NOTE: We are still in the process of writing and editing the remainder of this chapter as quickly as we can.



There is a complex interplay between the sciences, the arts, and history in the course of our therapeutic work together. This scholarship and research helps to explain the answers to some questions in a number of areas.

1. How scientific and therapeutic diagnoses change over a period of time

2. How so called ‘scientific’ discoveries are used to oppress others, by dominant groups in positions of power

3. How various social environments and learnings affect particular mental activities—
such as perceiving, attending, and assigning meaning

4. How particular metaphors of memory come about as a result of certain scientific and technological discoveries during a period of history

5. How the diagnoses and labeling of Hysteria, Neurasthenia and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder came into being and changed through time.

6. How women’s experiences were recorded through the writing of both autobiography and fiction.

7. How the fine arts are often a reflection of a larger social discourse

8. How, through time, certain scientific and religious communities changed their beliefs about the function of the brain and the mind

9. How the state of a woman’s health, the condition of her body, and current medical and surgical treatments weave into a woman’s ability to continue her own productivity


Having this historical background can help us to answer such questions from the field of epistemology or theories of knowledge, which is a branch of philosophy concerned with the nature and scope of knowledge. What is knowledge?, What do we know?, and How is this knowledge acquired?

Furthermore, analyzing the nature of knowledge relates to similar notions about our truths, beliefs, and justifications for these. These questions form the basis for that which we ask ourselves constantly throughout the therapy process, as we attempt to make meaning of our life experiences.

If you look back at the three stories you will see how each woman and her therapist engaged in a dialog regarding the major themes in philosophy having to do with the nature of truth, reality, and values.


Hospital • Backs and Stretchers • Home • Hands and Fingers

They had already decided that the stretcher was too large for the stairs and they placed me in a plastic sheet and carried me down into the ambulance. Miraculously, they manage to move me into the ambulance without pain. I am grateful that there are no sirens to frighten my neighbors. The flashing lights will send enough of a message.

In the emergency room, they staple two bands on my right wrist—one with my name and birth date, and one with my allergies: Amoxycillin and Demerol. The nurses and doctors follow—urinals, bed pans, intravenous needles, medical info—I can tell the degree of the pain and discomfort within me by the looks on my daughter’s and husband’s faces. The MDs want an MRI of my back and I remind them that I am claustrophobic and do not want to use the closed MRI machine. The doctors guarantee me they will put me to sleep before taking the MRI. It doesn’t happen. No sleep—and I am in terrible pain and petrified within the enclosure. Pain, rage, fear, fear, rage, pain. “Get me out!” Lying there helpless, reduced to a whimpering infant.

In my room, I am put on morphine drips which I can somewhat control on my own. If that doesn’t work I can get extra help. A hospital commode now inches away from my bed. My worst pain is when I’m in an upright sitting position. So I am fearful that the nurse or aide will not get in to wipe me and get me back to bed. Yet if they volunteer to wait through it all, I am embarrassed by my loss of privacy and the grunts and groans I might make as I attend to myself.

A series of doctors visit from three or four specialities. ‘The back’ is pretty bad. The doctors would prefer surgery. I would not. They have a consult with my daughters and husband outside of my room.

After eight days, I am back at my home. I am able to manage the four stairs into the house.  My bed has been moved from the second floor down to the living room. I am totally dependent on my husband and others to get through this next phase. I have a total loss of privacy and I have lost my usual life tempo.

What next? And can I handle it all? The “what next” comes in the form of VNA nurses, aides and physiotherapists, who bring back my spirits, get me washed and clean and walking again.

Hands and Fingers

There is then another “what next.” Both hands have a problem. My fingers are tingling and numb, and after some electro-testing, a date is set. My left wrist needs surgery. This is ‘the bad one’ they tell me and must be done first. It is my left hand and I am right-handed he tells me. For me, these are my precious cello fingers. The ones that during my best performances, make my cello sing! For a cellist, both hands are precious.


Snake Hill • De-institutionalization • Archeological Sites

I read an article in Archeology Magazine this month, and I remember, with love, my Aunt Nettie.

In 1820, a poorhouse farm was established on 200 acres of land that would eventually become Hudson County, directly across the river from Manhattan. By the end of the century, it had become a place called the Snake Hill Complex. The complex included an almshouse, penitentiary, ‘lunatic asylum,’ and isolation hospitals for tuberculosis and smallpox patients, as well as three burial grounds that took in not only the dead of Snake Hill, but also the unknown and unwanted from surrounding municipalities.

Snake Hills institutions slowly emptied out after the Depression, and the New Jersey Turnpike was run through the site in 1950, with a bridge built to span the burial ground. The land was eventually buried deep in landfill and forgotten.

In the mid 1990s, the New Jersey Turnpike Authority was considering the purchase of ten acres of land for a highway-interchange project. A ground-penetrating radar survey revealed that there might be 500 to 900 burial sites there.

In 2002, the turnpike authority purchased the burial ground from Hudson County and follow-up research revealed burial registers and maps that recorded over 9,000 burials at the institution complex between 1880 and 1962.

These facilities were stripped of their functions by the broad de-institutionalization movement begun in the early seventies, when so many people who were mentally ill were turned out into the streets. Without attention and maintenance, these buildings, like their ejected one-time occupants, have been left to deteriorate.

Found in the recesses of these buildings, in areas largely left untouched by vandals, are some of the artifacts left by generations of residents and care-givers. The personal items found in these buildings gives some individual pictures of these people and the workings of the institutions. Random items give mute testament to the people who were once here: clothing, a family Bible, letters, a mirror, a wallet, broken and crumbling wheelchairs, decaying file cabinets, and records strewn all over the floors and left to molder in the opened file cabinets.

