Investigating Healthy Minds
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. He is the co-author of The Emotional Life of Your Brain and Altered Traits: Science Reveals How Meditation Changes Your Mind, Brain, and Body. He was inducted into the National Academy of Medicine in 2017.
June 14, 2012
KRISTA TIPPETT, HOST: Once upon a time, we had the nature-versus-nurture debate. And we assumed that the brain stops developing at some finite point when we’re young. With recent science, things have gotten more interesting than that, and more hopeful. The neuroscientist Richard Davidson has helped reveal a surprising give and take between emotion, behavior, and biology at every age. He made his discoveries by studying the brains of meditating Buddhist monks. Now, he’s testing new approaches to autism and ADHD, even to nurturing kindness and self-reflection in children and adolescents. Richard Davidson and others are shifting the psychological paradigm that focuses on fixing what is wrong. This is about practicing life-enriching behaviors and, in so doing, “rewiring” our minds.
DR. RICHARD DAVIDSON: Based upon everything we know about the brain in neuroscience, the change is not only possible, but change is actually the rule rather than the exception. And it’s really just a question of which influences we’re going to choose for our brain.
MS. TIPPETT: “Investigating Healthy Minds.” I’m Krista Tippett. This is On Being, from APM, American Public Media.
Richard Davidson founded the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds in 2008, at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. He’s a professor there of psychology and psychiatry, and he’s director of the Waisman Laboratory for Brain Imaging and Behavior. I interviewed him in 2011.
I’ve read several accounts where you’ve talked about or written about how you’ve had this lifelong conviction that went back to your teenage years, that the mind — here’s one way you said it — “underlies all that is important for flourishing and happiness.” Where did that interest in the mind come from? Do you know?
DR. DAVIDSON: Well, I actually don’t know exactly, although it just seemed to make a lot of sense to me early on in my life that our minds were really crucial to how we related to everything around us, and that we actually had an opportunity by altering our minds to alter our realities and the world in which we lived. I know it sounds a little trite, but that conviction was present really from high school on, and it’s something that certainly motivated me in college and subsequently.
MS. TIPPETT: But it’s interesting to me that you also always were interested in thinking about it also in terms of science, right? In terms of biology somehow.
DR. DAVIDSON: Yes, it was. It was. I had a passion for science since I was a kid and, um, you know, I was involved in lots of science-related activities. I was a ham radio operator when I was nine or 10 years old and built electronic components and volunteered in a sleep laboratory when I was in high school and put on electrodes and cleaned electrodes in the afternoons. I remember very distinctly subscribing to Science News, which is a kind of popular but serious summary of science that comes out each week. I read it religiously, starting in high school, and I used to actually cut out little articles and file them away. It was just part of my life from very early on.
MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm, and you’ve said it was not until the ’90s that you kind of came out of the closet with your interest in actually exploring, pursuing contemplative practice, together with science.
DR. DAVIDSON: Yes, yes.
MS. TIPPETT: I mean, I did go back and look at a book that you published, together with someone else named Davidson in 1980. Was he related to you? Julian …
DR. DAVIDSON: No …
MS. TIPPETT: No.
DR. DAVIDSON: … unrelated. A wonderful …
MS. TIPPETT: OK, Psychobiology of Consciousness. And I guess that’s when you were still in the closet.
DR. DAVIDSON: Yeah.
MS. TIPPETT: You know, the tone of that is so different that starts with basically an acknowledgement that the relationship of consciousness to biology, that there’s little progress has been made. But what’s so interesting also to me was it’s all about EEG biofeedback, that the tools seem so primitive now. I mean, this wasn’t that long ago. It was 1980.
DR. DAVIDSON: Right, exactly. And that’s — that was actually part of my decision to in fact not pursue research on the neuroscience of meditation in the early part of my career because I clearly perceived the tools that were available to us in those days as very coarse and primitive and really insufficiently sensitive to capture what I was experiencing as a practitioner. And the last thing I wanted to do was pedestrian research on meditation.
MS. TIPPETT: Right. So those pre-MRI?
