Emory College: Blending Anthropology and Medicine

Dr. Jenny Mascaro of Emory College, who has taught in the Anthropology department for several years before moving to a new post in the Emory School of Medicine, uses structural and functional neuroimaging to explore the ways behavioral, hormonal, genetic, and cultural factors modulate behavior and emotions.

Mascaro was inspired to attend Emory in order to study the effectiveness of deepening empathy via Cognitively-Based Compassion Training, developed by Emory’s Geshe Lobsang Negi.

Human Relationships and Neurological Functions

Before she decided on the best place for her graduate studies, Mascaro took some time to consider what exactly most intrigued her about human relationships and the neurological functions that supported relationship building. She had long been fascinated by the ways our biology has evolved, particularly in the way that evolution impacted our connections with others. Additionally, she knew by observation and conversation that meditation and mindfulness seemed to encourage and support empathy and compassion; she wanted to determine, though, precisely what actually happens to the body and brain during the practice of meditation.

Realizing she could not separate the two into distinct fields and choose a path of study that focused on one to the exclusion of the other, she sought a program that allowed her to explore the powerful interconnectedness of the two. Because Emory at that time was starting a partnership with Tibet, and the college was embracing the work of Buddhist scholars, mind training and meditation techniques, the multidisciplinary nature of the program offered the fluid research boundaries she needed to thrive and the support to be intellectually creative in her scholarship.

Connections Reflected in Immune System

Mascaro explains that research shows that strong connections with others can actually be reflected in the immune system, and those who identify as lonely have higher rates of disease and early mortality. She wanted to consider a population that could really benefit from meditation and the potential benefits, such as physicians, nurses, or even family caregivers.

Representing the Center for the Study of Human Health, Mascaro-along with a group of researchers that included Geshe Lobsang Tenzin Negi (Religion), Carol Worthman (Anthropology), and Andrew Miller (Psychiatry) -focused on medical students, who have grueling hours and uncommonly high rates of depression and suicide. Designed to examine overall well-being and investigate whether Cognitively-based Compassion Training could make students’ lives more sustainable and satisfying, the study uncovered that as the stressors on these students were growing, their empathy and compassion were dropping.

In short, when their ability to draw on reserves of compassion would be most needed, they were unable to because their own physiological and psychological stresses were too burdensome. Their personal stress, Mascaro explains, was “eroding their ability to empathize.” They enrolled in a compassion medication program, which showed remarkably promising results that Mascaro is preparing for publication now. Based on their experiences, students reported decreased loneliness and depression as well as increased compassion.

Meditation Apps

Focused on Preventive medicine in her recent post in the Emory School of Medicine, one of Mascaro’s first projects will be study of meditation practice in the Emory employee workforce. Recognizing that the more traditional prolonged meditation classes, though likely ideal for learning, are not always sustainable or feasible, she has been turning to the apps that offer innovative new programming and content.

Without much research yet on how effective these meditation apps could be, she plans to determine if these apps can offer similar results to the eight-week class system and be an answer to the Catch-22 she is finding: the busier you are, the more you need meditation, and the busier you are, the less time you have to spend on any form of downtime or practicing mindfulness techniques.

She wants to explore with her team to determine what makes a program “sticky”- in short, what works and what stays with the participants after the project’s completion. In working to determine if these apps can have the same appeal and effectiveness of group mediation classes, she’s also reviewing which apps incorporate a social aspect-one with a built-in group function, even something as simple as having a “buddy” in the system or being able to see how many others are meditating at the same time.

A New Appreciation

In explaining the movement toward involving more scholars with atypical or eclectic backgrounds in programs of medicine across the country, Mascaro explains that social scientists have always had a lot to say, so that part is not new- but, she explains, that there is now perhaps “more appreciation for the unique questions that social scientists ask and the diverse methodologies they use to try to answer those questions.” In seeking “new answers to old questions,” people are recognizing they can broaden their lens from the traditional biomedical approach.

Emory colleague Dr. Carol Worthman adds that it is an “extremely rare person who can combine state-of-the-art neuroscience imaging with a background in anthropology.” As such, Worthman sees Mascaro as an ideal role model for interdisciplinary studies-someone who can combine an experiential approach and in-depth research to capitalize on “all the excitement and potential” that suggests a fresh perspective on the science can benefit people with mental or emotional issues.

