any concept that we might have, it’s packed with sensory motor information. So, if I say the word lake, for example, and you think about a lake, a lake isn’t just an abstract idea, but it comes along with a set of actions that you can take, like I can swim in the lake. And if you think about a lake, there’s this visual information may be coming to mind of seeing a lake that you’ve been to, or something like that. But you also feel in your body, there’s a set of — like, there’s a kind of behavioral repertoire that comes along with that concept. And so that shows that our concepts even themselves of something like a lake, which could be seen as quite abstract, are packed with the sensory motor information that helps guide our actions and — and even in the moment, as we think about it, how we feel about something like a lake, right? But on a more basic level, to answer this question, I just think about causation flowing in two directions. So, causation flowing from the top down, kind of like from brain to body, versus from body to brain. And in my own research, I’ve had some experience studying something called cytokines, which are these proteins that can modulate inflammation in the body. And there’s some evidence that mindfulness can decrease the amount of inflammatory cytokines in the body. But so that’s kind of top down influence, right, that mindfulness training could decrease inflammation in the body. But then also, the amount of cytokines has this causation effect from body to — to mind in the sense that there’s research to suggest that cytokines or pro-inflammatory cytokines can predict mental health in various ways, right? So, it kind of goes in both directions. We can decrease the inflammation, but then with decreased inflammation, there could be this feedback loop to our mental health that actually has these kinds of benefits.

 

David:

Wow. Okay. This is an interesting stuff. Okay, I’m wondering, has there been any results or data that has come up that you weren’t expecting in your research, but data suggested otherwise? Has there been any hidden discoveries while you’re doing your CASL research? Anything that has surprised you?

 

Jordan Quaglia:

Yeah, I think this speaks to that part of the acronym of CORE I was speaking to earlier that we use within CASL of open minded, right? Can we actually allow the data to inform us rather than just having our expectations be confirmed in a kind of confirmation bias kind of way? I can think of some examples. One comes from during my doctoral training, being involved in some research with people who had never meditated before. A lot of times we like to study those people, because it gives us a clearer sense of how meditation might impact the life or their life because we can randomize them to meditate versus not, for example, and just if you just sample from meditators, they might have uniquely chosen to meditate, you know, for some other reason.

 

David:

Or integrated a contemplative practice that they didn’t realize was contemplative, or —

 

Jordan Quaglia:

Yeah, that can happen too. And so if you take people who have never meditated before, and you have them listen to an audio recording by somebody like Jon Kabat-Zinn, and you have them practice a meditation for the very first time, in this case, it was a body scan, and then you administer a questionnaire subsequent to that, and you ask them, like, how did you feel during that? One of the most commonly reported emotions that the undergraduates in this case reported feeling during the meditation was awkwardness.

 

David:

Okay, I was gonna guess that — real uncomfortable?

 

Jordan Quaglia:

Yeah. So, it’s not necessarily intuitive. I wouldn’t — I mean, you guessed it, but I wouldn’t have necessarily guessed that that was going to come out in the data, and it’s not like we’ve published on that, or something that it was such a reliable finding that it’s — we consider it super meaningful or whatever. But because they were also experiencing other emotional states, like relaxation, and so on. But it speaks to the fact there’s a kind of humility in that, right. When you have this idea that mindfulness is just this beneficial thing. But when you’re initially encountering mindfulness, it feels to some people awkward, right, apparently. And so, there’s this maybe weirdness or strangeness factor that people have to get over. And there might be valid psychological reasons for that, that have to do with stuff that’s helpful for them to work through in that process. Right? And I suspect that that might be the case. But it suggests that if we really want to see the full benefits of something from mindfulness, we probably have to have people practice it multiple times to get over that kind of initial hump or friction of awkwardness.

 

David:

Okay, so one thing I’m thinking about is like, we are embodied beings, like we can’t really get around that. But for people who — because you’re — you’re talking to people who essentially don’t meditate, and how often do you think these people are even asked how do you feel after doing like a body scan, which they’ve probably never done so the act of being asked how you feel is probably where the awkwardness comes in. Because how often do you feel like an average person that is not of a mindfulness practice gets asked how they feel after they’ve scanned their body.

 

Jordan Quaglia:

Yeah, so this speaks to a kind of broader concern that sometimes comes up in psychology and research, which has to do with does the act of asking, or does the act of observing itself change the phenomena of interest? And so, in this case, does the fact that they’re being asked to sort of self examine their emotions increase their likelihood that they’re going to report in this case, maybe a negative experience where they wouldn’t have otherwise reflected in that way? Sometimes I think that’s true. This is one of the reasons that we have control conditions, though, because the control groups went through a parallel process that didn’t involve mindfulness. And they also got asked how they felt afterwards, right. And so, by structuring the control condition, in the same way that we structure the meditation condition, we’re less likely to have that be coloring our data in a way that’s not true to maybe what we’re studying. But there are other ways that we get around that as well, for example, that you’re going to ask about a bunch of different stuff you might be interested in, rather than just the one thing that you’re interested in.

 

David:

Yeah. Okay. So, you don’t have like this question that’s really pinpointing how you feel, but you have a range of questions that ease them into it.

 

Jordan Quaglia:

Yeah, that’s one approach that you could take.