DR. DAVIDSON: Yes, very much pre-MRI. It was actually in many ways pre-neuroscience.
MS. TIPPETT: Really?
DR. DAVIDSON: Well, neuroscience as an identifiable field really started around 1976. And I — that’s when I ended graduate school.
MS. TIPPETT: I mean, it seems to me also that a term that is very common also among lay people in our culture is this idea that we’re hard-wired for things. I would say one of the things — the way I would put it is one of the things that you are suggesting in your research over time is that we can also rewire. When did science and popular culture start thinking about hard-wiring? Has this been a parallel development?
DR. DAVIDSON: Yeah. I mean, if you look at the history of the behavioral sciences and the intersection of behavioral sciences with biology, the 1960s was the heyday of behaviorism, when the environment was actually emphasized as being the primary cause of our behavior and there was no attention to the mind, no attention to biology, and the pendulum was very far to the extreme of considering what is inside the head to be really irrelevant, and we begin as a tabula rasa, an empty slate, and the environment through conventional mechanisms of learning determines who we are.
And then, in many ways, I think the pendulum swung in the opposite extreme for quite some time, where everything was attributed to our genes. And there were voices among public intellectuals who were calling into question any programs, for example, like Head Start and other programs to help disadvantaged individuals because the claim was that it’s all in our genes anyway and there’s nothing much we can do about it.
MS. TIPPETT: Right.
DR. DAVIDSON: Uh, that’s a bit of a caricature, but it’s, you know, I think it really does contain the kernel of truth in some of those statements.
And I think that what modern neuroscience is teaching us is that, in fact, there is a lot of plasticity, that change is indeed possible, and the evidence is more and more strongly in favor of the importance of environmental influences in shaping brain function and structure and even shaping the expression of our genes. So it’s not that genes are unimportant. It’s just that they’re much more dynamic than we previously understood.
MS. TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being — conversation about meaning, religion, ethics, and ideas. Today, “Investigating Healthy Minds.” Richard Davidson’s original research with monks grew out of a collaboration with the Dalai Lama, and it continues to this day. This research has centered on the brains of Buddhist monks who some describe as “Olympic meditators” — people who have spent tens of thousands of hours in contemplative practice.
MS. TIPPETT: So is it right that in 1992, the Dalai Lama sent you a fax inviting you to apply your ideas, to study the brains of monks? Is that right?
DR. DAVIDSON: Yes. He invited me to come meet with him in India and to explore the possibility of using the tools of what then was modern neuroscience to study what might have changed in the brains of these long-term meditation practitioners.
MS. TIPPETT: And I mean, you’re now known as a pioneer in this field of affective neuroscience, which is now I think larger than studying the brains of Olympic meditators, but begin with that. I mean, just tell me what that encounter and learning and that study, what did that open up for you?
DR. DAVIDSON: Well, first affective neuroscience, just to clarify terms, is a phrase that has been used to describe research on the neuroscience of emotion. And there is another hybrid discipline that we’re cultivating called contemplative neuroscience, which is the study of the impact of contemplative practices on the brain. So I think you’re really more referring to the latter, to contemplative neuroscience.
When I met the Dalai Lama for the first time in 1992, the Dalai Lama challenged me at that meeting in a very direct way and said that, you know, you’ve been using the tools of modern neuroscience to study qualities like depression and anxiety and fear and disgust. Why can’t you use those same tools to study qualities like kindness and compassion?
And there really was no good answer to that question other than that the study of kindness and compassion is hard. But it was hard when we began to study fear and anxiety.
MS. TIPPETT: Right.
DR. DAVIDSON: And we’ve made, as a field, a tremendous amount of progress in understanding the brain mechanisms that underlie those emotional qualities.
And so I made a commitment to the Dalai Lama on that day in 1992, and I made a commitment to myself that I was going to do everything I could to put compassion on the scientific map. I very much reoriented my research from that point on.
