On Being with Krista Tippett

Richard Davidson

A Neuroscientist on Love and Learning

Last Updated

February 14, 2019

Neuroscientist Richard Davidson is one of the central people who’s helped us begin to see inside our brains. His work has illuminated the rich interplay between things we saw as separate not that long ago: body, mind, spirit, emotion, behavior, and genetics. Richard is applying what he’s learning about imparting qualities of character — like kindness and practical love — in lives and in classrooms. This live conversation was recorded at the Orange County Department of Education in Costa Mesa, California.

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Richard Davidson is the William James and Vilas Research Professor of Psychology and Psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He founded and directs the Center for Healthy Minds there, and was the Founding Director of the Waisman Brain Imaging Lab. He is also the Founder and Chief Visionary for Healthy Minds Innovations, a non-profit that translates laboratory science into real world tools. He is author of The Emotional Life of Your Brain.


Krista Tippett, host: The neuroscientist Richard Davidson is one of the central people who’s helped us begin to see inside our brains and inside the rich interplay between things we saw as separate not that long ago: body, mind, spirit, emotion, behavior, genetics. California’s Orange County Department of Education has been pursuing this in a visionary way and invited me to be in conversation with Richard Davidson at a gathering of their staff. We explore what he is learning about deepening generative qualities of character in lives and in classrooms — qualities like kindness and practical love.

Richard Davidson: I actually think that this is going to be the next frontier for science and for neuroscience. I’m not afraid to speak about love. I think that the way I think about it is that love is a quality which obliterates certain kinds of boundaries. So I think that it certainly will be associated with pervasive differences in the brain and is really something that needs to be studied.

Ms. Tippett: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being.

[music: “Seven League Boots” by Zoë Keating]


Ms. Tippett: Thank you so much, Superintendent Mijares. I so appreciated and respected the way this invitation was framed and the way you’ve framed this gathering about love, kindness, and education — strangely, three words we don’t often see together. It’s a little bit countercultural. There was language in there about restoring the richness and meaning of love and the role that it plays in education.

Richard Davidson — we’ve known each other across the years. We did a previous interview in 2011, and he goes by Richie, so I’m going to call him Richie today. He was one of the people who contributed to, really, the discovery of the science of neuroplasticity, which I think is one of the most exciting discoveries of my lifetime. When I grew up and when many of us grew up, you had this idea that our brains stopped forming at some point when you were 18 or 21. And it turns out that our brains form and can change across the lifespan, which I think is as wonderful news for somebody in their 50s as in their 20s — and what we practice, we become, and that we can change our brains through our behavior. We will get into that.

And Richie, I want to ask you, just before we start, because I like to ground things in the personal, in personal history — if you think about the words “love,” “kindness,” and “education,” did you have an experience of love and kindness in education? Or how would you identify that in your earliest life, in your childhood?

Mr. Davidson: Well, let me just first say, before I answer the question, it’s just a delight to be here with you. I’ve been interviewed by so many people in my life; no one do I enjoy being interviewed more than you, Krista, so it’s really a pleasure.

Love, kindness, and education, as you say, have — I’ve not heard those words put together before. It’s refreshing, and it’s a testament to your visionary stance here in Orange County that you have chosen to meld them together.

In my own life, I went to a Jewish day school for the first eight years of my life — actually, nine, including kindergarten. For the most part, except for, I’d say, one teacher who I remember very distinctly, I don’t have a sense of love and kindness at all. One of the things that’s made me so passionate about education is my own kids. Education, for my son, was really difficult. It sensitized me to the critical importance of bringing love and kindness into a classroom in a way that honored the differences and variations among us, which is so prevalent when we actually open our eyes and look.

Ms. Tippett: I think it’s worth spending just a little bit of time understanding where we came from on this, because until not that long ago — the 1960s would’ve been the prehistory of neuroscience, and it was the heyday of behaviorism. You’ve said to me once that the environment was emphasized so heavily, there was no attention to the mind, no attention to biology. What was going on inside the child was just not that relevant. And I feel like you are right on the frontlines, on this new frontier of science that is helping us understand how and why this kind of intelligence, this kind of learning, is as important and relevant as our other kinds of intelligence and learning. I was reading that what neuroscience is speculating is that brain circuits that are important, that interact for social and emotional learning, interact with brain circuits that are important for cognitive learning.