 

David:

Okay. And it seems like as though, the — what is it, the conscious observer, researching an experiment almost alters the experiment itself, because they’re present?

 

Jordan Quaglia:

You could take that mentality, I think that it may be a bigger concern from outside of the discipline than it is within the discipline, you know, because we’ve innovated a lot — lots of different approaches to trying to overcome this kind of observer bias, or the researchers expectations and so on. But you know, the placebo effect is another great example, within this territory, it’s a similar kind of thing. And we know that it has a powerful effect. It’s also another reason why we administer placebos or placebo conditions or control conditions. But this also speaks to and goes back to the importance of first, second and third person approaches, you know, one strength of third person approaches is that they ideally, eliminate this kind of subjective mediation of our experience by, you know, directly looking at the brain or looking at people’s response times or accuracy on a task performance measure. We’re decreasing the likelihood that a person’s personal expectations are shaping their data.

 

David:

Beautiful. So, I just got one more question for you. And I’m curious, so what are some of the practices that you do with all the research that you’ve learned, like, have you developed certain mindfulness practices that are — that show up in the research that you do? And or just to regulate yourself as an individual like, so — is there anything that you do that’s special?

 

Jordan Quaglia:

Well, this goes back to something we were talking about earlier. So, you know, one of the reasons I’m so interested in contemplative practice, people might think that people who study the stuff, we’re interested in it because we practice ourselves, or we’re meditators or something. And so, there’s this quality, sometimes of me search right instead of research, like, it’s just —

 

David:

I’ve never heard that. I like that.

 

Jordan Quaglia:

But we try and avoid that kind of, you know, just that that bias is what we study. But the reason that contemplative practice is so interesting to me is because it targets core psychological processes that are central to almost everything else that we do in life. So, you’d be hard pressed to find something in your life that doesn’t involve or centrally rely on attention, intention, and awareness, right? Especially goal directed activities, like new learning that you want to engage in, or a new relationship that you have, or yeah, different goals, career or whatever in your life. All of those depend centrally, it’s hard to underscore enough how centrally they rely on attention, intention, and awareness, which are really central processes for one way of thinking about it is regulation of all kinds — self regulation, emotional regulation, behavioral regulation, and so on. So, by, potentially, through contemplative practice, by directly targeting these core processes and strengthening them over time there is this possibility, maybe for a kind of training that applies or generalizes, across the different domains of our life, right? It’s not going to just make us better at meditating, right? We’re not meditating to become better at meditating, we’re meditating, because we think that it might have implications or consequences for other aspects of our life that we care about, right? And it seems that contemplative practices may be unique in how directly they target these core processes of the mind, which means that they could have ramifications across a wider set of domains in our life. They have implications for our career, or our relationships, or our creativity, right, they could potentially support and facilitate all of those things. And so, for me, I think it’s important to spend some time on the development of those three things — on cultivating and strengthening those three things. Because if you’re not allocating some time and effort toward that, then you’re potentially missing out on something that could support all the other things that you care about in your life. So, to go back, you know, you asked me uniquely, you know, what do I do in terms of contemplative practice? And I just think that it’s important to identify those activities that we might be intrinsically motivated to engage in, that have the potential of strengthening our attention, our intention and our awareness. And I do have a somewhat broader and maybe more inclusive understanding of what those activities might be, than maybe evidence in research or other settings, in the sense that I think if we really look at different activities that we do, we see the potential for that — them becoming these vehicles of contemplative transformation. So, an example from my own life is that I enjoy writing, right? I do have to do that for work, but I also enjoy doing that, in my free time, in this case, writing fiction. And so, for me, that is a vehicle, it’s an opportunity to train my attention, my intention, and my awareness. And of course, there’s also just formal sitting meditation that might have its own distinct benefits, and also engage in that kind of practice. But I see my writing as another opportunity for contemplative transformation.

 

David:

Yeah, and there’s a lot of contemplative practices out there that people might do that they just don’t know, it’s contemplative yet. So, you know, it’s — it’s nice to realize that and I’m really liking this idea of intention and attention and how it can develop a very solid mind and behavioral patterns. And it’s really nice to hear this. But um, you know, I just really appreciate you talking with us today. I love kind of having more of a mindful slash scientific mindset, because I tend to land in both worlds. I want facts, but I also want feelings. So, it’s really nice to hear your approach to it. And before we go, do you have anything you want to say like any cool projects, you’re working on, any social media that people can find your work at? Or, you know, any publications, websites?

 

Jordan Quaglia:

Yeah, so most of everything that I’m doing can be linked or found on my personal website, which is jordanqauglia.com. So, you can look at the spelling, maybe —

 

David:

Just spell your last name real quick?

 

Jordan Quaglia:

Yeah, it’s Q-U-A-G-L-I-A. So, the G is silent, Quaglia — jordanquaglia.com. You can also find my — the CASL website is linked on there, but if people want to go there directly, it’s caslaboratory.org.

 

David:

Okay. Beautiful. Well, thank you so much for speaking with us today and I — I hope to hear more about your research.

 

Jordan Quaglia:

Thanks for having me. It’s been great.

 

[MUSIC]

 

On behalf of the Naropa community, thank you for listening to Mindful U. The official podcast of Naropa University. Check us out at http://www.naropa.edu or follow us on social media for more updates.

 

 

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