Richard Davidson —
Investigating Healthy Minds

Neuroscientist Richard Davidson is revealing that the choices we make can actually “rewire” our brains. He’s studied the brains of meditating Buddhist monks, and now he’s using his research with children and adolescents to look at things like ADHD, autism, and kindness.

Share Episode

Shortened URL


is William James and Vilas Research Professor of Psychology and Psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and director of the Waisman Laboratory for Brain Imaging and Behavior. He's also founder and director of the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds.

About the Image

Rich, a U.S. soldier who fought in Iraq, is hooked up to electrodes that monitor his brain activity while in Richard Davidson's lab.

Photo by Free the Mind

Episode Sponsor

Funding provided in part by the Nour Foundation.

Episode Sponsor

Share a Reflection



Hello, I have been receiving your emails for quite some time but never figured out that the real juice in your work is to be found in your recorded interviews. So now I have iTunes and am in the middle of listening to your interview with Richard Davidson. Not such 'Thinking Allowed' and Bill Moyers' work with Joseph Campbell and Huston Smith have I found such high quality interviews with the best of contemporary thinkers. I work in the field of addictions and am committed to exploring a deeper understanding of the link between meaning/connectedness/wholeness and unhealthy attachment. I have also ordered Krista's book and looking forward to reading further.

Mindfulness: a Core Competency for social change professionals, for educators,healthcare professionals, corrections staff, clergy, military, etc. My work is to adapt the practices into healthcare & education, to train patients, students, parents, professionals. I serve as translator, helping people to understand practices & learn to use them within the complex regulatory systems of education & healthcare. The work is systematic, building recognition within institutions. As changes occur in policy & practice, the training & tools are becoming more widely available. More people receive empowerment from a range of mindfulness methods. I use practices of zazen, yoga, chant, meditative dance and writing. Mindfulness improves my mind. When I am mindful, my body-mind energy is stable & flexible. I am more patient & kind. My perceptions are clearer. More creative. Insight flows and inspiration is more apparent. Mindfulness tames my ego, helps me stay focused on service to humanity, helps me avoid petty distractions. It gives my mind discernment & integrity. Keeps a diamond in my mind. Makes me a more effective therapist, able to find & use creative ways to teach people to cultivate contentment and reduce suffering. Karma Carpenter "KC" Shea "Keeping body in mind at work, at school, at play."

As a good follow-up to this program, you may wish to look into the late 19th - early 20th century English educational theorist, Charlotte Mason, who is regarded by many as the unofficial founder of the modern home-schooling movement. One of the primary pillars of her teaching on education has to do with the development of good habits in children, some of which can be seen as variations on "mindfulness." And, if one reads her works closely, you find that she anticipates the connection between habit and brain/neural plasticity, and thus the field of neurobiology. See, for instance:

I often struggle with difficulty dealing with setbacks and challenges so I found this show fascinating. When I became unwell with a rare illness that caused me to have anxiety, something I had not experienced before, I began to truly understand and believe in the concept of mind over matter because it was necessary to my getting through the panic. Reading buddhist writings has helped with this immensely, although I find all spiritual writing interesting and helpful.

It seems like common-sense that children be taught these skills in school. Too often they are punished for behavior that is reflecting how they feel. They need to be taught how to separate feeling from action, how to empathize with others, how to react to challenges and setbacks rather than just be punished for something they may not really understand.

A good friend who was a 1st and 2nd grade teacher did this with her classroom kids. She taught them skills to help them deal with problems at school, tools in their toolbox. It made a huge difference for these kids - for many of them it was not something they could have come up with on their own and that was the only way they were going to get this information. Too bad it wasn't adopted by the school as policy that it should be continued all the way through the grades.

Thank you for a great show!

Hi Krista and Friends,

Your story this week made me formulate this question that has been building for a while now, due in part to other stories on your wonderful program, going back to the early days of Speaking of Faith. These stories, and especially today's, have made me realize that I need to find some kind of meditation method or spiritual practice.

But there are so many different types of meditation methods and spiritual practices. How can I find the right one for me? At my fairly advanced age, conducting a systematic search would take too long with little likelihood of finding it before I leave this earth.