Currently, these old buildings serve as archaeological sites, allowing visitors to perhaps reconstruct the names, lives, and stories of those now gone. Later, an archeological team was contracted to locate these graves, disinter and analyze the remains—if possible, identify some—and reinter them at a nearby cemetery. Information from the burial registries and engineering maps suggested that there were about nine times as many burial sites than previously shown.

There is a public web site now where we can read the names of some of those discovered among the remains.

The article tells us that there are remnants of other former asylums still decaying on the fringes of the urban landscape all across Americas. Will we ever find the professional records, if there were any, and where are their stories? I remain haunted by this article as it sits on my desk, pushing me to write more much more quickly. Finding a way to save my own stories from decay, and to find the other stories and their storytellers not yet known to us.


Music and the Living Brain

Oliver Sachs being interviewed by Susan Kruglinski about his research of a lifetime spent observing the extraordinary ways the human brain can misfire and misbehave. and his work with patients and the effect of music in their lives and brains (from Discover Magazine, p. 72, 2008):

“Is music essential for human survival or at least social survival?”

“I can only say there is no culture without music. There are almost no individuals without music. And in every culture music forms a social cement for dancing, singing. It’s invariably part of ritual and religion, and then there are things like work songs and martial music....”

“You’ve been fascinated with music for so long. Why is it that you are only writing about it now, with the publication of your book, Musicopilia: Tales of Music and the Brain?”

“Going back about 40 years, I was struck by the therapeutic power of music with the many patients I saw: Parkinson’s patients, patients with aphasia, patients with dementia. But just in the past 20 years there has grown up the ability to examine the living brain when people are listening to music or imagining music or composing music and to define, in a way which would have been unimaginable 30 years ago, what goes on in many different parts of the brain when one listens to music, imagines music, composes music, etc. Although I was experiencing both the power of music and the varieties of musical experience I couldn’t have given the scientific backing which is possible today.”


Female Insanity in England • Muting Women’s Voices • Cultural Frameworks in Which Ideas about Female Insanity Were Constructed

In Elaine Showalter’s, The Female Malady, written ten years earlier than Hysteries, Showalter studied the detection and treatment of female insanity within the psychiatric profession in England over the previous two centuries. She studied the social as well as the medical contexts in which women were first defined, and then confined, as mad. Showalter looked at the representation of the madwoman in legal, medical, and literary texts and in painting, photography, and film.

“These images were not simply the reflections of medical and scientific knowledge, but part of the fundamental cultural framework in which ideas about femininity and insanity were constructed.” She wrote, “The language of psychiatric medicine, especially in the 19th century, when there was scant scientific documentation for most assumptions, is as culturally determined and revealing in its metaphors as the language of fiction.” (p. 5)

“Traditionally, historians in psychiatry paid little attention to questions of gender. The standard sources for psychiatric history, such as medical journals, psychiatric textbooks, asylum records, parliamentary minutes, court cases, and journalistic accounts, leave out, indeed silence, women’s voices.” (p. 6)

“In order to supply the gender analysis and feminist critique missing from the history of madness, we must turn to a wholly different set of cultural sources: inmate narratives, diaries, women’s memoirs, and novels.” (p. 6)


American Anatomies • Theorizing Race and Gender • Robyn Wiegman • 1995

In the 1820s, the phrenological literature demonstrated direct comparison “between ‘women and lower classes’ on the basis of their skull formations” and a decade later “a specialized system of implications based on the similarities between brains and skulls appeared for the first time.” In using the skull and the brain as a measurement of intelligence for the first time, comparisons between race and gender were available for cross-gender formulations. (p. 32)

In Race and Gender, Nancy Stepan writes:

”Women’s low brain weights and deficient brain structures were analogous to those of lower races and ... [women] shared with Negroes a narrow, childlike and delicate skull, so different from the more robust and rounded head characteristic of males of ‘superior’ races. Similarly, women of higher race tended to have slightly protruding jaws, analogous to, if not as exaggerated as, the apelike jutting jaws of lower races.... In short, lower races represented the ‘female’ type of the human species and females the ‘lower’ race of gender. (Race and Gender, pp. 39-40)” (p. 33)

The nineteenth century’s racial discourse was contingent upon the status of the observer whose relation to the object under investigation was mediated and deepened by newly developed technologies for rendering the invisible visible. It is during the nineteenth century that “we witness the invention of many kinds of mechanisms—in the race sciences alone, calipers, cephalometers, craniometers, craniophores, craniostats, and parietal goniometers.” (p. 32)

For years, wanting to find the basis and scope of human difference in measurable biological terms remained unquestioned. It was not until well into the 20th century that the assumption was finally undermined and challenged that “some measurement, whether of cranial capacity, the facial angle, the brain volume, or brain weight, would be found that would provide a true indicator of innate capacity.” (p. 33, quoting Stepan, p. 46)


Phrenology • Philosophy • Charts and Plaster Heads • Symphony Orchestras

The ancient Egyptians made a habit of discarding the brain before mummification. The thought was that consciousness lived in the heart, a view shared by Aristotle and many other medieval thinkers. Even when ideas about thought relocated it to the head, it was not the brain that was focused on, but rather the empty spaces within the head, called ventricles, where they thought passing spirits moved about.

The French philosopher Rene Descartes codified the separation of conscious thought from the physicality of the brain. For many years following, we lived by this doctrine, which set the agenda for philosophical discussion of the mind/body problem for centuries after Descartes’ death.

At around the same time, Thomas Willis, a neurologist, was the first to suggest that not only was the brain itself the locus of the mind, but that different parts of the brain gave rise to specific cognitive functions.

In the early 1900s, phrenologists believed that personalty could be discovered by feeling bumps on the person’s skull. The theory was that these bumps resulted from the brain pushing out in places where it was well developed, just like any other muscle. Plaster casts of the head were done and then these bumps were measured. This system of character analysis was then used to develop social theories which was used against criminals, blacks, and poor white women.

It is amazing how many years these phrenology charts and plaster heads were publicly accepted and considered to reflect hard truths.

