Translating between Buddhism and neuroscience: Conceptual differences and similarities in epistemic cultures. Neuroscientific research on Vipassana meditation – a case study

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Neuroscientists have been attracted to the study of meditation since the late 1960s, when the Dalai Lama was invited to Harvard University for the first time. Buddhism and neuroscience engage in a dialogue of sorts when neuroscientists appropriate meditation and re-conceptualize it for the purpose of their research. Yet, the two epistemic cultures speak different languages that originated in different traditions. According to the framework of a sociology of translation, when phenomena are discussed by different epistemic cultures, they loose some properties and gain others to be rendered compatible to the respective culture.

Investigating the process of translation from Buddhism to neuroscience, I selected Vipassana meditation (VM) in the tradition of Satya Narayan Goenka as a case study. I examined the conceptual differences and similarities in Goenka’s expositions on his teachings of VM and neuroscientific research on VM practice. For this purpose, I conducted a conceptual analysis of key concepts in neuroscientific research articles on VM, in interviews with the first authors of these studies, and in primary sources by Goenka. To gain a deeper understanding of VM practice, I participated in a ten-day VM retreat at the meditation center Dhamma Mahi in France and joined regular VM meet-ups in Berlin, where VM practitioners meditate together and share their experience.

Based on my research, I identified four main concepts that demonstrate the conceptual differences and similarities between the exempla of neuroscience and Buddhism: (1) interoception, (2) reactivity, (3) pleasure and pain, and (4) the mind-body relation. Identifying the analyzed concepts as boundary objects – concepts that are flexible enough to adapt the needs of the respective epistemic cultures, but are also robust enough to maintain a common identity – it becomes evident that the ability of two fields to communicate and collaborate depends on the continuous management of these boundary objects.
Original languageEnglish
Article number647
JournalThe Self-Journal of Science
Publication statusPublished - 28 Sep 2017

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