Well-being is a skill
Best known for his groundbreaking work in the study of the brain and emotions, DR RICHARD DAVIDSON is Professor of Psychology and Psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the Founder-Director of the Center for Healthy Minds. During a webinar hosted by AMIR H. IMANI, Dr Davidson explains how mental training to cultivate well-being can have a positive impact on happiness, creativity and productivity in the work place and at home.
Q: Hi Richie!
RD: Hi. It’s wonderful to be here. Thank you for having me.
Q: You are speaking about ‘Well-being Is a Skill’. Even the title gives me a sense of responsibility for what goes on in my mind.
When I was reviewing your book and your lectures, it came to me that I should be aware of letting go of what is on my mind when it’s time. Otherwise whatever we are holding is affecting the brain, the mind. So I personally have become much more responsible about this since I reviewed the beautiful work at your lab. Please tell us more about your findings.
RD: Thank you so much, Amir. Let me begin by simply giving a little background. I am a neuroscientist and a psychologist by training, and I’ve been interested in a central question for my entire career: Why is it that certain people are more vulnerable to life’s challenges and other people more resilient? And how can we nudge people along this continuum to flourish, to become more resilient? That question is one that we continue to address in different ways, as new research opportunities emerge and as new measures become available and so on.
In the early part of my career I focused a lot on how we respond to adversity. And then in 1992 I met the Dalai Lama for the first time, and he challenged me and said, “You have been using these tools of modern neuroscience to study stress and adversity and anxiety and fear. Why can’t you use those same tools to study kindness and compassion?” That was very much a wake-up call for me. I began to shift the work that we were doing toward the more virtuous qualities of the mind. And that leads us really all the way to the present.
And then in 1992 I met the Dalai Lama for the first time,
and he challenged me and said, “You have been using these
tools of modern neuroscience to study stress and adversity and anxiety and fear.
Why can’t you use those same tools to study kindness and compassion?”
That was very much a wake-up call for me.
I began to shift the work that we were doing
toward the more virtuous qualities of the mind.
But there were a number of major developments in modern science that helped to facilitate this work. It was not simply work that we were doing for ourselves, but rather we were building on the shoulders of many others who provided the foundation for allowing this work to go forward. I’d like to briefly describe some of those key developments that enabled this work.
One is neuroplasticity, which simply refers to the notion that our brains are shaped by experience. Our brains are constantly being shaped, willingly or unwillingly, which means that there are times when our brains are shaped by forces around us about which we are only dimly aware or perhaps completely unaware. And we have very little control over many of those forces.
So our brains are constantly being changed by the events around us, by the experiences that we have. The invitation – and it really goes back to your comment at the beginning, Amir – is that we can take more responsibility for our own brains. By cultivating virtuous qualities, by training our mind, it turns out that we can change our brains in ways that promote more enduring changes that support human flourishing. So neuroplasticity is really an important theme.
A second theme related to neuroplasticity, in the realm of genomics, is epigenetics. Epigenetics is the science of how genes are regulated. We are born with a sequence of base pairs that constitute our DNA, and for the most part, except for some rare circumstances, the sequence itself will not change as we go through life. What will change is the extent to which any given gene is turned on or off.
You can think of genes as having little volume controls, molecular volume controls, which determine the extent to which the gene is manufacturing the protein for which it is designed. What we find in hard-nosed research is that our experiences can actually influence the extent to which a gene is turned on or off.
Let me give an example. If a mother behaves in a very loving, nurturing way toward her baby, it induces epigenetic changes in the baby that promote positive characteristics. Those epigenetic changes last quite a long time, and in certain cases they actually persist through the entire life. So early experiences can have a very profound effect on the expression of our genes.
Several years ago we published a paper showing for the first time that in long-term meditators, who are meditating intensively for a one-day period, we can actually see changes in gene expression over the course of just that one day, over an eighthour period. This is the first time anyone has demonstrated that our gene expression is highly dynamic and can be influenced purely by mental training. This is in many ways a parallel to neuroplasticity, and it suggests that for both our brain and our genes, there is much more dynamic change than any of us previously thought. How our minds operate and the extent to which we train our minds influences both the wiring and function of our brains as well as the expression of our genes.
The third theme I would very briefly like to mention is called Innate Basic Goodness. What we mean by this is that we are actually born into the world with a propensity to prefer warm-hearted, cooperative, altruistic interactions rather than selfish, greedy or aggressive interactions. And this is quite remarkable. It’s not to stay that the bad stuff isn’t there, but, if given a choice, we will choose a warm-hearted, pro-social alternative compared to one that is selfish and aggressive.
