James Coan



James Coan

When one first meets Dr. Jim Coan, his eagerness for explaining in clear and concrete terms the science behind our experience of the world, and the effects of contemplation on that experience, is an exciting surprise. However, Dr. Coan explains that the field is entirely new for him: “At first, I didn’t know I was interested in contemplation. I have for years been doing research on social relationships, and part of that work has been to develop a coding system for really closely and consciously observing emotional behavior as it happens in real time.” That coding system, known as the Specific Affect Coding System (or “SPAFF”), is used to “quantify how people behave with one another, emotionally…To use the system—to code is what we call it—requires you to sharply focus your attention in real-time on a kind of gestalt package of behaviors—some of which are very easy to spot, some of which are very hard to spot. They include subtle movements of the face, subtle modulations and inflections of the voice, subtle behavioral and postural movements, and the content of what people say. Focusing intently on any one of those channels of information can be taxing in terms of your attention. What we train our coders to do is to focus on all four of those channels simultaneously.” However, as Dr. Coan began to interact with faculty in the humanities through the interdisciplinary initiatives of the Contemplative Sciences Center, he realized that the SPAFF was itself a contemplative practice, and his research interests have since included an exploration of this connection. Dr. Coan explains, “the objective has always been to simply use the SPAFF, but it’s blindingly obvious to me now that we also should have been studying the coders—the people using the SPAFF—all along.”

As part of his newfound interest in researching those trained in this coding system, Dr. Coan highlights the similarities between those using the SPAFF and the traditional contemplative practices found throughout Asia and elsewhere. As with many contemplative practices, the SPAFF is “very difficult at first, much more difficult than most of the coders thought it would be. Some people even describe it as painful, because focusing your attention when you’re not used to doing it is difficult…and virtually everyone says that if they don’t keep doing it, they lose it.” Dr. Coan explicitly defines the habitual practice required of coding as perhaps the most important similarity with traditional contemplative practices, because “contemplation is a practice that is ongoing; it’s not like you become a master contemplator and suddenly never need to practice anymore. It is not like riding a bicycle. It is something you have to continually train for—like being a marathon runner.” Dr. Coan hopes that these similarities will help him to bring a more quantitative science to bear on the topic of contemplation because “we’re interested in a form of contemplation that is utterly devoid of many of the trappings we usually associate with contemplation—the red robes, the incense. Our system of coding comes from a completely different starting point, and yet it is much of the same kind of thing.”

While his research is still in a beginning state, Dr. Coan especially hopes to analyze how coding affects coders in their everyday lives because “a nearly universal claim that coders have is that coding alters their view of the social world, that it alters the way they behave toward others. That’s something we’re really interested in following up and assessing scientifically.” Beyond the social experience of coders, Dr. Coan is also interested in finding ways to make contemplative activities like coding less difficult for beginners, because “the systems that must become active when you are first learning contemplation—particularly pre-frontal systems—are very expensive metabolically in the brain, and there is pressure not to use them. So, we’re interested in ways to decrease this cost.”

Through his future research in the science of contemplation, Dr. Coan wants to broaden the western conception of contemplation: “A contemplative practice is a process of harnessing and deliberately utilizing attention—not just as a stress reduction strategy, but for solving any kind of problem. In our western society, we have culled portions of contemplative practice for the purpose of trying to render our lives less stressful…but these contemplative practices were not developed only as an end in themselves, really; they were developed for all kinds of reasons—to understand the nature of things, why people behave the way they do, why the heavens look the way they do, why the seasons are the way they are. As often as not, they’re tools that are used as a means to an end, not an end in themselves.” Above all, Dr. Coan is anxious to use his research to ground the scientific study of contemplation at the University of Virginia as a process sprouting from a variety of sources because “if contemplation is defined narrowly as a new-age technique for stress reduction, it is going to hurt the study of contemplation throughout the university.”