Is there someone who can help me find the right thing, or a book or something? I might add that I’ve been a student and sometimes teacher of Tai Chi for many years (about 40 years). I have found that it has been a positive force in my life in some ways, but not as powerfully as I would like. I feel that at this stage I need something else and I have no idea what that would be.

Thank you for any response you (or anyone) is willing to give.

Craig Rice
Denver, Colorado

i bet you have had many replies. there are so many different types of meditation. i am a mediator tho i infrequently stop for a short while; never a good idea. developing compassion and coping with stresses in a compassionate way is why i meditate. my method is passage meditation; similar to centering prayer. if you have a faith tradition you might start there, what contemplative practice does your tradition offer? if no faith tradition, i would try to pursue a practice that doesn't emphasize the technique above all (specific posture, etc.). while it's important to be consistent i think in the time, place and length of your daily meditation, i don't think technique is all that critical (when asked what was the best posture for meditation, srii ramana maharshi said something like "the position in which your mind becomes still". if you want to try passage meditation look at . i think they have a Denver satsang listed...). that's one suggestion to add to your list.

Peace. Linda.

I have had some level of yoga practice for almost 30 years - and have practiced very consistently for the past 10+ years. I find the practice itself meditative in that it helps me focus inward on myself and my body as I move through the postures. Each class closes with a brief period of meditation which generally leaves me feeling renewed and refreshed.

I am immensely intrigued and hopeful at the thought and promise of cultivating healthy practices rather than waiting for things to go bad and then trying to repair them. I am eager to try the practices highlighted on the web site and I aspire to a greater level of contemplative practice in my life. Thanks for the inspiration and resources!

I struggle with PTSD. I've tried so many things I could be in a text book, yet I still fall into the black hole. I've read about meditation and tried it but let it lapse because it's so hard. Just listening to this show makes me feel better, and I will get back on the mat with your suggestions. I'm a school counselor and particularly liked hearing about the work with children. We are always looking for anti-bullying programs and I'm just not impressed with them. I love the idea of instead teaching compassion. Can't wait to hear more.

My thoughts while listening to Richard Davidson's conversation on distilled to: Being present... Paying attention... slow down time.

I have to stop myself from packing my stuff and going to study with Richard Davidson. He talked about what I always, even as a child, felt, looked for and pondered about. I've been reading about the brain, emotion, body and mind, for many years, yet this conversation distilled the essence of what I am passionate about, and what I want to expand on in my learning, both as a human being and an artist. I can change, continuously, and with deeper understanding of my own structures. That is profound.
Incredibly grateful.

I've been a Quaker for over 25 years, having attended "meetings" which are more or less silent. We don't call it meditation, but it could be. I spend a lot of the time distracted, but still find that the few moments that I am centered during "Meeting" have brought me insight over the years.
I worked in a preschool during the last school year and would love to hear about the methods Richard Davidson and his students are developing to help kids who have difficulties in school.

This is a terrific discussion. I have been meditating for 6 years fairly irregularly, but cultivating more mindfulness in everyday life. I invite my children to meditate with me and they treasure the time and are learning the practice as well. I am wondering if Dr. Davidson has studied the potential effects of so-called "brain entrainment" techniques? These techniques use binaural stimulation to cause the brain to enter certain desirable states, including high gamma waves associated with moments of insights. I have used some of these programs, mostly for sleep, and in my extremely small study they seem effective for that. Dr. Davidson described the correlation of gamma waves with long-term meditators. Does it follow (or is it true) that gamma waves can induce similar or related positive effects? Thank you - Alan

I wonder if they have studied or will study the minds of Christians who have spent thousands of hours in prayer (if there are any). People who pray a lot tend to have more humility and compassion. Could they be simply changing their minds by meditating on God? If so, does that have any theological implications?

Dr. Andrew Newberg at Penn in Philadelphia has studied Franciscan (Catholic) nuns at his facility and found changes in their frontal lobes when meditating on a bible passage in an MRI. He has an extensive website: and he has a CD at His focus is on God and the brain. ~ The finding from various researchers is that meditative practices, regardless of religious tradition (or none) change brain chemistry and change brain structure, particularly in the brain behind the forehead that is involved in both attention/focus and compassion.

For theological implications, I have been greatly blessed by the writings of contemporary Christian contemplatives such as Rev. Cynthia Bourgeault, Fr. Thomas Keating, and Br. Steindl-Rast. ~ "Be still and know that I am God" (Psalm 46)

I think its like everything else where its more about the genuine intent. We all need something to believe in.