This has been demonstrated empirically, for example, in research with human babies who are exposed to puppets. In one scenario the puppets are behaving really badly toward one another. They are beating each other up and being selfish. In another case they are very warmhearted and cooperative. Then, when these puppets are offered to babies, the babies will reach for the warmhearted puppet, not the puppet that is mean.
This has now been demonstrated repeatedly, and it indicates that when we come into the world we come with an innate propensity to prefer warm-hearted interactions. So when we do simple meditation practices that are designed to cultivate loving kindness and compassion, we are not doing a practice that is creating these qualities out of thin air, de novo, but rather we are becoming more familiar with basic characteristics of our own mind. We are becoming more familiar with innate basic goodness. And when we recognize that every human being shares this, it can influence how we treat others in a very powerful way. It can help to decrease the kind of interpersonal conflicts that are so pervasive in our world today, and underlie so many of the major problems our civilization is facing.
can have a very profound effect
on the expression of our genes.
So on the basis of these themes, we have formulated a framework for understanding well-being. It consists of a number of constituents, and each constituent is supported by different brain circuits. These brain circuits all show plasticity, that is, we know they can be changed by experience and training.
One of the major efforts of our center is to disseminate training widely, so that we can influence the wellbeing of the many different sectors of culture. And one of the ways we’re doing it is by taking advantage of digital technology. We can use smart phones, online platforms, and help people with simple guided practices in the workplace. We can work with educators to train the different constituents of well-being in ways that we think can make a difference in major sectors of our culture. So that is a large initiative in which we are involved now. We envision creating versions for the workplace, for educators, for healthcare providers, for new parents who’re having their first child, and in this way begin to influence these major groups and produce change, one sector at a time.
I am happy to address questions from the audience.
Q: Meditation is sometimes used for dissociation or repression. What is the difference between a correct meditation practice and a one that is only escape? Is there any neurophysiological marker that distinguishes the two?
RD: That’s a very interesting and good question. A person might use a meditation practice for the purposes of repression, to bury a psychological disturbance, but I think in most cases they would not be using it in the way that would be considered correct or appropriate. They’re misusing it, which is one of the reasons why it’s so important to have authentic instructors who can teach this, who would avoid a mistake of that kind.
Whether there are neurophysiological markers or not has not been systematically studied, although, based on the understanding of the brain and the research that has been done, I believe you would be able to differentiate between meditation for the purpose of repression versus more appropriate meditation. There are markers that I believe would reveal differences.
Q: I’ve had a challenging life, and my mind is used to the negative side all the time. Now I really want to be happy again and it is very difficult. Is there anything that you can help me with?
RD: I would suggest that every day, in the morning and in the evening, you take just a few minutes and reflect on those things that are positive in your life. Even in a life that is challenged, everyone has some positive things occurring. The very fact of being born as a human being, and having the mind we are gifted with, are wonderful positive attributes to begin with. Reflecting on that capacity – being able to breathe on one’s own – is something that is really beautiful and miraculous in many ways. Simply rejoice in these little things and appreciate them.
Even if you have lived a difficult life, when you reflect deeply on your daily experiences there are positive things that happen even in the middle of tragedy; acts of kindness that others express toward you, and so forth. Simply note these in your mind. You can even write them down to help remember them after you do a little period of contemplation. This can be very, very helpful in orienting the mind back toward the positive.
Q: Yes. I should tell you, Richie, that your book and your research have made me very sensitive to this: finding the little things in the middle of a catastrophe. I think it’s about the willpower we put into finding it, and it’s there in the air, the kindness.
RD: Well, this is one of the reasons why we recommend formal practice. It’s not just the experiences that occur during the formal practice, but rather it conditions the mind so that when we face adversity we remember to look at these positive things. It’s a way to strengthen that muscle, if you will.
Q: Could you please explain the neurophysiology of Samadhi, or what is called ‘absorption’ in deep meditation?
Samadhi, concentration and absorption are terms that refer to a particular style of meditation practice that involves focused attention. Focused attention can be helpful in stabilizing the mind and in producing equanimity and calmness. There are certain neural markers associated with this kind of mental stability that involve networks in the brain that are important for attention, particularly the connections between the prefrontal cortex and other areas of the brain involved in emotion and attention.