Mr. Davidson: Absolutely. One of the really important insights that is packed in that statement is that the brain does not honor the kind of anachronistic distinction between thought and feeling. Thought and feeling are absolutely intermingled in the brain, and so there are no areas of the brain that are exclusively dedicated to one and not the other. There’s a lot of interconnectivity. When a child, for example, is subjected to adversity, and the adversity gets under the skin, it will impair cognitive function in addition to producing emotional difficulties. These are intimately interwoven in the brain.

Ms. Tippett: I think so much, also, about how, the 20th century — we wanted to think we could bracket emotion out: out of schools, out of workplaces, out of politics. And we failed, at least in politics. It’s the way we wish the world were, because it would be neater and cleaner and less messy if emotion and intellect weren’t intertwined. But there it is.

Mr. Davidson: There it is. There’s a very famous psychologist who did work on decision making, and he actually got a Nobel prize in economics; his name was Herb Simon. He worked in the 1960s and ’70s, and the way he thought about emotion is that it was an interrupter. It disrupted cognitive function.

We know now that when we think about the really complex decisions in our lives — so, for example, if we think about whether we’re going to partner with a certain partner or get married to a certain partner — that’s the kind of decision that we cannot make based on a cold cognitive calculus. We consult our emotions for making that decision. And if our emotions were disrupted, it will really impair our capacity to make those kinds of decisions. So this has led to the insight that emotions actually play a really key role. They can be both facilitating of our behavior and cognitive activity, and they can also be a disrupter. It can go both ways. It’s not one way or the other, but they’re an intimate part of everything that we do.

Ms. Tippett: I think that this must be flowing into — I know the California Endowment is doing some wonderful work with understanding trauma as a public health issue — and again, this way we’ve punished behavior in classrooms — and understanding that another way to think about it is to actually address the child as a person and help them learn to calm themselves and manage their behavior, rather than just treating them as a disciplinary or scholarly problem.

Mr. Davidson: I think that’s really such an important issue. How we address those kinds of difficulties and the way teachers respond to those kind of difficulties will have an enormous impact on the brain and on their expression. One of the things I often say is that the very mechanisms in the brain that allow adversity to get under the skin are also the mechanisms that enable awakening. They’re the same mechanisms. So we can harness this power of neuroplasticity for the good by cultivating certain kinds of virtuous qualities. But neuroplasticity, in itself, is neutral.

Ms. Tippett: You, I believe, have taken these ideas into school settings, and you’ve actually asked the question, “Can we cultivate compassion?” I remember you saying to me, years ago, that you believe that we are hardwired to learn compassion as we are hardwired to learn language. Has that borne itself out?

Mr. Davidson: I’m happy you remember that. I think the evidence today is even stronger than it was when we spoke about it last. The reason I liken it to language is that we also know that we come into the world with a biological propensity for language, but it requires that we be nurtured in a normal linguistic community for that propensity to be expressed. There are case studies of feral children who’ve been raised in the wild; they don’t develop normal language.

So even though there’s a biological propensity, it requires this context, the appropriate context, to nurture it. And I think the same is true for kindness. We come into the world with this innate propensity, but for this propensity to be expressed, it requires nurturing.

Ms. Tippett: Right, because we don’t actually learn language — yes, there’s an aspect of being taught language, but it’s more just that people do it around us.

Mr. Davidson: Yeah, and so if we’re in a context where people are doing kindness around us, we will osmotically absorb it, and it will be nurtured.

Ms. Tippett: That, then, has implications for if this is brought into a classroom, that it is also about the teachers really embodying this. It’s not just a lesson plan.

Mr. Davidson: Well, and that’s really one of the powerful things: Teachers change students’ brains. When teachers interact with students, they are changing the brains of their students — and not just functionally, but actually, structurally. This is not a radical statement, because we’re changing each other’s brains all the time. We know that this occurs in a relationship between a parent and their offspring, and it occurs in any kind of a sustained interpersonal interaction.

Ms. Tippett: I do want you to tell us about the work you’ve been doing with children in classrooms, about teaching. I just want to say, this reminds me of when — I think it was actually Sylvia Boorstein, this wonderful Jewish Buddhist teacher who said to me, “Your children really aren’t listening to what you say. They’re actually just watching what you do.”

That’s kind of depressing. That’s just hard. It’s easier and harder. But on the other hand, what it does is, it gave me permission to say, well, me investing in my spiritual health, in how I’m changing my brain, what I’m practicing towards character, is not time or energy I’m taking away from my children but giving to them.