We know now that discrete functions of the brain occur in specific locations of the brain. Where you remember a phone number in the brain is different from where you remember a face. Where you store your friend’s face involves yet another different path.

“Yet, it is increasingly clear that cognitive functions cannot be pinned down to spots of the brain, like towns on the map. A given mental task may involve a complicated web of circuits, which interact in varying degrees with others throughout the brain—not like parts of a machine but like instruments in a symphony orchestra—combining the tenor, volume, and resonance to create a particular musical effect.” (p. 5)

Notes taken from:
“The Mind is What the Brain Does,” National Geographic, Nov. 2002


I Sit Now in a Small Bedroom

I sit now in a small bedroom closed off from everyone. I am loaded with medications and told again by another “five-minute doctor” that I am lucky, for these little oval-shaped, pink-colored pills, along with some whites and a small orange one, are an alternative to major back surgery.

These drugs can be highly addictive, but it seems, another doctor tells me, I do not have an addictive personality. How do I handle this phase of it all? I have been writing these notes for years, but I fear that the drugs are either slowing me down, or my age is creating additional problems. Or perhaps it is a combination of both! I sit now surrounded by piles of papers. The problem, as I see it, is not what categories of knowledge I need to find—and in which books—but how to limit, cut out, or exorcise what my brain, mind and fingers can handle at this body/mind moment.

So now you will get the shorter versions of the wonderful work by Sidonie Smith, Julia Watson, Elaine Showlalter, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Carol Berkin, and others. I am saddened by this, but I must accomplish what I am able to do.


Making False Assumptions

As history indicates, and as Oliver Sacks reminds us, until very recently we did not have the advanced tools to look at the functioning of the brain and often made false assumptions about its impact in our lives. With the recent more sophisticated brain imaging techniques, we are now better able to understand the brain’s role in our everyday functioning and behavior.

Standard brain MRI scans (Magnetic Resonance Imaging) and CAT scans (Computerized Axial Tomography), which have been available only since about 1970, are anatomical studies which tell us what a brain looks like physically. But MRI images cannot provide information on how the brain works.

EEGs, (electrocephalograms) quantitative brain wave studies, help in some cases by measuring the electrical activity in certain regions of the brain, but not cannot report on activity within the deep structures of the brain.

But SPECT studies (Single Photon Emission Computed Tomography) can show what happens in various parts of the brain when you activate these areas. Since around 1990, Dr. David Amen has been involved in brain imaging research using SPECT technology. By measuring the cerebral blood flow and metabolic activity patterns inside the thinking active brain, we are now able to correlate the over- and under-functioning of different brain parts with certain abnormal human behaviors.

Change Your Brains: Change Your Life, David G. Amen, 1998


Taking New Forms • Increasing Connections

From 1861 until 1913, it was thought that each specific piece of neural areas had its own particular purpose and function. This was called localization. This model of the brain started with the work of a French anatomist, Pierre Paul Broca, who discovered that there was a specific region of the brain responsible for speech, which became known as “Broca’s Area.” The nerve pathways of the adult brain were considered to be, “fixed ... immutable.” Back then, in 1913, the great Spanish neuroanatomist and Nobel laureate Ramon y Cajal told us we were stuck with this.

It was once believed, as well, by the larger scientific community that when we reached maturity, we had only a set number of neurons. It is only recently, in the research of the past decade or so, that we have learned that neurons continue to adapt and increase throughout life, enabling organisms to adapt to environmental changes and influencing learning and memory. This is called neurogenesis.

For more than a century, it was believed that the nerve pathways of the adult brains were fixed—i.e., the way that the brain process information was etched and set in stone.

However, all of this has changed through the work and thinking of the scientific community. The brain is now referred to as being plastic, meaning that the areas of the brain that were once thought to be exclusively used for one purpose can be recruited for other purposes. The portion of a brain associated with a given function can move to a different location as a consequence of normal experience and/or brain damage and recovery. The concepts that neurons can continue to adapt and increase throughout life, called neuroplasticity, has great ramifications for the whole field of human behavior.

According to the theory of neuroplasticity, thinking, learning and acting can actually change the brain’s function. 

Brain scans of highly trained monks meditating on feelings of maternal love, empathy, and feelings of joy and happiness, showed that the neural activity in the caudate, right insula, and left pre-frontal cortex were active and had become anatomically enlarged, presumably through the rigors of a lifetime of meditation. Even when these monks are not meditating, their brains carry the imprint of their psychic exercises. Far from being etched in stone by the genes of our childhood experiences, our brains are as capable of change through mental training as our bodies are through physical exercise and training.

Now, I will add Ramon y Cajal’s additional words and wisdom: “It is for the science of the future to change, if possible, this harsh decree. Inspired with high ideals, it must work to impede or moderate the gradual decay of the neurons, to overcome the almost inevitable rigidity of their connections.” (p. 243)

It did.

Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain, Sharon Begley, Ballantine Books, 2007


Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder • Neurasthenia • Hysteria • Hystories • Reclassification • How Things Spread • Hysteria as Mimetic Disorder

All therapies have an ideology, a certain view of the world and what constitutes normal and abnormal behavior. As the writer, Anais Nin has noted:

“Nothing is abnormal unless you first propose dimensions of the normal; nothing is irrational unless you have consensus as to what is rational, nothing is unreal unless you agree on the tenets of the real.”

(Nin, p. 22)

As human beings, we have always had to deal with life’s human suffering and emergencies. Just the labels, or diagnoses have changed—not only through our culture, but through all cultures, and across all time periods. There are a number of sufferings we can give our attention to, for example—the histories of post traumatic stress disorder, neurasthenia, and hysteria.

The diagnosis of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder itself is not new. It was described by Samuel Pepys in 1666, in his description of a community’s reaction to the great fire in London. It was formally introduced into the 3rd Edition of the DSM-3 in 1980. Before this, it had been called “gross stress reaction” and “transient situational disturbance.” But these were only two of many labels that have been applied to certain behavioral patterns with their own implicit etiology.

Others labels have been: “Nostalgia” in the Civil War, “Shell Shock” in WWI, “Stress Disorder” during the Korean War, “Survivor’s Syndrome,” “Post Vietnam Syndrome,” “Battered Wife Syndrome,” with any number of others, all of which were unquestioningly accepted by medical practitioners. Eventually, it became clear to students of psychology, that what appeared to be etched in stone by their teacher-gods-—were merely labels that were in vogue during the time period in which the teachers took their own professional courses. This should serve as a reminder to practitioners that the field of psychology has its own archeological sites—its own layers of history. History reminds us that diagnoses come and go. The diagnoses we use today must be examined and dusted-off thoroughly before being applied.

Elaine Showalter, an educator, literary critic and historian of medicine, documented in her book, Hystories: Hysterical Epidemics and Modern Media, the ways in which men have diagnosed women’s ‘problems’ and the treatments that women have suffered out of these male fictions about what constituted normal and abnormal behavior in women. This was based on male theories about the essence of our ‘female nature’ and the assumption of the basic inferiority of females.

One of Showalter’s interests was in tracking the history and labeling of hysteria and neurasthenia. She tracks how and where these diagnosises originated and how and when they were erased from our records. She calls these cultural narratives of hysteria, “hystories.”

Hysteria comes from the Greek word for uterus. Throughout most of medical history, hysteria has been associated with women. It was characterized by convulsive disorders, random pains, and sensations of choking. Doctors believed the uterus traveled around the body: one day it would be in the foot, another day found the uterus obstructing the throat, and on day four the uterus lodged in the breast, and so forth. “When anatomists proved that the uterus did not migrate, doctors relocated the center of hysteria to the nervous system! Women were then described as a nervous sex, suffering from vapors, spleen, and fainting fits, or eroticized as hysterical nymphomaniacs. In fact, hysteria was often a wastebasket diagnosis.” (Showalter, pp. 15-16)

There was a rapid decline in the diagnosis of neurasthenia in the early years of the 20th century. By 1970, the diagnosis of neurasthenia—one of the most frequently diagnosed conditions in medical practice—strangely disappeared.

And as hysteria disappeared from textbooks and offices, many of its traditional symptoms were reclassified—evolving into anxiety neurosis, obsessional disorders, manic-depression, or borderline personality disorders. (Showalter, p. 17) And still later, what used to be called hysteria was diagnosed as somatization disorder, conversion disorder, or associative identity disorder.

Showalter tells us that hysteria is inevitably a feminist issue, because for centuries doctors regarded it as a female reproductive disease. “The 19th century was hysteria’s golden age because it was then that the moral presence of the doctor became normative in regulating intimate lives.” (Hystories, p. 11, quoting Roy Porter).

She tells us, “Infectious diseases spread by ecological change, modern technology, urbanization, jet travel, and human interaction. [On the other hand] Infectious epidemics of hysteria spread by stories circulated through self-help books, articles in newspapers and magazines, TV talk shows and series, films, the Internet, and even literary criticism.” (Hystories, p. 5)

Showalter writes, “Hysterical epidemics require at least three ingredients: physician enthusiasts and theorists, unhappy and vulnerable patients, and supportive cultural environments. A doctor or other authority figure must first define, name, and publicize the disorder and then attract patients into its community.” Quoting Roy Porter again: “Like invisible ink when heat is applied, hysteria was rendered visible by the medical presence. ” (Hystories, p. 17. Roy, p. 242)

Elaine Showalter reminds us that, “At the end of the nineteenth century ... women’s bodies were ‘hysterised’—that is, turned into a collection of physical and psychological symptoms—by the medical profession.” (Hystories, pg 19)

“In a supportive cultural environment, after entering the mainstream of popular culture, hysterical syndromes multiply as they intersect with social forces such as religious beliefs, [and] political agendas....” (Hystories, p. 19)

“In recent years, hysteria has disappeared from consulting rooms, hospital wards, and psychiatric textbooks, as many of its traditional symptoms were reclassified as anxiety neurosis, obsessional disorders, manic depressions, or borderline personality disorders.” (Hystories, p. 17)

Showalter believes that “hysteria is a mimetic disorder; it mimics culturally permissible expressions of distress.” (Hystories, p. 15) One of her conclusions is that “hystories are constructed by suffering patients, caring psychologists, dedicated clergy, devoted parents, hardworking police, concerned feminists and anxious communities.” (Hystories, p. 9)

Charlotte Perkins Gilman

As I study Showalter’s scholarship, I am reminded of the life and work of Charlotte Perkins Gilman. In her book, The Yellow Wallpaper, one of her most famous works, Charlotte Perkins Gilman wanted to show the consequences of the medical decision of living a life according to her then-famous, and now infamous, doctor, S. Wier Mitchell.

Gilman wrote a frightening fictional description of the experience of a psychological breakdown which matched her own life. She tells of a woman being driven into madness and shows the fatal consequences of making a comfortable middle-class wife and mother totally dependent on her male protectors and returning her to an infantile state.

In 1887, after three years of being very ill, Gilman seeks the help of the very famous Dr. S. Weir Mitchell of Philadelphia. Gilman writes:

He concluded there was not much the matter with me, and sent me home with solemn advice. To “live a domestic a life as far as possible, to have two hours intellectual life a day and never touch pen, brush or pencil again as long as I lived. Have your child with you all the time. Force some happiness into your life, occupy your mind with pleasant things, get up and do something .....” He did reassure me on one point—there was no dementia, only hysteria!

Gilman continues,

“I went home, followed these directions rigidly for months, and came perilously near to losing my mind. The mental agony grew so unbearable that I would sit blankly moving my head from side to side— to get out from under the pain. Not physical pain, not the least ”headache“ even, just mental torment, and so heavy in its nightmare gloom that it seemed real enough to dodge.”

p.167, Women of the Asylum.