MS. TIPPETT: I think you’ve also noted that whereas science had developed and has developed a very nuanced vocabulary on negative affects like depression, hostility, that there wasn’t even a very sophisticated — there wasn’t at all a sophisticated way of talking about or thinking about or analyzing something like compassion.
DR. DAVIDSON: That — that’s true, and I would say there still isn’t a very sophisticated vocabulary. There was a time, and in fact it’s still represented in this way in many reviews and textbooks, there was a time when the repertoire of human emotions was described and it was described as six emotions, all of which are either neutral or negative and then there’s just one positive emotion.
MS. TIPPETT: And what was — was that compassion?
DR. DAVIDSON: No. That was happiness.
MS. TIPPETT: Happiness. Yeah, that’s simple.
DR. DAVIDSON: Yeah. The classic six are happiness, fear, anger, disgust, sadness, and surprise. Those are the six that have been classically studied as so-called discrete basic emotions. So surprise can be either positive or negative. The others are negative, and then there’s one positive emotion. You know, when we talk to the people in the contemplative traditions about this, I mean, they just are amazed that this is the best you can do in Western psychology?
MS. TIPPETT: Right. What’s your working definition of compassion then at this point?
DR. DAVIDSON: My working definition of compassion is that it is a motivational state that is associated with the propensity to relieve the suffering of others.
MS. TIPPETT: Right, so that it’s not just feeling-oriented, that is also has action potential.
DR. DAVIDSON: Yes, exactly. It’s both a feeling quality and an associated action disposition, as we would say.
MS. TIPPETT: You’ve also said that very much like language, you think that we’re born with a capacity to be compassionate.
DR. DAVIDSON: I do, and I think it’s very similar to the way language is conceptualized as part of our innate repertoire. That doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s automatically expressed in any environment. There have been, for example, case studies of feral children who have been raised in the wild in the absence of a linguistic community. And we know that in those children, they actually don’t develop a normal capacity for language. And in the same way, I think it is with compassion. I think compassion requires a nurturant community for it to arise, be nourished, be cultivated. And in the absence of that kind of nourishing, supportive, early environment, it can be stifled.
MS. TIPPETT: Right. But the way a language gets passed on is — our mother tongues at least, is not so much people telling us about it, but just doing it around us and then we soak it up.
DR. DAVIDSON: I think it’s the identical situation for compassion. The best way to teach compassion is to embody it. Not to teach it explicitly, but simply to be it, and it’s through the being that the individuals in the vicinity of that person who’s exuding compassion will implicitly understand and be affected by it and will learn from it. And that’s what’s — what’s so delicious about being in the presence of the Dalai Lama.
MS. TIPPETT: Right, right.
MS. TIPPETT: So I do want to get this connection right between the contemplative neuroscience and the affective neuroscience, because it seems to me — but I want you to correct me if I’m not getting this right — that you learned things from these meditators, which you are then now applying to regular human beings and also to disordered emotions to some of these negative states. I mean, I think the title of your center, the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds, points at the fact that you see this as the cultivation of positive qualities rather than just this focus on eradicating negative qualities. So now nuanced what I just said, and tell me the truer story.
DR. DAVIDSON: Well, I think your characterization is quite accurate. We start from the conjecture that health is not simply the absence of illness, and that’s true for both mental health as well as physical health. So the cultivation of positive qualities doesn’t simply mean the elimination of negative qualities. And so that’s why the name of our center was very intentionally chosen, and we’re interested in what positive qualities constitute a healthy mind. Once those are identified, how can we nurture them so that they become more prominently and more widely expressed in our culture?
MS. TIPPETT: You know, again, what you’ve learned from studying the brains of monks and meditators, you learned things about neuroplasticity, which really were very new, right, and exciting for the entire field of neuroscience. Tell me what that is, why that’s meaningful, and how that applies to this work you do with other people.
DR. DAVIDSON: Well, the work with long-term practitioners that we’ve done, as well as we’re continuing to do, is important because it sort of defines the further reaches of human plasticity and transformation.
MS. TIPPETT: Which just means that our brains can change, right? I mean, simply put.
