I still remember when I began to hear about Richard Davidson’s work. More to the point, I remember the warmth and excitement with which the immunologist Esther Sternberg first told me about him. He inspired in her a courage to align her insights from science and life. Later I would pick up the esteem and affection in which many wise people hold “Richie,” as they all call him — including Matthieu Ricard, the French-born Tibetan Buddhist monk, who brought the notion of happiness alive for me in a whole new way.
Richard Davidson has studied Matthieu Ricard’s brain. His body of work in brain imaging has helped shape the young field of neuroscience. And it shines a new light on elemental understandings of human character, mental and emotional health, and moral development across the life span.
As he tells it, he had a fascination with the mind — its mysterious power to define our very lives — from childhood on. And he was always scientifically oriented, interested in exploring the mind in terms of biology. But as a young scientist, he also became aware of the limits of the tools at hand. As I was preparing to interview him, I found an academic work he edited in 1980 on the “psychobiology of consciousness.” And it was striking to realize that even thirty years ago, EEG biofeedback was the best researchers could do in monitoring what was happening inside the brain. This was the world before the widespread use of MRI and other technologies that have unlocked frontiers.
In this same period, Richard Davidson also became interested in meditation. As a graduate student, he traveled to India and attended his first meditation retreat there in the 1970s. To this day he doesn’t call himself Buddhist, but he does have a daily contemplative practice. He experienced this as personally and spiritually gratifying, and the scientist in him was intrigued by this ancient discipline of observing one’s own mind, as it were, from the inside.
He was “in the closet” with this interest for a long time, as he tells it, because Western medicine cast a wary eye on anything that might be deemed spiritual and therefore unscientific. But, one day in 1992, he received a fax from the Dalai Lama inviting him to Dharamsala, India to probe the scientific causes of human happiness and compassion. Davidson eventually brought Tibetan Buddhist monks into the laboratory that he directs at the University of Wisconsin to see whether their meditation practices might alter the very physiology of the brain.
The answer, as it turned out, was yes. Some of the most dramatic observable findings are not yet explainable. For example, these monks have a much higher rate of gamma wave oscillations than has ever been captured before. It is not precisely known how such oscillations correlate to life, behavior, and consciousness. But high gamma wave oscillations do correlate generally with clarity of mental perception — to synthesize and sort among multiple inputs and to attend to granular aspects of experience. These results from Richard Davidson’s laboratory provided a new and solid piece of evidence that our brains are open to change across the lifespan. We don’t reach a stage in adolescence or young adulthood where our minds have finished forming. There is a far more fluid, lifelong interplay between emotions, behaviors, biology, and even genetics than was previously suspected. The name for this — “neuroplasticity” — masks the very hopeful and practical power it puts back in the realm of human choice.
Richard Davidson is now aspiring to understand this more deeply and channel it more broadly at the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds, which he founded in 2008. He knows that practicing meditation, and cultivating positive qualities like compassion and kindness, can actually rewire us physically. So might this, he is asking and testing, reveal new avenues of approach to conditions like ADHD, autism, even asthma? Might it show us elemental ways to equip children and adolescents to be more self-aware and compassionate in their interactions with others?
I’m also intrigued by how this work might challenge and enrich basic tenets of Western psychology. Richard Davidson tells of an early encounter with Buddhist practitioners seeking — and failing — to understand why Western psychology’s basic definition of the human emotional range is overwhelmingly focused on disorder. Is it really the best we can do, Davidson himself began to ask, to have a sophisticated understanding of anxiety and psychosis but only a primitive grasp of compassion?
I'm left wondering how this science might reframe and enrich things like therapy, child-rearing, education, and treatment of mental disorders in the years to come. I think it will be transformative. And as Richard Davidson says near the end of our conversation, the notion of transformation is compatible with the heart of science he has always known and revered. People like Richard Davidson recall us to this, and open a larger sense of what it might mean, to our common edification.
About the photo above: Psychology professor Richard Davidson, far right, demonstrates to Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet, a PET scanner during a tour of the Keck Laboratory for Functional Brain Imaging and Behavior in May 2001. (photo: Jeff Miller / © UW-Madison University Communications)