Charlotte Perkin Gilman was one of the women who made it through all of the madness of others. I am encouraged to see that Gilman worked on her autobiography when she was 62 and then again at 75! (p. 58). In some ways her life matched with my own.

Gilman was born on July 3, 1860, in Hartford, Connecticut. After studying for two years at the Rhode Island School of Design, Gilman supported herself as a greeting-card artist. Gilman’s first book, In This Our World, was published in 1893. In 1898, she published the better-known Women and Economics. From the early 1890s, Gilman gained fame from her lectures and articles, many of which were published in her monthly journal, The Forerunner, in circulation from 1909 to 1916. In 1915, she serialized her novel Herland, in The Forerunner. And in time, Gilman was a prominent American nonfiction writer, short story writer, novelist, commercial artist, lecturer, and social reformer.

By the end of her life, she had published 8 novels, 170 stories, 100 poems, and 200 nonfiction pieces. So much for the advice of famous physicians! Her work was not re-discovered by American readers until several decades later, when, in the 1970s, women, like myself, entered institutions of higher education and began to study, learn, write, and question in larger numbers.

Throughout her life, Gilman suffered greatly from depression, which influenced her writing. At some point Gilman was diagnosed with breast cancer. The cancer was thought to be inoperable, and she decided to take her own life in August 17, 1935, by inhaling chloroform.

Anais Nin Reader, by Anais Nin (Editor), Philip K. Jason (Author), 1974
Roy Porter, “Body and Mind,” in Gilman et al., “Hysteria Beyond Freud,” p. 242
Women of the Asylum, Geller and Harris, Anchor Books, 1994


Mission • Vision • Purpose

In this short section, I have tried to give the reader some information about the Mind and Life Institute as a jumping-off place for further reading and consideration. How might their exciting work influence your own daily practice?

This work covers the last period of my writing as I tried to keep up with my own studies over this period of time.


Mind and Life Institute—Their Mission, Vision, and Purpose:


The Mind and Life Institute is dedicated to fostering dialogue and research at the highest possible level between modern science and the great living contemplative traditions, especially Buddhism. It builds on a deep commitment to the power and value of both of these ways of advancing knowledge and their potential to alleviate suffering.


To establish mutually respectful working collaboration-and-research partnerships between modern science and Buddhism—two of the worlds most fruitful traditions for understanding the nature of reality and promoting human well-being.


To promote the creation of a contemplative, compassionate, and rigorous experimental and experiential science of the mind which could guide and inform medicine, neuroscience, psychology, education and human development.

To contribute to the epistemological revolution which is taking place through modern physics as well as philosophy, in order to extend our understanding of knowledge to one that integrates the diverse dimensions of our world.


A Brief History

Dialogues between His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Western scientists started in 1987 as the result of both the independent and collaborative works of Dr Francisco Varela and R. Adam Engle. Varela was a Chilean born neuroscientist and Engle a North American businessman. Both men were Buddhist practitioners. The first meeting was held at Dharamsala, India, the home of the Dalai Lama in exile in October, 1987.

The conferences had a unique informal style and brought together the traditional contemplative disciplines and the modern life sciences. The conferences resulted in books which summarized the important ground-breaking work that went on. These included:

Gentle Bridges: Conversations with the Dalai Lama on the Sciences of Mind.
This started with dialogue between the Buddhist tradition and modern science and covered the basic ground work of modern cognitive science-scientific method, neurobiology, cognitive psychology, artificial intelligence, brain development and evolution.

Consciousness at the Crossroads: Conversations with the Dalai Lama on Brain Science and Buddhism, which focused on neuroscience and the mind/body relationship.

Healing Emotions: Conversations with the Dalai Lama on Mindfulness, Emotions and Health: The relationship between emotions and health. During this session, participants initiated a research project to investigate the neurobiological effects of meditation on long-term meditators.

Sleeping, Dreaming and Dying: An Exploration of Consciousness with the Dalai Lama

Visions of Compassion: Western Scientists and Tibetan Buddhists Examine Human Nature. This conference covered altruism, ethics and compassion.

And in 2001, in Madison, Wisconsin, an overview was presented of modern methods for investigating human brain function and the application of these methods in new research aimed at understanding the changes produced by meditation practice.

Further conferences and studies are covered on their website:


The Mind and The Brain: Neuroplasticity and the Power of Mental Force, by Jeffrey M. Schwartz and Sharon Begley

Jeffrey M. Schwartz and Sharon Begley collaborated together on a book which builds on the earlier work of Schwartz’s, “Brain Lock.” Their collaboration explores the mind/brain dichotomy and discusses the new treatments being developed for a number of brain pathologies. They collaborated on the thinking and work of the original researchers in neuroplasticity and on Schwartz’s work with physicist Henry Stapp.

Schwartz pioneered the use of positron emission tomography (PET) in studying obsessive-compulsive disorders. He has a background in philosophy and Buddhism. Using his background in both Buddhist meditation techniques and science, he was able to show that OCD patients are capable of re-channeling compulsive urges into more socially acceptable behaviors, and developed effective techniques for working with these patients.

The patients can actually alter their brain’s neuron circuitry. Neuroplasticy is possible in stroke victims, with a return to function not previously thought possible, by focusing their attention away from negative behaviors and toward positive ones. His patients were able to make permanent changes in their own neural pathways and showed the power of the mind to shape the brain.

Schwartz challenged the idea that we are only biologically programmed by showing that we have the power to shape our brains—and thus perhaps our destiny. Sharon Begley reports on how cutting-edge science and the ancient wisdom of Buddhism have come together to show how we all have the power to literally change our brains by changing our minds.


Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain, by Sharon Begley, 2007, Ballantine Books

I would encourage the reader to add this book to their reading list.

