Meet Our Researchers – Christy Wilson-Mendenhall


Dr. Christy Wilson-Mendenhall (Northeastern University) is co-PI of the SMV-funded research project “Self and Desire as Seeds of Virtue: A Buddhist-Inspired Multi-Method Investigation.” Her collaborators include co-PI, Dr. Paul Condon (Northeastern University), Dr. John Dunne (University of Wisconsin–Madison) and other research team members.

CHRISTY WILSON-MENDENHALL (Ph.D., Emory University) is currently an Associate Research Scientist in the Interdisciplinary Affective Science Lab at Northeastern University and Massachusetts General Hospital. She received her Ph.D. in Cognitive Psychology and Neuroscience from Emory University in 2010, where she conducted research as a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellow. Publications and further details about her research program can be found on her website.

My expertise bridges cognitive, affective, and contemplative science to investigate the underlying mechanisms of the dynamic and varied emotional feelings that people experience in day-to-day life and their implications for well-being. My research career started in cognitive science and neuroscience, with the intrigue and challenge of studying the basic mechanisms that underlie how we make sense of the world. Because my graduate mentor, Dr. Lawrence (Larry) Barsalou, had recently published a highly influential theoretical article on the human conceptual system, the energy and focus in the lab was one of innovation and discovery. Larry and I developed a new line of research focusing on how abstract concepts develop in memory and shape our understanding of the world (i.e., concepts like “convince” that do not point to a specific concrete thing).

A few years into this work, we began collaborating with Dr. Lisa Feldman Barrett to integrate our work on abstract concepts with her emerging theoretical ideas about the nature of emotion, which she had recently received an NIH Director’s Pioneer award to pursue. During an initial development period, the three of us met weekly to discuss theory and design. This experience – talking each week with senior colleagues who are intellectual pioneers in their respective areas – was formative. I was incredibly inspired by the new ideas that were emerging at this intersection. Serendipitously, around the same time, I began participating in interdisciplinary dialogues with a network of scholars who were interested in contemplative science, including Dr. John Dunne. The confluence of these interactions seeded initial insights that theoretical ideas in Buddhist philosophy offer a framework in which to think about well-being that aligns with many of the basic science constructs that I study.

Upon earning my Ph.D., I transitioned into postdoctoral work in the expanding and vibrant Interdisciplinary Affective Science Lab run by Dr. Lisa Feldman Barrett and Dr. Karen Quigley. I continued to develop our work at the intersection of cognitive and affective science, which increased in sophistication with complementary training in affective neuroscience and social psychology. Central to this approach is the idea that conceptual patterns developing in memory (through prior learning in situations) shape our experiences of the present, including our experiences of emotion. A healthy adult brain does this so seamlessly – constructing the reality of the present in terms of the past – that we typically are not aware it is occurring. Interactions with scholars of Buddhist philosophy (John and others) highlighted parallels to the idea in Buddhist traditions that ordinary beings are deluded about the nature of reality. The intriguing insight of Buddhist philosophers is that this “ignorance” underlies destructive suffering that manifests, especially, in experiencing oneself as an autonomous, independent agent. From this perspective, then, flourishing is grounded in the wisdom of recognizing the illusory nature of reality (especially of an enduring, independent “self”) and the compassion of engaging to relieve others’ suffering (that replaces self-focus). This conceptual synthesis inspired a new line of research, including our SMV project, that is translating the philosophy of virtuous mental states in Buddhist traditions into empirically tractable frameworks.

What I find most intriguing and important about our SMV project is that we are conducting a fine-grained empirical investigation of theoretical constructs in Buddhist philosophy by grounding them in the meaningful real-world context of romantic relationships. This approach allows us to precisely examine how constructs in Buddhist philosophy differ from those in Western Psychology. It represents a new research direction in the emerging field of contemplative science, which differs in focus from research on interventions involving contemplative practice.

The research team working on our SMV Project is unique in that a strong foundation for interdisciplinary collaboration was already in place. I met John Dunne and Wendy Hasenkamp almost a decade ago when I was a graduate student. We began exploring intersections between cognitive science and Buddhist philosophy in a seminar that John co-taught with my Ph.D. advisor (Larry Barsalou), in a weekly contemplative science group, and through an empirical project that Wendy was leading. Relatively soon after I transitioned into a postdoc with Lisa Feldman Barrett and Karen Quigley to develop my expertise in affective science, I discovered that Paul Condon and I shared many interests in contemplative science, which spurred productive theoretical and scientific projects together, including an interdisciplinary project on desire and craving in collaboration with Wendy (Hasenkamp). Meanwhile, John crossed paths with several other people in the Interdisciplinary Affective Science Lab, including Lisa and Paul, which inspired a dedicated 2-day visit to the lab a few years back (prior to the SMV Project). Much excitement and inspiration emerged during this visit when moments of interdisciplinary insight crystallized. Paul and I are beyond thrilled, as co-PIs, that the SMV project is providing dedicated time and resources to interact with John regularly and thus really develop ideas seeded from our interactions over a number of years.

The SMV project is significant to my career because it reflects my journey over the past decade into a fascinating and productive interdisciplinary space. A central goal of my emerging research program is to ask basic science questions in contexts in which our findings can be more readily applied to the challenges of today’s world. Our interdisciplinary work at the intersection of cognitive, affective, and contemplative science serves this goal beautifully. I am finding this project to be some of the most thought-provoking and meaningful work that I have been engaged in to date.