Harnessing the Wandering Mind

Cognitive Neuroscience; Cognitive Psychology; Philosophy of Mind; History of Religions of Eastern Origins

How can you harness a wandering mind or control creativity? Our answers combine cognitive neuroscience, Western, and Buddhist philosophy to illuminate "meta-actions" relevant to ADHD and depression.

Research Interests
  • Eastern philosophy (especially Buddhism) and contemplative practices
  • attention
  • Mind-wandering
  • Action theory
  • Mental action
  • Creativity
  • Default network

How can you harness a wandering mind? How do you control creative processes without pinioning the spontaneity that defines them? Our interdisciplinary approach to these questions draws on cognitive neuroscience, analytic philosophy of mind, and Eastern (especially Zen Buddhist) contemplative traditions. Specifically, we hope to articulate a category of "meta-action" where one intentionally initiates and maintains passive modes of thinking including mind-wandering, creative idea generation, and undirected contemplative practices in Zen Buddhism. Meta-action contrasts with the type of focused, goal-directed, actions discussed by analytic philosophers, neuroscientists of action, and (most) Indian Buddhist traditions. We therefore hope to expand how these fields understand action. Furthermore, we hope to identify contemplative methods to harness mind-wandering, which may help facilitate creativity and alleviate clinical conditions marked by overly focused thought (e.g. trait rumination and generalized anxiety disorder).  

Desired outcomes

  1. Course development for a cross-listed graduate seminar by Professors Irving (Philosophy) and Kachru (Religious Studies) on Eastern and Western perspectives on the self, agency, and spontaneity. We hope to develop the course in 2018–2019, and teach it Fall 2019.
  2. A paper in analytic action theory on "meta-action"
  3. A paper in Budhist studies contrasting perspectives on spontaneity in Indian (Dzogchen) and Chinese/Japanese (Zen) traditions
  4. A paper in cognitive neuroscience on how spontaneity relates to ADHD versus trait-rumination (both of which have been linked to greater "mind-wandering")
  5. A year-end conference on attention norms and spontaneity, which will include speakers from philosophy, religious studies, and cognitive neuroscience
  6. Training for a UVA laboratory specialist (Aaron Glasser) he builds his research portfolio for PhD applications