I give the reader a few morsels of ideas with which to taste the nature of her book. Besides these few morsels there are wonderful chapters which describe the scientific work done by a cross-disciplined community of scholars.

Sharon Begley is a science columnist who has covered a broad range of scientific investigation including neuroscience, genetics, physics, astronomy and anthropology. Her latest work focuses on how the brain and the mind interact. As mentioned, she is coauthor of another book, The Mind and the Brain: Neuroplasticity and the Power of Mental Force, with Jeffrey M. Schwartz.

It has been twenty years since the first meeting of the Mind and Life Conference with the exiled Dalai Lama in Dharamsala, India. During this time, the Dalai Lama has helped to arrange the study of Buddhist contemplatives who devote their days to meditation. It is no small effort to get monks and yogis to the labs in Madison, Wisconsin, where these studies were performed!

As Sharon Begley chronicles, recent pioneering experiments in neuroplasticity, a new science that investigates whether and how the brain can undergo change, reveals that the brain is capable not only of altering its structure but also of generating new neurons, even into old age. The brain can adapt, heal, renew itself after trauma, and compensate for disability. This research includes the collaborative efforts of neuroscientists, psychologists, contemplatives, philosophers, and the full engagement of the Dalai Lama.

Begley writes, “The Dalai Lama has thrown his personal and official resources into supporting research into neuroplasticity because it resonates so well with Buddhism’s wish that all sentient beings be free from suffering.” (p. 24)

“Buddhist practitioners familiar with the workings of the mind have long been aware that it can be transformed through training. What is exciting and new is that scientists have now shown that such mental training can also change the brain. Related to this is evidence that the brain adapts or expands in response to repeated patterns of activity, so that in a real sense the brain we develop reflects the life we lead..” (p. vlll, the Dalai Lama)

“Buddhism challenges the traditional belief in an eternal, objective reality. Instead, it teaches that our reality is created by our own projections: it is thinking that creates the external world beyond us. The neuroscience findings harmonize with this Buddhist teaching.” (p.14, Francisca Cho, a Buddhist Scholar)

“Spirituality and science are different but complementary investigative approaches with the same greater goal, of seeking the truth...Eastern contemplative practices and Western science arose for different reasons and with different goals. They share an overriding purpose. Both Buddhism and science investigate reality. By gaining deeper insight into the human psyche we might find ways of transforming our thoughts, emotions and their underlying properties so that a more wholesome and fulfilling way can be found.” (Dalai Lama, p.24)

“...The very structure of our brain—the relative size of different regions, the strength of connections between one area and another—reflects the lives we have led. Like sand on a beach, the brain bears the footprints of the previous decisions we have made, the skills we have learned, the actions we have taken. But there are also hints that mind-sculpting can occur with no input from the outside world. That is, the brain can change as a result of the thoughts we have thought.” (p. 9)

The Dalai Lama believes that “core teachings in Buddhism can and must be overturned if science proves them wrong.” There are at least four major themes that are common in Buddhism: rationality, empiricism, skepticism, and pragmatism. (p. 11)

Mathew Ricard: “Buddhism defines a person as a constantly changing dynamic stream.” (p.13)

Francisca Cho: “The idea that we are constantly changing means that there is no intrinsic nature to the self or the mind... both self and mind are extremely plastic. Our activities inform who we are; as we act, so shall we become. We are products of the past but because of our inherently empty nature, we always have the opportunity to reshape ourselves.” (p. 13)

The Dalai Lama writes, “Strictly speaking, in Buddhism scriptural authority cannot outweigh an understanding based on reason and experience.” (p. 18) “...When it comes to validating the truth of a claim, Buddhism accords the greatest authority to experience, with reason second, and scripture last.” (p. 18)

He adds, “The central question ... is how can we make the wonderful developments of science into something that offers altruistic and compassionate service for the needs of humanity and the other sentient beings with whom we share this earth.” (p. 18)


Social Mindscapes: An Invitation to Cognitive Sociology
Time Maps: Collective Memory and the Shape of the Social Past

“A truly comprehensive science of the mind must include a sociology of thinking.... Despite a long history of almost totally ignoring sociology, cognitive scientists need to be more open to what cognitive sociology can offer them.” (p. 5)

There is a trap that therapists can get into, and often do, in the process of doing therapy. So much of our research and understandings about how the brain works comes from research in the field of physiology. Based upon this research, it is easy to think of this woman sitting before us with her brain as a separate entity encased in a bony structure (which it is).  It is easy to fall into thinking about this work we do as individual therapy—forgetting that each woman has a brain within a particular body, and that this body is in a communal world with its own sets of rules, restrictions, limitations and possibilities.

• Social Mindscapes: An Invitation to Cognitive Sociology, Eviatar Zerubavel. Harvard, 1997

Eviator Zerubavel, the Israeli sociologist, was influenced, as I was, by the work of Peter Berger and Thoman Luckmann’s, The Social Construction of Reality, in highlighting the social aspects of cognition. Cognitive sociology reminds us that we think not only as individuals and as human being, but also as social beings, products of particular social environments that affect, as well as constrain, the way we cognitively interact with the larger world.

Zerubavel tells us that there are differences in the way we think, not only among individuals but also among different cultures, social groups and historical periods. Each different culture and social group can teach us different ways of thinking and remembering. Our very adaptable brain is organized to think and remember within certain learned categories and patterns.