Mr. Davidson: Absolutely, and I think that kind of implicit learning that occurs, it’s really implicit social learning that occurs through embodied practice. Taking on these kinds of characteristics in a really deep, embodied way will impact all of those around us.

[music: “Innocent” by Alden Volney]

Ms. Tippett:  I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being. Today, with neuroscientist Richard Davidson. A curriculum for a compassionate classroom, the Kindness Curriculum, is one of the fruits of discoveries in his brain imaging laboratory and his Center for Healthy Minds at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.

Ms. Tippett: I was reading — I think it was an interview with one of your colleagues who was doing this, and this does come back to the notion of embodiment — but that this really is, also, about helping children or helping ourselves reconnect our bodies with our minds and with the kinds of people we want to be, about the way we physically move through the world, that the systems in our brain that support well-being are connected to different organs in our body and to our immune and endocrine systems, and that part of what happens when you’re empowering young children to be this way is that they actually feel how these positive qualities like kindness and gratitude feel in their bodies — which, actually, when I think about that, that makes sense. We all know what that experience is. This is not just about having an idea.

Mr. Davidson: That’s so important, really important, and we know that empathy, which is, we think, a necessary prerequisite for kindness and compassion, starts with experiencing in your body the emotions that another person may be experiencing, another child may be experiencing, in order to help take the perspective of another. And also, this is part of self-awareness. Having a bodily representation of this kind of experience enables us to become more familiar with it, and so, we can get back to it —

Ms. Tippett: We know what it feels like, and we know when we’ve lost that compass.

Mr. Davidson: Exactly. That kind of familiarity is so important because it helps to reinstate it.

Ms. Tippett: I think, culturally and, I imagine, in science too, the hesitation people have about words like “kindness” and “compassion” and “love” is also that these are soft qualities and that there would be a limit to how they would serve you in the world as it is. But you said a minute ago that the same things that threaten us — I can’t remember exactly the word you used — also create an opening for resilience. Is there a connection, is there a robustness, is there a muscular strength to kindness and compassion, love as you’ve seen it cultivated, that also translates into resilience in the world as it is, and not as we wish it to be?

Mr. Davidson: Super important. Well, one of the ways that we think about resilience in a hard-nosed research context is, resilience is the rapidity with which you recover from adversity. If you recover more quickly, that’s better resilience. To paraphrase the bumper sticker, stuff happens. We can’t buffer ourselves; that’s the nature of life. What really is important is how we relate to these challenges. And if we can come back to baseline more quickly, that is really powerful. Not only does it have consequences for our psychological wellbeing, it also has consequences for our physical health.

In other parts of the research that we do, in older people who are in their seventh and eighth and ninth decades of life, it turns out that this quality is a really important predictor of mortality — that is, the rapidity with which you recover from adversity, taking into account all other kinds of medical factors. But this capacity is one of the most powerful predictors of mortality, so we think it’s really important. Cultivating the qualities which will promote resilience — yes, in some sense it’s soft, but in another sense, you couldn’t get much harder in terms of what really matters.

Ms. Tippett: So setting aside the way you have to present the research to…

Mr. Davidson: My colleagues.

Ms. Tippett: …to validate your studies, I’m just curious about when you’ve been in classrooms, when you’ve worked with children. What do parents and what do teachers say to you about what they observe, how this shifts things for individual children and for the group experience?

Mr. Davidson: Many different stories come to mind. One is a boy by the name of Will, who we really got to know well, who was a kid in a preschool that we were working in. He had a phobia that really was interfering with his life. He was intensely phobic of elevators. He had an experience at some point in his past, of getting stuck on an elevator by himself. And he had other manifestations of anxiety. It was remarkable to see him go through one semester of this Kindness Curriculum.

And I should say that it’s more than just the Kindness Curriculum; it also involves exercises in mindful awareness. We do, for example, an exercise where we ring the bell, and we ask the kids to pay very close attention to the sound when the bell is rung, and as soon as they can no longer hear the bell, they should raise their hands. You can do this, and for the 10 or 12 seconds that the bell is audible, you can see 20 kids being incredibly still, and then they’ll jump up. They love that. They can taste the quality of quiet in their bodies. And Will had that taste for the first time, I think, in his life.

