Lead Researchers

Willoughby Britton, Ph.D.

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Dr. Britton earned a B.A. in Neuroscience from Colgate University in 1996 and a Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology form the University of Arizona in 2007.  She is the recipient of two National Research Service Awards and a Career Development Award from the National Institutes of Health (NIH). She is currently the Director of Brown’s Clinical and Affective Neuroscience Laboratory), which investigates the psychophysiological (EEG, EMG, EKG) and neurocognitive effects of cognitive training and mindfulness-based interventions for mood and anxiety disorders. Research questions investigate which cognitive training practices are best or worst suited for which types of conditions and why, moderators of treatment outcome, practice-specific effects, and adverse effects. Current NIH-funded studies include a 3-armed RCT entitled “Dismantling Mindfulness” that compares the effects of three different types of meditation training programs on pre-frontal cortex functioning in depression, and a collaborative infrastructure grant (UH2) with Harvard and UMASS entitled “Mindfulness Influences on Self-Regulation: Mental and Physical Health Implications.”  An interdisciplinary qualitative study entitled “The Varieties of Contemplative Experience” is investigating under-reported and potentially challenging, distressing or impairing meditation-related effects. As a clinician, she has been trained as an instructor in Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) and Mindfulness-based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT), and has taught mindfulness to both clinical and non-clinical populations, and in federally-funded clinical trials.

More information about Dr. Britton can be found on her Brown Researchers page.

Jared Lindahl, Ph.D.

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Jared Lindahl is Visiting Assistant Professor (Research) at the Cogut Center for the Humanities, Visiting Assistant Professor in the Department of Religious Studies, and is director of the humanities research track in the Clinical and Affective Neuroscience Lab.  In 2010 Dr. Lindahl began collaborating on the Varieties of Contemplative Experience research project, and in 2014 he came to Brown in order to dedicate himself to directing the ongoing data collection and qualitative analysis.  He holds a Ph.D. in Religious Studies from the University of California, Santa Barbara. His dissertation research adopted a bio-cultural methodology to investigate the significance of light-related experiences and discourses in Buddhist and Christian contemplative traditions, a part of which informed the first publication from the VCE study.  His ongoing research continues to integrate historical and textual studies of contemplative traditions with phenomenological and neurobiological approaches in order to elucidate the relationship between contemplative practices, resultant experiences, and culturally situated appraisals of meaning and value.

More information about Dr. Lindahl can be found on his Brown Researchers page.

David Cooper, M.A.

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David J. Cooper has worked on the Varieties of Contemplative Experience study since 2014 and has been involved with most aspects of the project, including leading practitioner and expert interviews, as well as developing and implementing the qualitative coding structure. He received an M.A. in Religious Studies from the University of California, Santa Barbara, where he focused on Buddhist traditions. David is interested in narrative and social dimensions of religious experience, particularly those relating to the sense of self and to the body. His published work prior to joining the VCE study has focused on the social uses of humor in religious narratives and communities. He has a wide range of experience both practicing with and studying contemplative communities in Asia, North America, Europe and the Middle East.


Nathan Fisher, B.A.

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Nathan Fisher received his B.A. in Religious Studies from Vanderbilt University in 2011. He joined the Clinical and Affective Neuroscience Laboratory at Brown University in 2012 and was the lead research assistant on the Varieties of Contemplative Experience study until 2015. In this role he conducted more than 30 interviews and helped develop the qualitative coding methodology.   In 2012, Nathan received a Francisco J. Varela Research Award to begin replicating the VCE project methodology with teachers and practitioners of Jewish, Christian, and Islamic contemplative traditions.  He continues this work at the University of California-Santa Barbara, where he is currently in his second year of a PhD program in Religious Studies and Cognitive Science at the University of California-Santa Barbara, working under Dr. Ann Taves and Dr. Elliot Wolfson. The study is ongoing but preliminary findings were presented at a small conference hosted by the Mind and Life Institute in 2015, the summary of which can be found here.

VCE Europe

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back row: Ulrich Ott, Terje Sparby

front row: Jared Lindahl, Willoughby Britton, Freya von Hohnhorst, Michael Tremmel

Ulrich Ott, Ph.D.

Research Scientist, Bender Institute of Neuroimaging, Giessen University

Ulrich Ott is heading the working group “Altered States of Consciousness – Meditation Research” at the Bender Institute of Neuroimaging at Giessen University, Germany. He conducts MRI and EEG studies to investigate the effects of meditation and yoga on the brain and consciousness. His research is focused on neural correlates of deep meditation states, the personality trait of absorption, mystical and paranormal experiences, as well as adverse effects of meditation. He has practiced meditation for thirty years and is also a certified yoga teacher.

Michael Tremmel, Dipl.-Psych.

Research Fellow, Bender Institute of Neuroimaging, Giessen University

Michael Tremmel is a research fellow and doctoral candidate in the working group “Altered States of Consciousness – Meditation Research” headed by Ulrich Ott at the Bender Institute of Neuroimaging at the University of Giessen, Germany. His research is concerned with unexpected and adverse effects that German-speaking practitioners of Buddhist and mindfulness meditation experience. With this population, he is conducting a replication study of the Varieties of Contemplative Experience project, especially those related to phenomenology and influencing factors. Moreover, he studies Indology and meditates in a Buddhist tradition.

Terje Sparby, Ph.D.

Terje Sparby studied philosophy, the history of religion, and the history of ideas, at the University of Oslo and received his PhD in philosophy at Heidelberg University. He has been a visiting scholar at the Mind & Life Institute, and a postdoc at Humboldt University in Berlin and at the Bender Institute of Neuroimaging (University of Giessen). Currently he is working at the Witten/Herdecke University, focusing on phenomenology, introspection, first-person methods, meditation, and the philosophy of mind. He has also done a study on meditation experiences in anthroposophic practitioners, inspired by the Varieties of Contemplative Experience project.