Interview: Training the Brain

By catalyst

Richard Davidson, named by Time Magazine in 2006 as one of the 100 most influential people in the world, is renowned for his work in advancing the understanding of the brain and conscious mind in healing and the emotions. He speaks with CATALYST before his Feb. 4 visit as U of U Tanner lecturer.
by Carl Rabke
How would you describe the over-arching intention for your work?
Let me give a bit of background. My career has really been spent studying the brain mechanisms that underlie emotion and disorders of emotion. The work has focused on how people respond to emotional challenges, particularly to adversity. Patterns of brain activity are associated with styles of vulnerability versus resilience. Those differences in brain function are important in modulating the course health and illness. One issue we have become particularly interested in is how we can transform these emotional styles and the corresponding brain mechanisms that support them, in ways that promote increased levels of well being and resilience. This is where the research on meditation and related contemplative practices comes in. The primary motivation and aspiration for this work is that it will play its small role in helping to relieve suffering. It’s our conviction that some of the suffering on this planet may be reduced by transforming our minds; through systematic practice, we can transform our minds in ways that also change our brains and benefit our bodies.

You’ve done extensive research on the effects of meditation practice on both long term practitioners as well as those new to meditation. What have you found most interesting with each of those groups regarding the effect of meditation on brain activity, and how might that be reflected in how they live their lives?

We’ve studied the impact of meditation practice on people who are rank beginners who have never meditated before and tracking changes over time as they learn to practice. On the other side, we’ve studied practitioners who have spent on average 35,000 hours of their lifetime in formal practice. If your readers do the arithmetic, that means years of continuous daily practice. In these very long term practitioners we have been able to study what we think of as the farther reaches of human neuroplasticity—that is, the impact of the most extreme kinds of changes that the brain may be capable of displaying. We have observed radical alterations in brain physiology, in brain hemodynamics, in the circuitry that particularly is involved in the regulation of attention and the regulation of emotion; both are dramatically transformed by such practices.

We’re particularly interested in studying meditation practices that are specifically designed to cultivate compassion and see how those practices transform a person’s response to stimuli that depict human suffering. The capacity to change our response to human suffering may be key in the development of compassion. Practitioners report that this long term training prepares a person so that when they confront suffering in the world, their automatic disposition is to help to reduce the suffering—the propensity is called forth by the occasion of suffering.

We’ve observed neural changes which we have interpreted as consistent with that kind of conjecture although a lot more research needs to be done.

We have been interested in whether even short amounts of compassion training can make a difference for both the brain and behavior. One experiment we recently completed involved training people who had never meditated before. They received training for 30 minutes a day for two weeks. We looked at changes in their brain before and after the training, and also behavioral measures that may be sensitive to compassion training.

For example, we gave participants the opportunity to donate a portion of the money we paid them to a charitable cause of their choice and had them execute the transaction online. Among people who received the compassion training, those who showed changes in the brain in particular areas actually donated more money. So we can show a very strong relationship between the magnitude of neural change and a real-life behavioral measure that may be sensitive to the cultivation of compassion.

What you think might change if meditation and attention-training practices were implemented in other areas such as medicine and education?

I believe the impact of meditation and contemplative practice will be particularly significant in these areas. The field of medicine is probably further along than education at this point. A study, not ours, was done with patients with psoriasis, a skin disease that is treated with exposure to ultraviolet light. Since patients had to be in this light box, some were taught to meditate while they were receiving the treatment. The rate of healing was tracked and it turns out the patients who were given the meditation instructions healed more quickly than those receiving just the treatment alone.

This indicates that the changes in the brain produced by meditation have downstream consequences for peripheral biology—that is, biology below the neck; in this case, the effects on psoriasis treatments.

Another example: In studying wound healing, we have created blisters in a person—it sounds gruesome but it’s pretty painless—and we can actually look at the rate at which they heal. We can also extract the blister’s fluid and study the molecular markers that play a role in inflammation. To make a long story short, we find that meditation does accelerate wound healing. I believe that as we begin to learn about the detailed biological mechanisms that underlie some of the effects of meditation, it will become more widely accepted in the medical community. We’re providing a rigorous rationale for how meditation actually works. Once this set of mechanisms is described and understood, it provides a framework for traditional bio-medicine to accept it.

As education becomes more evidence-based, it will become more receptive to training procedures that may facilitate a child’s ability to concentrate, to pay attention, to regulate his or her emotions in a way that could be conducive to learning and pro-social behavior.

In the last 20-30 years, an increasing number of attentional and emotional difficulties that both children and adults experience have been addressed through the use of pharmaceuticals. If meditation and other mind-training practices were implemented in, say, the realms of education and medicine, how do you think that would affect the role of pharmaceuticals in our culture?

Medication for certain kinds of psychiatric conditions is a viable and often effective therapeutic strategy. I also think that in certain contexts, certain kinds of medications are over-used. Strategies like meditation have many fewer side effects than medication. I do believe that in the long run we will find that reliance on medication will be less with an increased use of meditation. There needs to be a balanced, informed approach to this. Patients with serious forms of psychiatric conditions may benefit from both. We need to keep an open mind and use the best tools of science available. If we can reduce the reliance on medication, which we know can have deleterious side effects, I think that would be a great benefit.

As a longtime friend of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, I’m sure you have experienced the profound impact his presence has on those around him. Could you talk about the way the values we hold affect those around us?

This is an extremely important issue which I have thought about a lot. One of the best ways of studying compassion, for example, is to not study the compassionate person, but study the impact that person has on others. Certainly His Holiness the Dalai Lama is an extraordinary example of bringing out the compassion in others. We are biologically wired to process social information, and particularly positive social information of the kind that is characteristic of compassion, which is one of deep acceptance, of nurturing, of love. When you are with His Holiness the Dalai Lama, most people, including myself, feel this very, very deeply, and it clearly does affect my view. This needs to be studied more scientifically. We can use this as a framework to better understand the impact of training doctors and teachers—seeing how modeling and cultivating these positive qualities affects themselves and the students and patients with whom they interact. I think it’s just a fantastic area to explore.

Many people experience values as fixed—“I am what I am.” Could you speak a bit about the connection between values and neuroplasticity and the possibility of developing or changing values at any time in one’s life through training?

That is really the key. Values are not fixed, they are not irrevocable or immutable. They can be transformed thorough experience and practice. Wittingly or unwittingly, the brain is continuously being affected by the environment in which we live. The brain is the organ, more than any other organ in the body, that’s built to change in response to experience.

We can take more responsibility for the experiences we are having. We can maximize the positive trajectory of brain development and minimize the negative trajectory by regulating our minds, and literally altering the nature of the experiences in which we reside. That is where the role of practice comes in. The data are beginning to show that through practice, we can alter the function and structure of the brain.

To paraphrase the Dalai Lama in “The Art Of Happiness”: The wiring of our brains is not irrevocably fixed; our brains are adaptable. His point was that happiness can be enhanced and transformed through training the brain. u

Carl Rabke is a once and future regular contributor to CATALYST.  He has a Feldenkrais and Structural Integration practice, and is a regular meditator.

February 4, 2009, 7 p.m.:
What: Richard Davidson will present the Tanner Lecture on Human Values at the University of Utah. His topic is “Order and Disorder in the Emotional Brain.”
Where: Utah Museum of Fine Arts Dumke Auditorium

February 5, 2009, 9 a.m.
What: Panel discussion
Where: Carolyn Tanner Irish Humanities Building, Rm. 109.

The public is welcome.

This article was originally published on December 31, 2008.