Talk at conference 'Sorting Brains Out', UPenn September 18

Talk at conference ‘Sorting Brains Out’, UPenn September 18

I’m happy to give a talk at the conference “Sorting Brains Out: Tasks, Tests, and Trials in the Neuro- and Mind Sciences, 1890-2015”, at the University of Pennsylvania, Sept. 18-19, 2015. This promises to be an exciting event with many interesting keynotes.

And it’s a nice deadline for me to finish my chapter on ‘Stress, wellbeing and the mindful brain’. See below for the abstract of my talk.

More info on the programme can be found here:


Making Facts Valuable: Stress, Wellbeing and the Mindful Brain at Work


In our rapidly changing society, stress is one of the biggest obstacles for living and working well. To counter stress, the use of mindfulness, a form of meditation based on the Buddhist contemplative tradition, has proliferated in clinical, management and life style contexts. In popular mindfulness training programs, knowledge of the brain is mobilized to diagnose stress and promote mindfulness. Readers and participants of these programs are invited to cultivate their minds by taking control of and changing their brain functioning, by which these programs promise to offer new ways to prevent stress and achieve happiness, wellbeing and even the good life.

Neuroscience has made mindfulness acceptable as a scientific object, both for lay audiences and experts alike (Tresch, 2011). Alongside this scientization of meditation, the plastic brain in mindfulness interventions appears as a moral object. Based on an STS and empirical philosophy informed analysis of the knowledge construction and appropriation of ‘the mindful brain’ in the context of work, I explore what conceptual and moral labour is undertaken – by neuroscientists and mindfulness advocates alike – to turn the mindful brain into a relevant solution for addressing ethical concerns of living and working well. How exactly did (neuro)scientists make mindfulness secular, scientific, and accessible to a wider audience? How in turn do propagators of mindfulness moralize the brain in popular mindfulness programs? And to what extent does preventing stress and addressing happiness and well-being through ‘the mindful brain’ redefine the good we need to strife for?

Balancing scientific novelty with the continuity of an ancient, contemplative tradition, advocates present the mindful brain as both plastic (malleable) and deterministic, turning mindfulness into a ‘spiritual technology’ (Tippett, 2012) and a ‘neuro-ascetic lifestyle’ (cf Ortega, 2011) at the same time. To show how the mindful brain is able to reconcile different (and sometimes conflicting) ideals of wellbeing, mixing Buddhist values with economic values, I introduce the notion of ‘moral repertoire’. I argue that the construction and appropriation of the mindful brain shows that the explanatory force of such neurobiological claims depends for a great part on the conceptual and moral work of the actors involved. As such, I aim to develop a better understanding of the role values and norms play in the process of neuroscience knowledge production and appropriation, thereby implying a co-evolution of techno-science and morality or techno-moral change (Swierstra et al., 2009).




Oretga, F. (2011). Toward a Genealogy of Neuroascesis. In: Ortega,F. & Vidal, F. (eds.),

Neurocultures: Glimpses into an Expanding Universe. Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang.

Swierstra, T., Van Est, R., Boenink, M. (2009). Taking care of the symbolic order. How

Converging Technologies Challenge our Concepts. In: Nanoethics (3) 3, 269-280.

Tippett, K. (2012). Transcript for Jon Kabat-Zinn: Opening to Our Lives (interview). Retrieved,

May 25th from

Tresch, J. (2011). Experimental Ethics and the Science of the Meditating Brain. In: Ortega,F. &

Vidal, F. (eds.), Neurocultures: Glimpses into an Expanding Universe. Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang.