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The Science of Mindfulness and Beyond: An Interview with Prof. Richard J. Davidson, PhD

By Anne Wisman
Buddhistdoor Global | 2017-10-27 |
Prof. Davidson during the interview with Buddhistdoor Global. Image courtesy of Tergar AsiaProf. Davidson during the interview with Buddhistdoor Global. Image courtesy of Tergar Asia

Professor Richard Davidson is a prominent neuroscientist, professor of psychology and psychiatry, founder and director of the Center for Healthy Minds, and director of the Waisman Laboratory for Brain Imaging and Behavior, all at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He is also a friend of the Dalai Lama and a Buddhist who has been practicing meditation for more than 40 years, something he describes as “very central to my [his] life.”

After “discovering” meditation during his PhD years at Harvard, Prof. Davidson wanted to study mindfulness from a neuropsychological perspective, although his academic advisors urged him not to, deeming it “academic suicide.” But a meeting with the Dalai Lama in 1992 changed everything. The Dalai Lama challenged him to use the tools with which he had studied anxiety, fear, and depression to research the positive qualities of life such as kindness and compassion. Prof. Davidson wholeheartedly accepted the challenge and his ground breaking research on mindfulness practices has led to many academic publications, book, presentations, and even a spot on Time magazines list of the “100 Most Influential People in the World” in 2006.

For one of his first mindfulness studies, Prof. Davidson invited Buddhist monks to his lab to study patterns of brain activation during meditation. One of the monks that joined the experiment was meditation teacher Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche, often dubbed the happiest man in the world. It was during the leadership workshop with Mingyur Rinpoche, held in Hong Kong on 7–8 October, that Buddhistdoor Global had an opportunity to sit down with Prof. Davidson to find out more about the man and his mission. 

Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche is fitted with electrodes during Prof. Davidson’s research on meditation. From collective-evolution.comYongey Mingyur Rinpoche is fitted with electrodes during Prof. Davidson’s research on meditation. From collective-evolution.com

The conversation started off by discussing of the most exciting findings of Prof. Davidson’s research: the suggestion that meditation can “rewire” the human brain via neural plasticity—the brain’s capacity to reorganize itself by forming new neural connections throughout life: “Neural plasticity is happening all the time, wittingly or unwittingly, most of the time we are unaware of the forces which are shaping our brain . . . anytime there is learning that endures there is going to be neural plasticity, even if it is negative learning, e.g. when we have a traumatic experience. . . . The invitation in meditation practice is that we can take more responsibility for our brains and transform our mind to reinforce virtuous qualities and healthy habits of the mind.”

Meditation can be compared to a mental workout; we can use it to train our brains to break bad habits. But as with exercising the body, to make sure there is enduring change, one or two sessions is not enough. We need to continue exercising regularly.

One way in which Prof. Davidson suggests we can use meditation as a tool to graft neural pathways, is by enhancing well-being. Optimal well-being, according to Prof. Davidson, is comprised out of four constituents: awareness, connection, insight, and purpose. Awareness is our basic capacity to know the world, to attend to the world. Connection is our capacity to interact harmoniously with others, to engage in cooperative and pro-social behavior. Insight is how the mind works, specifically when it comes to “the self” and how we create a healthy sense of “self.” Purpose is the higher purpose we have in life, recognizing what our higher purpose is and aligning our everyday experiences and interactions to that purpose affects our optimal well-being.  

Each of these four qualities are already present in the mind, but via meditation we can become more familiar with them. Meditation increases our awareness, we are usually not aware of what we are doing but when we meditate our awareness increases. And science shows that being aware of what we are doing, even if it is a boring, mundane task, can make us happier. Loving-kindness meditation and other compassion exercises can enhance connection, which encompasses traits such as appreciation, gratitude, kindness, and compassion. Insight, or our sense of self, relates to what Buddhist meditation teachers often call “the crazy monkey mind,” the monkey in your mind that is constantly screaming for attention. When we engage in meditation practices we can draw this monkey mind out, we can observe it, and engage it a conversation. We can observe the monkey mind for what it is rather than being hijacked by it during quiet times when our mind starts to wander and all our doubts and fears surface.

There is no set recipe for how quickly we can enhance our well-being via mindfulness. According to Prof. Davidson: “There will be differences in people in how quickly or slowly you can graft these skills. The scientific research shows unequivocally that well-being can be enhanced and the way to do this is via simple meditation practices or mindfulness training practices that can impact each of these four constituents of well-being. They are very simple practices, that most people find that they can do, especially for short periods of time.”

And, as a bonus, well-being seems to be associated with physical health; people who report higher levels of well-being are in general healthier. So increasing the well-being of our minds, can influence the physical health of our bodies. 

Prof. Davidson and Mingyur Rinpoche after their interviews with Buddhistdoor Global. Image courtesy of Tergar AsiaProf. Davidson and Mingyur Rinpoche after their interviews with Buddhistdoor Global. Image courtesy of Tergar Asia

The benefits of mindfulness and meditation extend to our working lives, and not just as a stress-reducing method, but as a method to train the constituents of optimal leadership, which Prof. Davidson suggests are empathy—“the capacity to be fully present for people, to be attentive, and to be able to take the perspective of other in collaboration”—and awareness.

Being able to connect with others seems to be very important in the corporate world, where those who have an affinity with others tend to be more insightful and better at problem-solving than their peers. Prof. Davidson mentioned research by his colleague Dr. Goleman that concluded that more so then IQ, it is EQ, or emotional intelligence, that determines career success (twice as influential as IQ in university-level careers). And empathy and awareness, which can be enhanced through meditation, lie at the foundation of emotional intelligence. 

Prof. Davidsons definition of corporate leadership seems to differ quite a bit from the daily reality at most companies, where high positions are often associated not with empathy, but cut-throat competition. It also seemingly contradicts research by Dr. Nathan Brooks, who concluded that a high number of corporate leaders exhibit psychopathic traits. But according to Prof. Davidson, this is the result of the prevailing corporate culture, and does not prove that psychopathic leaders are actually better than empathetic ones: 

“More and more evidence is suggesting that the most effective leaders are leaders that actually nurture the well-being of their employees,” he observed. “While some psychopathic leaders may have lead successful companies, we don’t know whether a more compassionate leader would have done even better. There is not enough data to check this in real life situations. The research however indicates that in fact the latter is true, that acting with kindness and compassion is ultimately a more effective strategy to lead a company.”

Prof. Davidson leading a loving kindness meditation exercise at the Tergar leadership workshop. Image courtesy of Tergar AsiaProf. Davidson leading a loving kindness meditation exercise at the Tergar leadership workshop. Image courtesy of Tergar Asia

Prof. Davidson also has an important message for parents. As noted, it is EQ rather than IQ that seems to determining a child’s success in later life: “All the scientific research that we know of indicates that skills related to social and emotional development are more important than intellectual skills once you are at a certain level of IQ in determining, life success. We know from longitudinal research that success in early adulthood is very highly correlated to social and emotional skills in children. And social-emotional skills are more important and account for more variance in later adult outcomes than IQ, GPA, and standardized test scores all put together.

Children learn social and emotional skills by playing and interacting with their peers. And meditation exercises seem to help the children in their growth. In research conducted by Prof. Davidson and his team, even modest doses of meditative practices seem to enhance empathy, cooperation, and cognitive and attention skills, and even improved grades.*

According to Prof. Davidson, however, we should be wary of using mindfulness practices merely as a performance enhancer for children: “[When] mindfulness is co-opted as a performance enhancer, it can reinforce attributes which might not be so healthy and so I think it needs to be done carefully and most importantly embedded within an ethical context. A context in which these practices were originally taught as being really important for helping others, as important for helping others as it is for the self.”

The above are some examples of the benefits that meditation and mindfulness have to offer, but according to Prof. Davidson, Buddhism has more than just meditation and mindfulness to offer to modern neuropsychology and psychiatry: “I think that there has been an excessive focus of mindfulness to the exclusion of other kinds of practices. The analytic practices of Buddhism for instance have never been studied, which we think might be very important. And there are other elements of the Buddhist path such as the view and the ethical frameworks that themselves might actually induce neural changes, and I think that this is something that is very important to explore.”

* For those wanting to implement mindfulness practices at school or for their children, Prof. Davidson and his team have developed a “Kindness Curriculum” to teach children to be aware of themselves and others, and that reinforces positive traits such as kindness and impulse control. More information can be found on the website of the Centre of Healthy Minds.

See more

1 in 5 CEOs are psychopaths, study finds (The Telegraph)
Center for Healthy Minds
Richard J. Davidson

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