Columbia University Psychologist Lisa Miller on Cultivating Students’ Academic and Inner Lives

By Allan Spencer | August 17 2021 | Humanities & Social SciencesScience, Technology, Engineering & Mathematics

Contributed by Lisa Miller, PhD, author of The Awakened Brain: The New Science of Spirituality and Our Quest for an Inspired Life

As an undergraduate psychology major at Yale, I always sat in the front row so that I might study not only the material but my professor as well. Like many students who sign up for a class in psychology, I came to the course to gain insight into the human condition and the methods by which we do so.

Growing up, I had no exposure to women in STEM who could serve as role models. All the women I knew were terrific and capable, full-time mothers who took turns driving our carpool. But smart and accomplished as they were, science and its role in our everyday lives was never a topic of conversation. These women were the keepers of a totally different kind of knowledge. One that met every child’s “why” with a “because” that couldn’t be explained on a blackboard or with empirical findings. Different questions occupied their minds and different ways of knowing occupied their hearts.

As I progressed in my undergraduate psychology studies, I began to learn the “because” behind so many of the everyday occurrences in my life, but nothing explained the intuitive heart knowing I witnessed in my own life. I began to wonder if male and female scientists asked different psychological questions, and I passionately yearned to know: What kind of future is there for a woman in science? And further, would the future of science itself be different if there were more women in it?

A major awakening occurred in my sophomore year when my instructor, Suniya Luthar (who would one day become my valued colleague at Columbia) assigned our class to read Carol Gilligan’s In a Different Voice. Gilligan’s story revealed to me that having a female perspective in social science was not only feasible but valuable and legitimate. But, most of all, the message I took away was, Yes, you too have a home in science.

In the years since that first moment of recognition,  I fell in love with the field, and in my new book The Awakened Brain: The New Science of Spirituality and Our Quest for an Inspired Life, I detail the journey through my first 20 years as a psychologist and a woman in STEM, revealing my challenges and triumphs as a woman often working against the grain of conventional thinking. While the book is full of exciting discoveries, the actual doing of science is the golden thread throughout, one which will introduce undergraduates to the life of a researcher and give them an appreciation of the scientific process both inside the lab and out.

My life as a scientist is one of innovative questions arriving as sudden insights while riding the subway or out on a run—artists aren’t the only ones who receive inspiration through dreams, hunches, or uncanny confluences of events. And while I may not have been hit on the head by an apple, research shows that 70% of scientists believe their best work was guided by a question that came through an inspired, unexpected, or spiritual pathway.

Awakening this perception and curiosity about the world in our undergraduates is vital not only to ignite the spirit of scientific inquiry within them, but to help them navigate the challenges they face in this developmental phase of their lives.

It may come as no surprise that psychology classes attract a greater concentration of students with mental health struggles than perhaps any other course. But developmental depression is the inescapable trial of nearly every college student (so much so that it’s called the Sophomore Slump), and its value as a teachable moment is not to be sidelined.

The science suggests that coming of age may inherently provoke questioning the meaning of life, and in my book I directly addresses this by bringing hard science to the heartfelt search for understanding, meaning, and truth. Through science, our students can come to understand that the existential hunger they face can be understood as a “knock at the door.” An invitation to deeper spiritual engagement that lays the foundation for the rest of their lives.

Our undergraduates’ quest for meaning is perhaps the most important work they do in college, and what we choose to teach those students is ours. It took one assigned reading to change the course of my life, and it is because of that that I am able to appreciate how the literature we assign impacts not only our students’ academic lives but their inner lives as well. Inner lives that must be fortified and enriched if they are to face life’s biggest questions and to seek its answers—in the research lab and beyond.

The Awakened Brain
The New Science of Spirituality and Our Quest for an Inspired Life
A groundbreaking exploration of the neuroscience of spirituality and a bold new paradigm for health, healing, and resilience--from a New York Times bestselling author and award-winning researcher.
$30.00 US
Aug 17, 2021
288 Pages
Random House