He reviews with us that “ is our cognitive commonality as human beings, rather than our uniqueness as individual thinkers, that is at the center of the study of cognition today.” And he reminds us that “modern theories of the mind typically play down our cognitive idiosyncrasies, highlighting instead what we share....” (p. 2)

“It is precisely their concern with cognitive commonality that has helped neuroscientists, psychologists, linguists and students of artificial intelligence to discover universal patterns in the way we form concepts, process information, activate mental ‘schemas,’ make decisions, solve problems, generate meaningful sentences from ‘deep’ synaptic structures, access our memory and move through various stages of our cognitive development.” (p. 3)

“The problem with cognitive science is that, except for the work produced by cultural psychologists, cognitive anthropologists, and lately, some developmental and social psychologists, cognitive science has thus far largely ignored the social dimension of cognition. A comprehensive science of the mind must include a sociology of thinking.” (p. 5)

Zerubavel asks us to examine the social foundations of our thinking of the “six major cognitive acts: of perceiving, attending, classifying, assigning meaning, remembering, and reckoning time”—performed by specific individuals with certain cognitive idiosyncrasies—and also performed by human beings with certain universal cognitive commonalities. Zerubaval tells us that all six cognitive acts are performed by social beings who belong to what he calls, “specific thought communities.” (p. 21)

“Like any other social norm, cognitive norms are something we learn. In other words, we learn how to focus our attention, frame our experience, generalize, and reason in a socially appropriate manner.” (p. 13)

“We likewise learn to see things as similar to or different from one another. After all, whenever we classify things, we always regard only some of the differences among them as significant and ignore others as negligible and therefore irrelevant, yet which differences are considered significant is something we learn, and ignoring those that ‘make no difference’ involves tacit social pressure to disregard them despite the fact that we do notice them, just as we learn that in order to find a book in the bookstore we must attend to the first letters of its author’s last name while ignoring the color of its cover.” (p. 13)

“Mental acts such as perceiving, attending, and remembering are not just physiologically constrained human acts but also ... social acts bound by specific normative constraints. Ignoring or forgetting something thus often presupposes some social pressure to exclude it from our attention or memory.” (p. 13)

“The fact that we undergo massive cognitive socialization underscores the considerable amount of control society has over what we attend to, how we reason, what we remember, and how we interpret our experiences. Since it is normally taken for granted except when we actively try to resist it, such sociomental control is one of the most insidious forms of social control.” (p. 17)

The way we think is not determined totally by society. Each of us is a member of multiple thought communities. We each have a wide cognitive repertoire and think somewhat differently in different social contexts.

While Zerubaval has examined the social foundations of our thinking, he reminds us that the six cognitive acts which he explores in his book do not exhaust all of what we could know about what we call “thinking,” but gives us a general idea about what sociology of the mind might offer to a modern science of the mind.


• Time Maps: Collective Memory and the Shape of the Social Past, Eviatar Zerubavel, University of Chicago Press, 2003

Most of Zarubavel’s work has revolved around the study of social structure and patterns. His first three books were about how we structure time and then three later books examined how humans analyzed thought patterns. He was also greatly influenced by the work of his wife Yael, a Zionist historiographer, working on the study of collective memory. Through her work, he became interested in exploring how we collectively envision the past.

Yael Zerubavel studied the interplay of history and memory, showing that the construction of a new national tradition is not necessarily the product of government policy, but a creative collaboration between politicians, writers, and educators.  She  analyzed the emergence of counter-memories within the reality of Israel's frequent wars, the ensuing debates about the future of the occupied territories, and the embattled relations with Palestinians.

Eviatar’s book, Time Maps: Collective Memory and Social Shape of the Past, labeled his work sociomental topography—i.e., how the past is registered and organized in our minds. He was interested in not what actually happened in history, for example, not with what Jesus or Columbus actually did, but rather what their roles were as figures of memory. He was interested in the social dimension of human memory by revealing how entire communities, not just individuals, remember the past—a sociology of memory. He was also interested in how the history of the world takes shape in our memory.

Sociology pays attention to the context within which we access the past. We remember much of what we do as members of particular thought communities. (p. 3) One of the examples he gives is the traditional Jewish belief repeated every Passover, “We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt, and God bought us out of there with a mighty hand, and that in every generation a man should see himself as if he had gone forth from Egypt.”  (p. 3)

The merging of one’s personal history with that of communities with which one belongs “also helps explain the tradition of pain and suffering carried by the American descendants of African slaves.” (p. 3) “Acquiring a group’s memories and identifying with its collective past is part of the process of acquiring a social identity, and familiarizing members with that past is a major part of a communities’ efforts to assimilate them.” (p. 3)

We cannot “...recall every single thing that has happened to us, memory is clearly not just a simple mental reproduction of the past. Yet it is not altogether random process either. Much,” Zerubaval tells us, “ patterned in a highly structured manner.”
(p. 11) “Many of these highly schematic mnemonic patterns are unmistakably social.” (p. 11) Zerubavel has given these patterns specific names (p.11) such as plotlines and narratives, progress, decline, a zigzag in time, ladders and trees, circles and rhymes, mountains and valleys, legato and staccato. (Chapter One)

Learning to remember in a socially appropriate manner are what he calls, social norms of remembering. They tell us what we should remember and what we should forget.

Given their impersonal nature, social memories are not confined to our own bodies.
(p. 5) Because of language, we can free our memories from an individual brain. Experiences can be stored as disembodied impersonal recollections after the people involved in those events are themselves long gone. (p. 6) Language can allow memories to pass from one person to another without direct contact between them.

As traditional mnemonic go-betweens, older people connect generations that would not usually be connected. He calls this “mnemonic transivity”—to preserve memories in the form of oral traditions that are transmitted from one generation to the next—within families, and any other community. We receive these images not only from speech and reading, but from images around us via film, art, or TV. It is passed on in any possible way that we get or exchange information.

Since the invention of writing, it is possible to bypass any oral contact with any future audience. For example, with patients’ records, a doctor’s opinions can be passed on to another in the field even when they cannot speak directly via consultation. It is the same way in business, law, diplomacy, and the sciences, in the form of receipts, court decisions, treaties, and lab reports, and publications. (p. 6)

The social preservation of memories does not even require any verbal transmissions. Through portraits, statues, photographs, videocassettes and other media, we capture and transmit forward the sounds and images of the past (p. 6) giving visual and auditory access to bygone history and people. “...Through painting, compact discs, and television footage that we can actually recall the coronation of Napoleon, the voice of Enrico Caruso, or the assassination of John F. Kennedy.” (p. 6)

Further examples of sites of social memories cited by Zerubavel are “...libraries, bibliographies, folk legends, photo albums and television  archives....” (p. 6) To this list, Zerubavel adds history books, calenders, eulogies, guest books, tombstones, war memorials, and others. There may be many other sites of memory you might be able to name or rename.



