For Richard J. Davidson, personal experience led to meditation mastery

Since a young age, Richard J. Davidson was interested in the brain and the way it affects all aspects of human existence.
Richard Davidson
Photo courtesy of Center for Healthy Minds

Since a young age, Richard J. Davidson was interested in the brain and the way it affects all aspects of human existence. But the Brooklyn, New York, native didn’t think about meditation’s potential as a methodology to manipulate the brain’s capabilities until the early 1970s while pursuing his Ph.D. at Harvard University. In this case, his research was more personal than empirical.

“I was meeting people who were kind and unusually friendly and I wanted to know what their ‘secret sauce’ was,” says Davidson. “It turned out they were meditators, and I began to recognize that meditation might be a strategy to help people manage stress. My scientific career had started with questions as to why some people are more resilient to life’s slings and arrows than others. It occurred to me that meditation could be a pathway.”

His interest in meditation continued. In 1974, it drew him and his then-girlfriend (and now wife), Susan, to northern India for a two-week, largely silent meditation retreat. Returning to Harvard, Davidson kept his thoughts on meditation to himself and continued to study the brain and its impact on negative emotions and lifestyles. But at home he cultivated his own meditation practices. The pair moved to Madison in 1984, where Davidson began to build what has become one of the world’s most comprehensive and productive brain research programs.

Then, in 1992, Davidson got an unexpected fax from the Dalai Lama. Tibet’s exiled political and spiritual leader had caught wind of the scientist’s experiments researching the brain and the effects that adverse and negative thoughts and influences can have. The Dalai Lama challenged Davidson to consider the influence of positive aspects such as kindness and compassion, rather than just the negative traits of anxiety, fear, depression and stress.

He invited Davidson to Dharamsala, India, to study the brains of monks who had been longtime meditators. Results of the study were mixed, and many monks saw no reason for the research. But the exercise convinced Davidson to make public his own commitment to meditation as a methodology. It has since become a major part of his work and forms the nucleus of studies at the Center for Healthy Minds.

“Mindfulness practices include the ability to regulate attention, manage emotion and cope with pain,” Davidson says. “For optimal human flourishing we need to promote all of them.”

The key to those efforts is the brain’s own neuroplasticity, defined as the organ’s ability to form and reorganize synaptic connections, especially in response to learning, new experiences or an injury. Neuroplasticity enables the brain to adapt, store memories and master new skills. It also facilitates meditation’s positive influences.

“Our brains are constantly changing, shaped by the forces around us,” Davidson told audience members during a 2019 TEDxSanFrancisco Talk. “They are changing us, wittingly or unwittingly, and most of the time we’re not aware of those forces. But we can take more responsibility for our own brains by transforming our minds.”

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