I found this discussion fascinating in many ways. I have a grandson with a rare neural migration condition called ILS -Isolated Lissencephaly, which is Greek for smooth brain. Among other distinguishing factors is an almost complete absence of sulci & gyra. He is profoundly physically and mentally retarded. There is no cure, there is no treatment (other than trying to achieve and maintain seizure control) and there was no "warning" during pregnancy or birth. Yet, within that 20 month old body is a distinctly human person with a strong personality. He constantly challenges me to re-evaluate what I thought I knew about consciousness, the mind, the self, the soul. I applaud those whose scientific efforts help to bring more light to the amazing organ we call the brain. We believe there is alot going on with that little guy and regret that we have so little familiarity with ways to "read" him. Hopefully, continued research will open pathways for him or others like him in the future.

Thank you so much for this show and the many others exploring the link between health and mindfulness. Although I was already familiar with much of Richard Davidson's work, I was not aware of his work with children and specifically with autism. I was so excited to hear this mentioned during the show and am eager to learn more. I am actively seeking out research and input on using mindfulness practices with young children.

I am currently developing a new center in Vermont to serve children and families affected by autism. The Sapphire Center's philosophy is grounded in a relationship based approach and informed by the scientific research coming from the field of interpersonal neurobiology. Mindfulness practices are a key element of the work with children, parents and staff. It was interesting to see another person's comment about Charlotte Mason's approach as we have also incorporated some aspects of it into our curriculum.

Thank you again to On Being for cultivating a community of inquiry, dialogue and inspiration!

Krista -- Have you read "Thoughts Without A Thinker", Mark Epstein? It came to mind reading of the wedding dance of science and meditation.

Thanks for the piece on the work of Richard Davidson. Near the end of your article you write - "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."

It is really interesting how you use the word transformational in regards to this science of the mind that Davidson is studying. Our Creator, God, inspired the apostle Paul to write in Romans 12:2 "Be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind." God knows that we can transform our lives if we renew our mind. I believe what Paul was referring to is that we are to renew our attitudes about life according to what Scripture tells us, because Scripture is our Creator's guidelines for living life. It holds the keys and principles to experiencing life as God designed us to experience.

See this article about Renewing the Mind.

I have been experimenting with a mindful driving(automobile commuting) practice using primary colors and R.A.I.N. (Recognize, Accept, Investigate, Detach). It has helped me keep my mind on what traffic is doing instead of getting emotionally invested in other drivers' behaviors, stuff at work, or an NPR story(I leave the radio off).

Driving is less stressful and my ability to pull up R.A.I.N. to address strong emotional experiences is better.

Brain plasticity isn't exactly recent science. My dad demonstrated it back in the 1970s, and I don't think he was the very first.

I am 42, was diagnosed with ADHD just a couple of years ago as part of my Masters degree in teaching. This added to my dyslexia and color blindness. I have taken and then stopped taking medication for the ADHD. It had a very negative affect on my moods.

Buddhist based mediation, complete with a new diet and exercise regime had significantly improved my life skills.

Thank you for sharing. I would suggest we look at holistic plans for individuals diagnosed with ADHD and other unique learning talents. Also change the language we use to describe "disability" it has huge impacts upon students and their self esteem.
I'm lucky to have an IQ of 136 and rapid motor skills. I would also suggest we look at the post k-12 support for people like me. CDC data says the cost for ADHD alone is $50 billion. We can do better that stuffing drugs into people. I believe they should be seen as a bridge technology not the long term solution.


Hello, I really enjoyed your interview with Richard Davidson that aired this weekend. Quick question, what was the piano composition playing during part of the interview? Thanks!

I am particularly intrigued with the work he's doing with autistic / adhd children. My son has struggled for more than 11 years with Aspergers and a Mood Disorder. He also presents ADHD and a generalized anxiety disorder. He also responds atypically to most psychiatric treatments/medication. At 16, we have tried EVERYTHING to help him with the focus on him helping himself. Trying to find something to help him have a good quality of life that allows for further education, employment and independent living seems elusive. Is there anything in the Seattle area that follows this kind of contemplative neuroscience. My gut tells me this may hold a key to unlocking some peace for my child.