DR. DAVIDSON: Simply put, yeah, and sort of the further extremes of brain changes, and so when we study these experts, we see things in their brain that have not been reported before in human brains.
MS. TIPPETT: So like what?
DR. DAVIDSON: Well, they’re — you know, they’re sort of technical, if you will. But for the neuroscience community, they’re very meaningful. There is a brain rhythm that is called gamma oscillations, and gamma oscillations are recorded through the electrical activity of the brain. When you observe gamma oscillations in a normal conventional person who has not gone through this kind of training, you see the oscillations for very short periods of time, typically one second or less. What we observed in the long-term practitioners during certain kinds of meditation, particularly meditation on compassion, was that these gamma oscillations persisted for a much longer period of time than has ever been reported. They persisted for minutes continuously at very high amplitude. This was just something that had not been observed before.
MS. TIPPETT: Do we know how that kind of oscillation, how that expresses itself in personality or in life? How does that correlate?
DR. DAVIDSON: We don’t — we don’t at this point. We know a little bit about what the phenomenal logical correlates are in these long-term practitioners, and the clearest is a quality of clarity of their perception. They are very good at providing granular accounts of their experience because they spend a lot of time interrogating their own minds. And actually, the word meditation in Sanskrit, one of its meanings is — comes from the word familiarization. We can think of these individuals as being just utterly familiar in a very deep way with their own mind, and that familiarization allows them to provide very granular reports. When they give those reports, it turns out that they could scale the extent to which their experience has this quality of clarity, and that quality of clarity turns out to be very highly correlated with the presence of these gamma oscillations. The more clarity, the more gamma.
MS. TIPPETT: OK.
Listen to this interview with Richard Davidson again and find ways to download it, at onbeing.org. There, you’ll also find some meditation exercises we’ve gathered that our listeners have loved, used, and shared with others. Sylvia Boorstein’s guided lovingkindness meditation is a favorite. Also, contemplative physicist Arthur Zajonc’s guided bell sound meditation. Try them out; change your brain.
You might be interested, too, in a piece on our blog suggesting that you don’t have to be an Olympic meditator to benefit deeply from this kind of exercise, even to find real relief from pain. The best way to stay on top of everything we do is by subscribing to our email newsletter and podcast. Just look for the updates link on our home page. Again, that’s onbeing.org.
Coming up, more on how Richard Davidson is drawing lessons from the brains of monks and pointing ADHD and autism treatment, even basic psychotherapy, in new directions. Also, his reflections after these first few decades of neuroscience on the enduring puzzle of human consciousness.
I’m Krista Tippett. This program comes to you from APM, American Public Media.
MS. TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being. Today, “Investigating Healthy Minds,” with Richard Davidson. He is a pioneer of what is called contemplative neuroscience. He’s provided new evidence of “neuroplasticity,” the capacity of the human brain to keep changing. And he is shifting the paradigm of understanding how emotions, behavior, and biology interact throughout our lives.
Richard Davidson made groundbreaking discoveries through studying the brains of Buddhist monks, long-term meditators, at the Waisman Laboratory for Brain Imaging and Behavior. That’s at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, where he teaches. In 2008, he also founded the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds there, to test his discoveries more broadly.
You’re now applying, you’re now doing work with children, also with affective and anxiety disorders, with things like ADD, with autism, with asthma. So tell me how what you’ve learned in all that changes, these — these approaches, what you’re developing here.
DR. DAVIDSON: Well, one of the things about all of these different conditions that you described — like ADHD, anxiety disorders, affective disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder, autism — they all involve differences in certain aspects of brain function. We know now that these contemplative practices can change brain function and brain structure. And if that’s true, then perhaps we can use these methods, and it’s really a family of methods, to change the mind and, through that, change the brain in ways that may be beneficial for helping individuals who are suffering from some of these disorders.