Ms. Tippett: I want to talk about mindfulness, because that is, would you say, a primary tool or the primary tool in the work as you’ve done it?

Mr. Davidson: I would say, it’s a primary tool, and — well, I should back up and say, we don’t use that word that much. We certainly use it, but we don’t use it that much. It has been so hyped in the media, in education, in all kinds of places, that some of its nuanced flavor, I think, has been lost.

We talk about it as mental exercises to cultivate self-regulation, to cultivate the regulation of attention, the regulation of emotion. So far, I haven’t found a single parent who didn’t want to help their child better regulate their attention and better regulate their emotions. Framed in this way, I think we can make it quite universal.

Ms. Tippett: I actually love that language that’s in Buddhist tradition, of “mental hygiene.” That is such a wonderful phrase. That is something we could all use.

Mr. Davidson: I think we really can. When humans came on this planet, we didn’t evolve and immediately start doing things like brushing our teeth. We all brush our teeth several times a day. Virtually every human being on the planet does that. It’s a kind of personal physical hygiene.

We envision a time when we will recognize that our minds are just as important as our teeth and — I suspect there are no dentists in the audience — probably more important than our teeth. Doing simple mental exercise in the same way that we do physical exercise, I think, will be recognized as really an urgent public health need.

Ms. Tippett: I know that teenagers — because we’ve mostly been talking about young children, and these insights don’t just apply to 3- and 4-year-olds whose minds are more malleable. You actually said, “We have a moral obligation to explore how we bring this science to teenagers.”

Mr. Davidson: Yeah, and teenagers are super important. There are three critical sensitive periods in early life. One is at the time of birth; the other is around the onset of schooling, between the ages of, roughly, four and seven; and the third is adolescence. One of the things that’s happened is, today, the onset of puberty is occurring significantly earlier than at any other point in human history. And yet, the regulatory systems in the brain are maturing at their own rate. That has not changed. So we have the longest period ever in human history, a gap between the onset of puberty and the development of these regulatory systems in the brain.

If you look over the course of the last hundred years, a hundred years ago the age of onset of puberty in Western countries was around age 16. This has been a remarkable change in the course of 100 years. It’s quite frightening. The cause of it is very complicated, and it’s probably due to many different factors, including dietary factors, all kinds of things. But for whatever reason, it is occurring. So it leads to the crisis, I think, that we have today but also an opportunity.

[music: “Living” by Sebastian Plano]

Ms. Tippett: After a short break, more with Richard Davidson. You can always listen again and hear the unedited version of every show we do on the On Being podcast feed. Now with bite-sized extras wherever podcasts are found.

I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being. Today with neuroscientist Richard Davidson. I’m with him and leaders and educators of the Orange County Department of Education in southern California. Jeff Hittenberger, chief academic officer, moderated some questions.

Jeff Hittenberger: If adversity affects a child’s cognitive functioning, can this be remediated and repaired in some way, with some kind of therapy or intervention? In other words, can trauma be fixed?

Mr. Davidson: It’s a really wonderful question. I would say that we don’t know what the constraints on human plasticity are at this point in time. We do know that the brain is plastic. I think that if I were pushed to really more directly respond to the question, I would say, yes, I think that the change can occur, but we don’t know what the extent of the change is. We ourselves have done some research on kids who were raised in Eastern European orphanages and who were then adopted into middle-class families in the United States, and I can tell you, their brains look different structurally. They still showed, if you will, scarring in their brain when they were teens. We don’t know the extent to which these changes can be reversed, but I have the conviction, also, that we haven’t tried with sufficiently intensive interventions. I think that the kind of trauma that some children have unfortunately been exposed to may require much more intensive interventions than we have been accustomed to exploring. But I think that we need to really explore them as we go forward in the future.

Mr. Hittenberger: What do you see in terms of public education priorities, in reference to this social, emotional, and mental health? Do you see a change in priorities, a greater responsiveness to these issues in public education? Would you comment on this?

Mr. Davidson: I believe now there are, I think, 12 or 13 states in the United States where it’s legally mandated that children receive social and emotional curricula at every grade level from K through 12. So that’s been an enormous victory in many ways. And many other states have less formal language about that, but in some other ways encourage it. There is increasing evidence to suggest the value of social-emotional learning for not just the social and emotional behavior of children, but for their cognitive abilities as well.