Hi, Casondra,

My granddaughter had an early ADHD diagnosis. Medication has done her a world of good, but meditation is not rocket science- I've been on retreats for 20 years and believe me, nobody's an expert. You could begin with a body sweep. Have him lie down relaxing and talk him slowly through paying attention to his experience of his body. Breathing in and out is a standard anchor, because it's always there, each breath different. Gradually let him have longer spaces without quiet reminders about returning to the breath. If he thinks this is weird or useless, work in rewards for effort. Start small. four or so minutes. Build incrementally. I also urge you to check out and have an interview with your nearest clinic. Short, five week session, half hour a day, some very promising results. Judge for yourself. It's computer based so your son will feel it's normal. If possible, both we're only talking about 40 to 45 minutes daily. My heart broke daily for my granddaughter-don't give up. These two interventions have the strong possibility of giving your beautiful son some peace and ease. I wish you all my best, Casondra. Marie.

I was writing about Richard Davidson's observations regarding meditating monks. I practice Nichiren Buddhism, and have for about 3.5 years. Instead of a silent meditation period, we chant Nam Myoho Renge Kyo (Devotion to the mystic Law of the Universe of simultaneous cause and effect ("renge = Lotus Flower in Japanese, it blooms and seeds simultaneously) through sound or the vibration of the chanting of the mantra.

I have found that since I began my practice, i have fewer mood swings, take less medication, and am generally healthier mentally than I was previously. We believe that we are responsible for our own causes and the resulting effects. So, I think Dr. Davidson is definitely on to something when he says that we can control our brain's response to stimuli. I know from personal experience that the chanting of the mantra becomes meditation-like, and one becomes very calm, and genuinely healthier and happier mentally.

As a mother, grandmother, recent graduate of a College of Ed, specializing in Exceptional Student Education(Special Ed), and a Buddhist practitioner, I found this segment especially meaningful and thought-provoking in helping me to see the beneficial connections between my emerging meditation practice and my personal and professional roles.Krista, thanks for your wisdom in selecting and interviewing these wonderful experts. Richard Davidson, thanks for all of the work that you have done in the field of Contemplative Neuroscience.

Krista, please understand that you inspire me with your intellect and your ability to research and verbalize your thoughts and your reason. I am fascinated by neuroscience and the inroads that have been, and have yet to be made. This interview with Richard Davidson was beyond disappointing. Really? Because Matthieu Ricard can be on his laptop, his cell phone, and have a book in front of him means that multi-tasking is 'OK' if we 'stay present with multi-tasking?' Unbelievable. This guy is an academic who loves to hear himself spew his limited knowledge. He said nothing in this interview. He could barely relate to your daughter and her 'adolescent' brain. Please don't give these light-weights a venue to skew information that is too important for all of us to understand. I guess that's why he's in Wisconsin. He knows nothing.

Wonderful show and so helpful in so many ways. I stumbled across "On Being" and it has been a life changing experience for me. As the director of a Montessori preschool, this was so interesting to me. I will look closer at all the links on this page. Thank you for the important work you do to enrich the lives of your audience. What a gem!

BIG THANKS to you Krista for creating a space for continued dialogue about IMPORTANT MATTERS. I am 81 years old and so hungary to hear that others are thinking the way I am and excitted to learn and grow. I live in a

Thankks for this exciting dialogue and to know that others are as excited as I am. I live in a Senior center where the first question is "What church do you go to" I am so hungary for intelligent and thoughtfull conversation............More later.


I am eager to try the practices highlighted on the web site and I aspire to a greater level of contemplative practice in my life. Thanks for the inspiration and resources!

Referred here from coursera discussion. Very interesting site.

hi , all of my friends, I would like to share my own feeling regarding benefits of meditation. Why Meditation? Happiness and peace refer to states of mind. Moreover, there is another kind of experience, which is the highest and is independent of worldly objects and senses. It is called Bliss. Brahmakumaris offers foundation courses in meditation through each of its centres spread across the world.

lol funny you

What a wonderful interview! I have been practicing meditation/mindfulness for a couple of months now and it truely is life changing. This website seems to be an absolute gem. I'm going to get lost in it for a couple of hours. Do you know a good meditation for beginners?