What Is Memory?

“Memory,” Socrates tells Theaetetus, “was a gift from Mnemosyne, the mother of the Muses. Without memory, no one could enjoy what her daughters had produced: each sound would fade away without ever being included in a melody, every word in a poem would disappear before the rhyming word was heard.” (p. 5)

The Greek word, metapherein means “to transport, or transfer.” There is general agreement in literary studies that a metaphor takes words out of their usual context and transfers their meaning to a new context.

Douwe Draaisma, a Dutch psychologist, and a scholar in the history of the field of psychology, tells a history of ideas about the mind, exploring the ways that metaphors have been used. His study is about technologies for storing and distributing information and the way these technologies have shaped our ideas of memory.

Daaisma tells us that throughout the ages philosophers and psychologists have used metaphors as a way of understanding memory. The author has presented an examination of the metaphors past and present that have been used in the explanation of memory.

He has written an account of how emerging technologies have affected the various metaphoric models we have used in order to analyze our thought processes, especially our memory and cognitive processes.

Through the late 17th and up to and through the 20th century he has written about how our interest in metaphors has affected the way we talk about how our own brains work. Draaisma demonstrates how our fascination with the prevailing technologies of the time—printing presses, the mechanical clock, the calculating machine, photography, the telephone and the Internet—affected the way we proceeded to talk about how our own brains work.

Draaisma convinces me that metaphors often derive from the techniques and instruments developed over the years to store information coming from wax tablets, books, photography, computers, and even the hologram. At the same time, metaphors have given shape to our views and interpretations of memory (p. 231)

“We have armed ourselves against the transience implicit in the mortality of memory by developing artificial memories. The oldest memory aid is writing, in ancient times on clay or wax tablets, in the Middle Ages on parchment and vellum, and later on paper. These same writing surfaces could also accommodate drawings of all kinds: hieroglyphics, diagrams, and portraits.” (p. 2)

In 1839, an artificial memory for the direct recording of images appeared in the shape of photography. In 1895, cinematography allowed moving images to be captured. He reminds us that the preservation of sound, became a reality through Edison’s phonographs, first patented in 1877. Nowadays numerous artificial memories are available for what the eye and the ear can take in: cassette recorders. video, CDs, DVDs, Internet storage, hard drives and even holograms.

“Everyday language relating to remembering and forgetting has a metaphorical cast. This applies even more to philosophical and psychological theories of memory. From Plato’s wax tablet to the computer of our age, memory-related language is shot through with metaphors. Our views of the operation of memory are fueled by the procedures and techniques we have invented for the preservation and reproduction of information.” (p. 3)

“Freud has used the metaphor of a Magic Slate to suggest that even when there are no traces of memories on the surface, there are bound to be deep layers of memories indelibly stored underneath.” (pp. 3-4) The author makes frequent references throughout his writing of the Magic Slate as metaphor for his own ideas as well.

The magic slate was a little play pad I was fascinated with as a child. It could keep me busy for hours. I would write on the top celluloid surface and then as I slowly lifted this surface the words and images I had written would disappear, but I could see that the waxy underneath surface, (the second layer) still held, but much more faintly, the original writing and scratching I had done. A young child could keep this play up until all of the waxy undercoat lost its stickiness. Freud seemed to put it to good use for a number of ideas, as did the author of this book.

Draaisma extends his thinking to the literary community. “Metaphors as literary-scientific constructs are also reflections of an age, a culture, an ambience. Metaphors express the activities and preoccupations of their authors. Without intending to, metaphors capture an intellectual climate and themselves function as a form of memory.” (p. 4)

The authors tell us that, in metaphors, we find preserved what authors saw around them when searching for powerful images for the hidden processes of the memory. Metaphors are guide fossils. They help the reader to estimate the age of the text in which she finds herself.

As the author used the magic slate as metaphor, as St. Thomas Aquinas’ secretary “saw his master’s memory as a sacred book, and the doctor-artist Carus described memory as a vast labyrinth. These are shifts, not just in emphasis; the history of memory, told in metaphors, constantly shows us different kinds of memory.” (p. 4)

“Working chronologically from Plato up until the present-day researchers of neural networks, these metaphors acquire an increasingly technical character.”  (p. 230)

“Reflected in theory, the memory came to look like the technologies it was modeled on.” (p. 231)

“The perspective chosen is that of the metaphors and graphic images projected by researchers through their theories. Of course one could write a history of memory equally well from other perspectives, and that would produce different histories. The perspective of metaphor is one of many.” (p. 5) After all, Clio, the daughter of Mnemosyne, was the muse of history.

At the end of the 19th century the professional study of memory passed into the hands of psychologists.

heuristic: serving to indicate or point out stimulating interest as a means of furthering investigation. Encouraging a person to learn, discover, understand, or solve problems on his or her own, as by experimenting, evaluating possible answers or solutions, or by trial and error: a heuristic teaching method.

In writing about the metaphor as a heuristic tool, Draaisma reminds me of Jerome Bruner’s thoughts. Bruner, the educator and psychologist whose work on meaning and the ever elusive ‘self’ has had an influence on my own thinking, noted that the forging of metaphoric hunch into testable hypothesis goes on all of the time, but that researchers always tried to give their publications in the professional press an “aseptic quality.” (p. 17) By doing so, the authors were “removing one of the most fruitful sources of ideas from public view.” (p. 17)

The author goes into great detail to discuss three theories which are important to his conclusions about metaphors.