A short interview with lab member Sarah Thomas

Q. What about this project captured your interest?

A. I am interested in measurement and I frequently use Item Response Theory models in my research. Empirical study of TIES is relatively new, so I think it is very important that the measures of contemplative practices and their benefits are high-quality and scientifically sound. I think this is especially important given that many people perceive Eastern practices and medicine as fraudulent. I hope that my contributions to this project will help to build a basic foundation of good survey items and set up rigorous tests of the quality of our measurements.

That being said, I’m not sure that feelings experienced in contemplative practices can be measured well. First, people have very subjective experiences and those experiences can be interpreted in different ways by different people. Secondly, when you are trying to construct a measure of experiences during contemplative practice, you depend on individuals having experienced the thing you are asking about. For example, if I ask people a question about experiencing mental silence, they are probably answering based on what their own subjective experience of mental silence is which makes comparing peoples’ experiences very difficult. Also, they may never have experienced mental silence at all! I’m just not sure people know themselves and their subjective experiences and interpretations (as well as how those are different than other people’s subjective experiences and interpretations) enough to report on these kinds of things.

Q. Why do you think it is important to study contemplative practices with empirical methods?

A. Many people think they benefit from contemplative practices but other people may turn away from trying them because of their reputation. Empirical methods can help to clarity the benefits, or lack thereof, of these practices. If they are found to be beneficial using scientific methods, Eastern practices may be more accepted, and therefore more frequently implemented, by individuals from other cultures. If they aren’t found to be beneficial, either they don’t work or some aspect of the measurement procedure is flawed. It all goes back to quality measurement!

Q. Do you have reservations about any aspect of this project?

A. To be perfectly honest, I’m not sure that mental silence is such a good thing. I think Joshua tends to think that mental silence and well-being have a positive relationship such that more mental silence is related to better well-being, but I think that the relationship between mental silence and well-being might be curvilinear such that too little isn’t good and too much isn’t good, but a moderate amount is just enough. Can you imagine walking around for a full hour or more without a single thought in your head? That seems unnatural, and undesirable, to me! However, a 5 minute session of mental silence seems like it would be more peaceful than upsetting, but that’s just my opinion.

Q. What is your personal experience with contemplative practice?

A. I’m somewhat tense by nature and being in grad school definitely exacerbates that tendency for me so decreasing my stress levels is a priority for me because it allows me to be more productive and focused. My practice of contemplative practices is admittedly irregular and relatively infrequent; however, when I meditate or do yoga, I enjoy it very much and find that I feel less stressed out and more at peace afterwards.