That’s kind of the simple-minded intuition which underlies this. We also hope that we can use some of these methods preventatively. So that is really behind a lot of the work we’re doing with kids because we feel that, if we can teach kids some of these simple strategies, they will have a toolbox from which they can select to help them with adversity that they may encounter as they go along. So we’re actually doing work now, starting in preschool with four- and five-year-olds, to provide them with these kinds of tools, to train them in these ways and then to follow them over the course of development to see if learning these strategies early in life can make a difference in facilitating a more positive trajectory of development and minimizing deleterious outcomes.
[Sound bite from preschool program]
CHILD: Give it to me [crying].
MS. TIPPETT: This is a moment in one of Richard Davidson’s programs with preschool children. His colleague, Laura Pinger, is with two children in a tussle.
LAURA PINGER: Show me with your hand how it feels inside. Where does it feel tight? Right there? And in your throat. OK, watch me. Put your hand on your belly and take in a breath with me. Ready? Blow it out.
MS. TIPPETT: And you’ve just started those projects, so you don’t have a lot of years of data behind them at this point?
DR. DAVIDSON: Right. We’ve just started them, but I must say that it’s been amazingly gratifying to just anecdotally see their effects. I live in Madison, Wisconsin. It’s kind of a small, closely knit community in many ways. And I was actually in a Trader Joe’s not too long ago and ran into a parent who was a parent of one of the preschool children who is part of our study. I didn’t know this person, but they knew who I was and they just came over to me and wanted to tell me two things. They wanted to thank me for what we are doing because they’ve noticed positive changes in their kid, and they also wanted to know where they can learn these methods because they found that it was clearly so helpful to their child.
MS. TIPPETT: So when you say there’s a family of methods, is some kind of contemplative or meditative practice always involved? What else is in this family of methods, this toolbox?
DR. DAVIDSON: Well, the idea here is simply that there are literally hundreds of different kinds of meditation practices. And so often in the West, we have this idea that meditation is one thing and that every kind of meditation will produce the same kinds of effects, and that’s just simply not true.
The contemplative traditions from which we draw have literally hundreds of different kinds of practices and they are designed for different kinds of people or for a person in different situations. They are understood within their own traditions to produce different effects and, biologically and behaviorally in the laboratory, they produce different effects. And it’s kind of the way I often talk about it lay audiences is that the word meditation is kind of like the word sports. There are many different kinds of sports that can be performed. Some are more active, some are less active, some are performed in groups, some not. The same is true of meditation.
MS. TIPPETT: It’s a big umbrella term.
DR. DAVIDSON: Yes.
MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm. But, I mean, so what would you do with young children like that?
DR. DAVIDSON: Well, with young children, our work is focused on two kinds of practices, two classes of practices. Within each class, there are a number of different types of practice, but the two classes are one is designed to cultivate kindness and the other is designed to cultivate mindfulness. By mindfulness here, we mean moment-by-moment nonjudgmental attention or awareness.
MS. TIPPETT: Attention and self-awareness, right, in a sense leading to a kind of self-regulation?
DR. DAVIDSON: Self-awareness, but also other awareness. So not just self-awareness, but certainly self-awareness would be included, including awareness of what’s going on in one’s body, which can be very helpful in understanding what emotions you’re experiencing, um, but also very much focused on being aware of others, being aware of one’s environment. You know, there are meditations on sound that are done to help children learn to pay attention to not just the inside, but the outside as well.
MS. TIPPETT: And what about the kindness? How do you cultivate that?
DR. DAVIDSON: Well, you know, cultivating that in children we use very different approaches than we do with adults. There are a lot of props that are used. There are books that we use as external props. There are opportunities for sharing, actual opportunities, as well as more classical, mental kinds of training where the children envision other kids in their classroom and envision times when they may have been not feeling so good and generating the wish to help them be happier and help relieve their suffering.
MS. TIPPETT: You’re teaching them to be reflective. I mean, right, that would be one way to talk about what’s going on in both of those instances with mindfulness and kindness.
DR. DAVIDSON: Yes. There’s definitely a reflective piece in each, absolutely.
[Sound bite from preschool program]
MS. PINGER: Blow it out. Go ahead. Tell him how you’re feeling when you see him so sad.
MS. PINGER: You feel sad too? Show me where in your body you feel sad.
CHILD: Right here.
MS. PINGER: Right here you feel sad in your body. It doesn’t feel so good, does it?
MS. TIPPETT: This audio is from a documentary about Richard Davidson’s work. Read our Q and A with the filmmaker at onbeing.org.
[Sound bite from preschool program]
MS. PINGER: Know what happens to your body when you’re paying attention? Quiet. It gets slow. You can pay attention on the outside and you can pay attention on the inside. So the first thing we’re going to do today is pay attention on the inside. Is everybody ready?
MS. TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being — conversation about meaning, religion, ethics, and ideas. Today, “Investigating Healthy Minds,” with neuroscientist Richard Davidson.
MS. PINGER: Now, this jar is like your mind when you’re angry and upset and then we see angry thoughts settling down.
MS. TIPPETT: I mean, I know you’re also working with adolescents, which is very interesting, and I would think that then the methods would be different. I mean, that’s a tumultuous time for the human brain and mind, isn’t it? I mean, so, how — how do you adapt this?
DR. DAVIDSON: Yeah, those are all wonderful questions. You know, this is a stage where I think we and others need to do a lot of tinkering and to figure out exactly what may work best, but also I quickly add that I don’t think there’s any one strategy which is going to work best for all individuals. One of the goals of this kind of scientific work is to better match differences in cognitive and emotional style, if you will, with strategies that are maximally effective for that person.
MS. TIPPETT: My daughter, when she was 12 or 13, did some science project at school on the adolescent brain, and she learned how difficult it was. It just gave her a great excuses for a while when she was being emotional, impulsive, but she couldn’t help it because she had an adolescent brain.
DR. DAVIDSON: Well, that’s good. Well, that’s, um, you know, it’s probably true. How old is she now?
MS. TIPPETT: Well, now she’s 17, and actually I think her brain is in a much better place at this point.
DR. DAVIDSON: Well, there’s, you know, the dilemma of adolescence is that puberty is occurring earlier and earlier and that the rate at which our regulatory systems and the brain mature has remained the same for thousands of years. So we actually have a longer period in human history today than we’ve ever had between the onset of puberty and the onset of the full maturation of regulatory systems in the brain.
MS. TIPPETT: So it’s not just that it starts earlier, it lasts longer.
DR. DAVIDSON: Yes. Oh, it lasts much longer.
MS. TIPPETT: Now that’s really interesting.
DR. DAVIDSON: Yeah, we now have like a 10-year period. It’s longer than ever before in human history.
MS. TIPPETT: So, you know, I know that you’ve been honored by the American Psychological Association, and I wonder how does your work, um, inform the work of psychotherapy? You know, are you learning things about actually changing the brain, about influencing the mind and influencing ourselves biologically with behaviors that might, I don’t know, circumvent, transcend, or somehow enrich the ways we already know to work with, who we are and how healthy we are and how we live?
DR. DAVIDSON: Well, you know, I’d like to believe that some of the work that we do may have some implications or relevance for kind of on-the-ground, in-the-trenches psychotherapy or related strategies for behavior change in several ways. One is a kind of meta-level which helps a client or patient understand that, based upon everything we know about the brain in neuroscience, that change is not only possible, but change is actually the rule rather than the exception. And it’s really just a question of which influences we’re going to choose for our brain. But our brain is wittingly or unwittingly being continuously shaped.
MS. TIPPETT: Right.
DR. DAVIDSON: Another thing is the idea of practice. The classical model of Western psychotherapy — which is, you know, a client coming to a therapist for an hour a week for a 50-minute session without doing daily practice in between — just flies in the face of everything we know about the brain and plasticity.
MS. TIPPETT: That’s really interesting, isn’t it?
DR. DAVIDSON: It is. So if we want to make real change, that’s not a good prescription for doing it. If we want to make real change, more systematic practice is necessary, in my view. This is something that comes directly from neuroscience. And I think that certain kinds of psychological therapies are now understanding that, and so certain kinds of cognitive therapies, for example, do assign specific kinds of homework or practice for people to engage in on a daily basis. So I think there’s growing recognition of that.