The very fact of being born as a human being,
and having the mind we are gifted with,
are wonderful positive attributes to begin with.
Reflecting on that capacity – being able to breathe on one’s own –
is something that is really beautiful and miraculous in many ways.
Simply rejoice in these little things and appreciate them.
So in many different traditions there are practices designed to cultivate concentration or absorption, not as an end in itself but as a means, as a way to stabilize the mind, so that when you do other practices the attention is stable.
Q: Why, after long-term meditation retreats, do we fall back into our default mode? Does observing the brain explain this?
RD: Well, basically it requires quite a lot to change the brain in major ways that are enduring. It’s like changing the course of a river that’s been flowing in the same direction for 30, 40 or 50 years. Think of a physical analogy: if someone is grossly overweight and has not taken care of himself or herself, and goes to the gym, there’s only so much change they can expect in a short period of time. This kind of change is gradual and it takes constant work.
It’s very important for people who begin this journey to set realistic expectations. It means being very modest in those expectations, not expecting changes to happen overnight, and taking one small step at a time. I think if people did this they would notice change, but maybe only over decades rather than days or weeks.
Q: That raises a question: Where does that go? If you go to a Vipassana retreat of 10 days in silence, you come back walking on clouds and you are very sensitive to everything that is going on in your body and around you. Now, something has happened in the brain that is hyper-vigilant to whatever is arising inside and outside, but after two to three weeks that subsides. Now, if you look at the brain, is there something that lights up?
RD: Well, we don’t know definitively but we certainly have some good ideas. There are changes that are transient; you can see a change, but those changes begin to dissipate. It’s not that unusual.
There’s a lot of variation in different meditation traditions in how retreats are done, and it really means addressing the issue of reintegration. If we come back to our default mode, to baseline, pretty quickly after a week or two, that’s something to reflect upon. It may be that if we can figure out how to integrate practice with everyday life, we can have changes that are more enduring.
But one thing that’s really important is that one size will not fit all. I often say to people in public settings, “The very best form of meditation to do is the form of meditation that you actually do, the one that you do consistently.” That’s going to be different for different people. So there is no magic prescription here, but there is good evidence to suggest that regularity of practice is really important.
Q: Of course. I love one of the findings mentioned in your book, Altered Traits. Correct me if I’m wrong, but one of the fastest ways of changing the brain or having a lasting effect is the act of generosity and helping. That I found to be very important.
RD: I’m happy you raised this. We think this is related to the idea I mentioned of Innate Basic Goodness. We think it is possible to produce changes more quickly when you’re doing a loving kindness or compassion practice, because the nature of the mind is already imbued with Innate Basic Goodness. We’re really reminding ourselves of a quality that is there from the outset.
Q: Yes, we go back to the linguistic root of Mindfulness, which is ‘remembering’.
Q: I practice Heartfulness Meditation with Yogic Transmission, where the life force or Pranahuti is transmitted from the teacher’s heart to the practitioner to expedite and facilitate the meditation effect. It does help, and experientially I feel more and become absorbed much faster. Transmission is like a boost of love. Now would this make sense to your scientific brain and observation? Is it possible to be in a deeper brainwave state, that might be the case here with Pranahuti?
RD: It’s an interesting and complicated question, and certainly there are ways of approaching it from a mainstream scientific perspective. We know that a lot of learning that occurs in life is Implicit Social Learning, that is, we implicitly pick up on cues that are conveyed by others and we can be deeply impacted by them without any kind of special supernatural energy or power.
I’ve had the honor and privilege of spending quite a bit of time around His Holiness the Dalai Lama, and I have that kind of experience with him all the time. There are conventional ways of understanding that in terms of his demeanor and the implicit social learning that occurs in response to that kind of demeanor. So I think it’s entirely possible that this kind of thing occurs. I think there are ‘conventional’ explanations for it. Whether there is anything more than that, I don’t know.
I certainly do not believe that our accounts of understanding reality in science are very complete at this point in time. I think there’s a lot we don’t know. So who knows! But certainly I think the phenomenon is real, it’s important. I think more research needs to be done to determine whether there is something more than what can be explained by conventional explanations.
Q: Wonderful. Thank you so much for making this time.
RD: I’m happy to have made it, and I appreciate the audience’s interests in these topics. I encourage all of you to continue on this journey, and help make the world a better place by changing it one mind at a time.
To view the full webinar: https:// www.facebook.com/cfmin/ videos/2260236707543608/
Interview by AMIR IMANI
October 31, 2019
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