One of the capacities which social-emotional strategies train is attention. William James, one of my heroes, the first really great American psychologist, wrote a two-volume tome in 1890 called The Principles of Psychology. And he has a chapter in this book on attention. He said in this chapter — and this is a quote — he said, “The faculty of voluntarily bringing back a wandering attention, over and over again, is the very root of judgement, character, and will.” And he went on to say that an education which would improve this faculty would be the education par excellence. And the “the” and “par excellence” was italicized in the original William James.

This is so important because if a child is not attending to information that she or he is presented with, it’s going to severely compromise their ability to learn. So attention is a building block for everything else. And the fact that we haven’t paid attention to attention is just — it’s incomprehensible to me as a neuroscientist, just incomprehensible. Fortunately, I think we’re now beginning to see that this is something really significant. We know from a lot of research studies that attention can be trained. We’re not all going to become attentional athletes, but everyone can improve his or her attention.

And one of the sad facts is — and there’s very good evidence to show this — that, in addition to having a fiscal deficit in this country, we have an attention deficit. I’m not talking just about individuals who’ve earned a diagnosis, but if we’re honest with ourselves, we all are suffering from an attentional dysfunction. The data show that if you look at cohorts of kids today and you compare them to kids 50 years ago on the same standardized measures of attention, kids today are performing worse. I think that we need to address this. We do have the tools to be able to. The strategies that are included in many social and emotional learning curricula include this.

Ms. Tippett: This is one of these places where I feel like our technologies have brought us to this extreme, to have to face the problem that our attention can be hijacked. And as you said early on, it becomes a moment where awakening becomes possible too.

Mr. Davidson: Yes, absolutely.

Ms. Tippett: That’s the glass-half-full answer. [laughs]

Mr. Hittenberger: One more question. This follows along the remarks that you were making just now. You’ve mentioned some educational practices that can be used. Could you say a little bit more about educational practices that can be used to encourage student attention, student self-control, that you have found successful in classrooms or in schools?

Mr. Davidson: There are very simple strategies that we have used, and this really goes back to Krista’s question about mindfulness. In the research studies that have been done of simple mindfulness practices, a lot of these mindfulness practices involve paying attention to your body, to your breath. And when we’re really honest about it, these objects of focus are actually not that interesting.

But if we can learn to pay attention to something that’s not that interesting, it can really help strengthen our attention. Our attention tends to be hijacked by salient stimuli in our environment. Our attention is stimulus-driven. It’s pulled; it’s grabbed. The invitation here is that we can actually be the rudder of our own mind, if you will, and steer it, direct it where we would like it to be directed by strengthening our capacity to voluntarily deploy our attention.

Kids can learn to do this very simply. We start in preschool classrooms, where we have kids lying on the floor, and we put a little stone on their belly and simply instruct them to pay attention to the stone as it goes up and down as they’re breathing. This is a very simple kind of strategy that research shows changes brain circuits of attention and leads to improvements on standardized, objective measures of attention.

One of the things that children learn is that they can deploy these strategies during the day as a way to help them calm themselves, to regulate themselves. So if something comes up and they get into an argument with a peer, they can actually pay attention to what’s going on in their body, rather than getting swept up in the immediacy of the emotions, and in that way, they can both strengthen their attention and they can regulate their emotions.

These are really simple kinds of things that can be done, but they need to be done repeatedly. One of the important messages that we often convey is that doing this for short amounts of time, many times a day, is really helpful. It could really be short, could be 15, 20 seconds, but to do it in a repeated way so that children become more familiar with what the qualities are that are associated with this kind of calm attention.

Sometimes people ask me, well, what is the best form of practice that I should do? And I’ll often say, the very best form of practice that you can do is that form of practice that you do, whatever that is. But practice is really important. The regularity of practice is something that really can’t be overestimated.

Ms. Tippett: So whatever you do that helps you get settled inside your body, that helps you start to breathe — I remember my daughter was a teenager, and when I would be yelling or something, and she’d say, “Mom — breathe,” which was so annoying, [laughs] because I knew she was right. [laughs]

But I think this is — what we’re talking about is intimate. We’re talking about individuals knowing how to calm, but it’s civilizational work. I’m just so attentive to the fact that the anger that’s out on the surface of our life together, all around, on every side, is how fear shows itself in public.

We haven’t used the word “love” all that much. And I think that gets back to what we’ve touched on here, that we don’t really know how to use that word in respectable circles. We all know the devastating effects of the absence of love, and yet we don’t know how to talk about practicing love or about, how could that work as a public value?