MS. TIPPETT: And, again, the different focus that you’re taking that we talked about at the beginning, the focus that was different for scientists, but also the focus that’s different from psychology, psychotherapy, that it’s focused on what’s wrong and addressing that. I mean, the practice would be about cultivating positive qualities, not just remembering, recalling, delving into pain.
DR. DAVIDSON: Right. I think that’s very important and I think that most people still don’t think of qualities like happiness as being a skill rather than it’s typically conceptualized as a fixed trait and some people have more of it; some people have less of it. But if you think about it more as a skill, then it’s something that can be enhanced through training. And fundamentally, I think that the kind of mental exercise that we’re talking about is no different than physical exercise. People understand that they can’t just do two weeks of physical exercise and then expect …
MS. TIPPETT: And be healthy.
DR. DAVIDSON: … the benefits to remain for the rest of their lives. And the same thing with mental exercise.
MS. TIPPETT: I was also thinking about, you know, when you talked earlier on that there were six emotional states and one of them was happiness. But I think about a conversation I had with Matthieu Ricard, who’s one of the people whose brains you’ve studied and who I think you learned a lot from. He talks about happiness in fact as a mental state that can precisely take in all emotions and experiences, including negative experiences. That’s how you live with those, not a feeling that you have all the time.
DR. DAVIDSON: Right, and I think that that’s a very different conception of happiness, one that is a more enduring and I think more genuine in the sense that it’s a kind of happiness that is not dependent on external circumstances.
MS. TIPPETT: Right, right, that can take in all of whatever comes at you, whatever circumstances.
DR. DAVIDSON: Right, absolutely.
MS. TIPPETT: We talked about a book you wrote about the psychobiology of consciousness, back in 1980. I’m curious about the distinction you make between these terms brain, mind, consciousness and if that has changed over time.
DR. DAVIDSON: Oh, that’s a tough one. It’s a tough one for so many reasons. You know, putting on my scientific hat, certainly the view of mainstream modern neuroscience is that the mind and consciousness are somehow emerging properties of the brain. Many philosophers refer to this as the hard problem, because we still have no idea how this subjective quality of consciousness actually emerge from the physical stuff of the brain. And so many of us, myself included, bracket that problem and we still can make progress on lots of other things without having to solve that problem.
But I also straddle a number of different worlds. You know, I spend quite a bit of time with the Dalai Lama, who has a very different view of mind and brain and consciousness and has the view that, at least in some residual form, consciousness can exist without the brain. It may still be some form of energetic matter yet to be understood and determined, but not the brain as we conventionally understand it. And, you know, the honest truth is, I have no idea what to do with those kinds of, um, suggestions other than to practice remaining agnostic and distinguishing between what is hard-nosed scientific fact and what is simply part of our conventional scientific dogma or hegemony.
MS. TIPPETT: OK. Right.
DR. DAVIDSON: And the Dalai Lama in the beginning of his book on science and spirituality, the book entitled The Universe in a Single Atom, says that, if there’s any tenet to Buddhism which is directly contradicted by scientific fact, that he’s prepared to give that up. But he makes a very clear distinction between scientific fact and scientific assumption. But it takes a lot of active work to remain in the ambiguity of not knowing.
MS. TIPPETT: Right. You use terms when you speak and write about your work that have — that are terms that also occur in theological and philosophical realms. You know, free will, transformation. Do you use the term spiritual technology or are you familiar with that term? Is that a way you might talk about some of these tools and practices that you’re using?
DR. DAVIDSON: Potentially. I don’t think I’ve used that phrase, but certainly I have talked about the range of practices, really the mechanics of practice, that are so richly described in some of the contemplative traditions and the potential value that many of these practices might have for modern science and our modern understanding of the mind.
MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm.