Winship Distinguished Research Professor Dr. James K. Rilling, another Emory colleague, notes how hostility is damaging our individual health and serving as a source of global suffering; he believes Mascaro’s work in “cultivating compassion” can help at both levels. He suggests as well that Mascaro’s compassion, kindness, and intelligence help her to thrive in collaborative endeavors like the work she’s doing in the School of Medicine.

Rilling shares, “Anthropologists like Jenny often bring a unique intellectual perspective to other disciplines. They are trained to think about humanity in a broad and holistic manner. They use knowledge of other cultures, other species and evolution to better understand ourselves, and they excel at crossing disciplinary boundaries. Jenny combines all of this with a sophisticated grasp of the neural and neuroendocrine basis of human social behavior, as well as a commitment to research that benefits humanity.”

Promise of a Generation

Nate Sawyer, a former student of Mascaro’s and a current research assistant, believes the work Mascaro is doing on compassion is especially needed right now. He asks, “How else will we unite and heal what seems to so easily spiral into a splintered and painful world?” He sees her research as informing every aspect of life- helping us cultivate empathy and compassion in “every single discipline, research question, human question, business ethics case study, policy change, or relationship problem.”

Seeing his mentor’s scholarship as bridging the gap between what were once strict domains of science or religion or philosophy, Sawyer notes that Mascaro’s research deepens our understanding of the mind-body connection while broaching a much broader initiative to explore ethical questions in medicine. Sawyer praises Mascaro’s intense devotion to the success of her students, even with her multiple commitments and busy schedule. He explains she would sit in her office for hours reviewing complicated material with any struggling students. In addition to the “sheer effort” she clearly put into every class presentation, Sawyer also notes Mascaro is “extremely effective at taking really complex questions and concepts and communicating them in easy to digest, yet still nuanced ways.”

He sees the way she has taught him and his peers as “shockingly rare” in what can feel sometimes like a “cram, regurgitate, rinse, and repeat” cycle of ‘learning’ that often plagues science curriculums.” Though her talent as an educator and her brilliance as a scholar are two traits that define Mascaro for Sawyer, he believes what reinforces those points best is Mascaro’s character. Even while seeing her genuine and kind nature as a logical extension of Mascaro’s research, Sawyer explains that the difference those qualities make to students in a classroom is undeniable. He explains, “It opened up space for students who might have otherwise been discouraged and given up to engage far more meaningfully with the class and to really learn.

That nurturing quality is certainly something that makes Jenny stand out as a professor as it really draws out from students, whether they realize it or not, a more attentive, more open student presence in the classroom.” One semester ago, Sawyer was fortunate enough to be in a class with Mascaro when he encountered some personal struggles; he shares that he was dealing with depression and a close friend’s suicide attempt. Calling Mascaro “a lifeline in all the right ways,” he explains how she put him in contact with all the appropriate support while always gently reminding him of the “bigger picture” when he would find himself stuck in a dark place. Sawyer was struck by the fact she genuinely cared “as a teacher, as a human being.” While others expressed concern as well during this time, Sawyer shares that a skillful combination of Mascaro’s kindness and insight made her an invaluable connection for a struggling student.

He adds that her qualities of character are linked to her academic success as a teacher and a researcher, saying, “These interactions certainly are only a small window, but I think that, to me, they reflect the deep, intricate, and foundational context of a skilled academic in the field of research related to empathy and compassion, social relationships like fatherhood, and the mind, that likely matters.” Luckily for Mascaro and for her future students, though her post in the School of Medicine is purely research, she is still picking up a class, in part because her chair “understands that teaching keeps you current.” Even more importantly for Mascaro is that she finds teaching both energizing and enjoyable, while offering the added benefit of making her more optimistic in general. She explains, “Teaching gives you a window into the real promise of this generation.”

About the Author
Rachel James Clevenger earned her B.A. and M.Ed. degrees from Mississippi College. After finishing her PhD in Composition and Rhetoric, she taught and served as the University Writing Center Director for Birmingham Southern College and University of Alabama at Birmingham. Most recently, she taught Business Communications at Samford University.