Mr. Davidson: I actually think that this is going to be the next frontier for science and for neuroscience. I’m not afraid to speak about love. I think that the way I think about it is that love is a quality which obliterates certain kinds of boundaries. It is something that particularly eliminates, or at least minimizes, in-group, out-group kinds of boundaries. So I think that it certainly will be associated with pervasive differences in the brain and is really something that needs to be studied.

Just as we think of compassion as — the Dalai Lama uses this word: he talks about biased and unbiased compassion. Biased compassion is compassion toward your in-group. Unbiased compassion is compassion toward all beings. And I think the same is true of love. There’s biased love, and there’s unbiased love. The cultivation of unbiased love is really challenging. That’s where, I think, the next frontier is; and I think that some of the practices that we’ve been talking about really are about the cultivation of this kind of unbiased love.

Ms. Tippett: And releasing that word from its too-narrow and flimsy associations with just romance or Eros.

Mr. Davidson: Yeah, and I think that they do need to be released from that, but I also think that they are embodied. It is not simply a cognitive stance. It’s a stance with your whole being that includes your body.

Ms. Tippett: Which I think is the problem with tolerance. It hasn’t been big enough, and it’s completely cerebral.

Mr. Davidson: Yes, exactly. And if it’s just cerebral, it will never be genuine. There’ll be a disparity between what we espouse cerebrally, cognitively, and what our bodies are saying. We know this with research on implicit bias. You can sit a person down and give them a questionnaire, and on the questionnaire, they tell you that they have absolutely no bias toward such-and-such group. And yet, if you actually measure their body, their body is telling you something different.

Ms. Tippett: So the embodied nature of love would mean that this — not only that it would make that connection between the desire — what we want to be or believe and how we are — but also that it would change our brains, that it would reinforce.

Mr. Davidson: Absolutely. The communication goes both ways.

[music: “Deer” by Swod]

Ms. Tippett: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being. Today, with neuroscientist Richard Davidson.

Ms. Tippett: I read somewhere that you’re working now — I want to ask you this: The frontier you’ve been on is about the nature of the human mind. And I’m just so curious about how your definition or understanding has evolved about what the mind is — which is also a question about what we are, in part.

Mr. Davidson: I love your questions, Krista. My understanding has certainly evolved, and also, I would say, my willingness to be out there and state what I really feel about this. I was listening to a talk not too long ago where a Stanford biologist made the provocative claim, which I think is very important — he said, “Do you know what the most powerful pharmaceutical is on the planet?” Can anyone guess?



Ms. Tippett: [laughs] “Chocolate,” somebody said. Chocolate is mine.

Mr. Davidson: Food is the most powerful pharmaceutical because it will impact our gut, which has enormous influence over our brain. To say that the mind is just in the brain is — it just ignores the body.

And then there are much more complicated and much more difficult sort of challenges, and this is something that I’ve been pushed on by the Dalai Lama a lot. In some scientific circles he’ll say, “Well, there are certain things that are ‘Buddhist business,’” and we’ll just keep it to the side. I’ve been very fortunate that he’s allowed some of the Buddhist business to infiltrate into our scientific discourse, and one of them is really about the nature of the mind. So we are really interested in this.

Let me just give you one example of a crazy research study that I’m involved with that I don’t talk about publicly very much. But since the Dalai Lama talks about it publicly, I feel like the beans have been spilled, so we can talk about it. We are studying dying people now, who are in the process of dying and who actually are beyond death — that is, who have met the conventional western criteria for death, and yet, there seems to be things that are still going on, so to speak.

Ms. Tippett: So you’re imaging their brains? How are you studying them?

Mr. Davidson: We have a research project going on now in India. We have a data collection facility that we’ve established in the south of India — and, also, one in the north of India. There is a state that is said to occur among certain people, and it really depends on their qualities in their life as to whether they go into this state when they die. But it is a state that is called “Thukdam,” in Tibetan, and it means “the clear light state.” It is a state where they are dead, according to western conventional definitions of death, and yet, their body doesn’t seem to decompose. According to the tradition, there is the maintenance of some residual quality of awareness that’s still present, even though the heart has stopped beating and brain activity is showing what we call a “flat line.”