DR. DAVIDSON: You know, I certainly — the idea of transformation is one that to me meshes perfectly well with conventional scientific understanding. I have no problem with that and, you know, I think that really is a natural byproduct of understanding many of these constructs as the product of skills that can be enhanced through training.
MS. TIPPETT: So, again, how you’ve thought about what it meant to be human back in the ’60s and ’70s when you started doing this. How has this opened, that changed that for you?
DR. DAVIDSON: Well, it’s — you know, it’s given me, I think a much — I feel a much richer and more encompassing, uh, sense of what it means to be human. I think that it has underscored for me the preciousness of every human encounter. And so my sense of being human, I think, has been really, uh, dramatically expanded and, at the same time, I think my sense of time has in certain ways really slowed down so that I can stop and look at each moment and appreciate it for what it might afford rather than sort of rushing on to the next thing.
MS. TIPPETT: I remember talking to Jon Kabat-Zinn about that, which is a very striking statement to make in 21st-century ears, that by paying attention in a moment, you actually slow down time.
DR. DAVIDSON: Yeah, I think you radically slow down time, and you can notice more things per a discrete moment because you’re just more open. I think that leads to a subjective sense of time really slowing down.
MS. TIPPETT: OK. Yes, just — I have a question from behind the glass. My producers were tweeting this behind the glass and someone asked on Twitter what the consequences of this practice can be for multitasking, this kind of way we live now.
DR. DAVIDSON: Well, you know, one question is whether we actually, um, ever are truly multitasking in the sense of literally doing two things simultaneously or whether we are rapidly oscillating between the things that we are doing when we’re multitasking. But the larger issue, I think, is really just being present with whatever it is that we’re doing. And so if what we’re doing is multitasking, you know, being present with the multiple tasks that are before us. You know, I have a wonderful picture of Matthieu Ricard. When he comes to Madison, he stays at our house. And he was sitting in the living room with a laptop computer on his lap, looking at the computer, and he was talking on his cell phone and he also had a book right next to him opened, and it was …
MS. TIPPETT: This Tibetan Buddhist monk.
DR. DAVIDSON: Yes, this wonderful picture of this Tibetan Buddhist monk who is our digital monk engaged in multitasking, but, you know, I think doing it in a way which was really quite present to all of the various tasks in which he was engaged. So that may not be a very satisfying answer, but I do think it’s possible. I’ve seen — I’ve seen it in others. I’ve seen Matthieu do it, I’ve seen the Dalai Lama do it.
MS. TIPPETT: Rick, that’s very hopeful, like the idea of neuroplasticity itself. All right. Thank you so much, Richard Davidson.
DR. DAVIDSON: Thank you so much. I appreciate the opportunity.
MS. TIPPETT: Richard Davidson is William James and Vilas Research Professor of Psychology and Psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. There, he’s also director of the Waisman Laboratory for Brain Imaging and Behavior. And he founded and directs the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds.
We often tweet our interviews as they’re happening, and the twitterscript goes up on our blog well before you hear the produced show by radio or podcast. This is just one of the ways you can be part of our production process and even join in my interviews. Our handle, @Beingtweets. And find us on Facebook at facebook.com/onbeing, where we have a real community of dialogue and reflection. At onbeing.org, of course, you can find links to all of this, and listen to this show with Richard Davidson again, download it, and pass it on to others.
On this week’s show site, look for two like-minded conversations that got a mention in this hour. One, with Jon Kabat-Zinn, we called “Opening to Our Lives”; also our show with the multitasking digital monk Matthieu Ricard, on the authentic meaning and practice of human happiness.
On Being online and on air is created by Chris Heagle, Nancy Rosenbaum, Susan Leem, Stefni Bell, and Anne Breckbill.
Special thanks this week to Phie Ambo, director of the documentary film Free the Mind.
Our senior producer is Dave McGuire. Trent Gilliss is senior editor. And I’m Krista Tippett.
MS. TIPPETT: Next time, David Sloan Wilson says evolutionary biology should be a force for social good like the best of religion. And he’s applying this idea in a quintessential American city.
Please join us.
This is APM, American Public Media.