This raises, of course, huge numbers of questions about what might be going on. And there are papers showing that there are gene expression changes which are occurring for at least 48 hours. And this is not fringe science. This stuff is published in the best scientific —

Ms. Tippett: So you wouldn’t think that that should be possible, because the brain is dead. Is that right?

Mr. Davidson: Right, something is happening that we do not know, which is occurring for at least some period of time. And so, all we can say is — this is what I would say is a call for humility — for humility in acknowledging that we simply don’t know. This was a long-winded answer, but it is simply to say that “We really don’t know” is the most honest answer that I can give.

Ms. Tippett: …to what the mind is. I sometimes think that people will look back at us, perhaps not in the too-distant future, and look at the way we use the language of “body, mind, spirit,” like these are three separate things. Do you think of body, mind, spirit as separate? Does that phrase even make sense anymore, given what we’re learning?

Mr. Davidson: I totally agree, and I think that — I was at a meeting not too long ago, where there was a very famous, one of the most famous living neuroscientists. And another person who was there was Matthieu Ricard, whom you know, who is a Tibetan Buddhist monk who also has a PhD in molecular biology. And at this meeting, Matthieu was regaling us with stories of great meditation masters who were doing very unusual things that stretched our understanding of reality. And this neuroscientist said, “Matthieu, if half the things you just told us are true, we’re in big trouble.”


That’s a direct quote. And what he meant by that is that our conventional accounts of reality are going to need to be significantly revised. This is where, I think, just going back to humility — humility is not something that a lot of modern, particularly biological, scientists exhibit. And yet, I think if we’re honest, this is really the stance we need to adopt, and to simply be honest about what we don’t know.

Ms. Tippett: Well, I don’t think — humility is not necessarily where I thought we would end, but it absolutely makes sense in the context of a discussion about love and kindness and raising new humans in the world. So thank you so much, Richard Davidson, and thank you to the Orange County Department of Education for having us.


Mr. Davidson: Thank you so much.

[music: TK]

Ms. Tippett: Richard Davidson is the William James and Vilas Research Professor of Psychology and Psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He’s also the director and founder of the Center for Healthy Minds. His books include as co-author The Emotional Life of Your Brain and Altered Traits: Science Reveals How Meditation Changes Your Mind, Brain, and Body. You can find a copy of Richard Davidson’s Kindness Curriculum in English and Spanish at centerhealthyminds.org.

[music: “Music Box” by Huma-Huma]

Staff: On Being is Chris Heagle, Lily Percy, Mariah Helgeson, Maia Tarrell, Marie Sambilay, Erinn Farrell, Laurén Dørdal, Tony Liu, Bethany Iverson, Erin Colasacco, Kristin Lin, Profit Idowu, Casper ter Kuile, Angie Thurston, Sue Phillips, Eddie Gonzalez, Lilian Vo, Lucas Johnson, Damon Lee, Suzette Burley, Katie Gordon, Zack Rose, and Serri Graslie.

Ms. Tippett: Special thanks this week to Al Mijares, Jeff Hittenberger, Greg Lammers, Laura Watson, Austin Duffis, Ian Hanigan, and California’s Orange County Department of Education.

[music: “Chevalier Bulltoe” by Totorro]

Our lovely theme music is provided and composed by Zoë Keating. And the last voice that you hear singing our final credits in each show is hip-hop artist Lizzo.

On Being was created at American Public Media. Our funding partners include:

The George Family Foundation, in support of the Civil Conversations Project

The John Templeton Foundation, harnessing the power of the sciences to explore the deepest and most perplexing questions facing human kind. Learn about cutting-edge research on the science of generosity, gratitude, and purpose at templeton.org/discoveries.

The Fetzer Institute, helping to build the spiritual foundation for a loving world. Find them at fetzer.org.

Kalliopeia Foundation, working to create a future where universal spiritual values form the foundation of how we care for our common home.

Humanity United, advancing human dignity at home and around the world. Find out more at humanityunited.org, part of the Omidyar Group.

The Henry Luce Foundation, in support of Public Theology Reimagined

The Osprey Foundation — a catalyst for empowered, healthy, and fulfilled lives

And the Lilly Endowment, an Indianapolis-based, private family foundation dedicated to its founders’ interests in religion, community development, and education.

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Funding provided in part by the John Templeton Foundation. The Templeton Foundation supports research and civil dialogue on the deepest and most perplexing questions facing humankind: Who are we? Why are we here? Where are we going? To learn more, please visit templeton.org.