HomeVOLUME 6August 2021Altered traits

DR. RICHARD DAVIDSON is a prolific and well-known neuroscientist, speaker, meditator and author. In March 2021, Richie was interviewed by THANGAM VENKATESAN, Professor of Medicine at the Medical College of Wisconsin, and ANAGHA MATAPURKAR, Ph.D. MBA, about his life’s journey and latest initiatives to bring well-being to humanity.

AM: Hi Richie, it’s wonderful to meet you. I have been very inspired and fascinated by your journey as a meditator and author, and the astounding body of work that you have as a researcher.

TV: I completely echo Anagha’s sentiments, and your book Altered Traits is the first book I have read twice! It is really amazing. So, Richie, can you share some key aspects of your journey? Something that I find particularly interesting is your interaction with the Dalai Lama. How did you first meet him? Can you describe that inflection point for you as a person, a meditator and a researcher?

RD: Thank you for asking. I first met His Holiness in 1992 in India and he learned about my interest in meditation, and also that I was a neuroscientist. He was really interested in encouraging serious neuroscientific research on meditation, which at that time really didn’t exist. I met him at his residence in Dharamsala, and it was a pivotal meeting. Up until that point in my career, I had been doing a lot of research on the brain and emotions, and I was focusing mostly on the negative side of things. I studied the brain mechanisms underlying vulnerability to depression, anxiety and stress. His Holiness challenged me. He said, “Why can’t you use the same tools of neuroscience to study kindness and compassion?” I did not have a very good answer for him, and it was a turning point.

At that time I had been a meditation practitioner for decades. I went on my first meditation retreat in 1974 with Goenka when I was a graduate student. That was my first visit to India. Most of my professional colleagues at that time did not know of my interest in meditation, as I really kept it under the radar. So when I met His Holiness in 1992, it was very clear to me that I needed to come out of the closet and be much more public about my own practice. It was a really pivotal time, yes.

TV: In the Gastroenterology Department they think I am a little cuckoo, as I am a meditator. They just kind of accept it.

RD: Keep cuckoo, it’s good. It’s very healthy.

TV: Yes. So, talking about positive emotions, I know you are the founder of the Center for Healthy Minds. Can you tell us a little bit about its overall mission? What are the services it offers?

RD: The Center for Healthy Minds was founded and inaugurated by the Dalai Lama in 2010, so we have been in existence for a little more than ten years. The mission of our center is to cultivate well-being and relieve suffering through a scientific understanding of the mind. And our vision is a kinder, wiser and more compassionate world. It is primarily an interdisciplinary research center, with faculty from many different departments. Currently, we have around 75 people working in the center in one capacity or another.

About four years ago, I founded an affiliated non-profit company called Healthy Minds Innovations, with a mission to take the insights from the science and turn them into tools that can be used to cultivate and measure well-being. So, the non-profit is much more externally focused, and it is really to get the insights out into the world in one way or another. The non-profit is located in the same university building as the Center for Healthy Minds, Madison, Wisconsin. We have an agreement with the university, and there are about 20 people working for the non-profit.

TV: I did review your website and there are some nice tools that people can use.

RD: Yes, and we have an App that is freely available throughout the world, and it is based on our framework for cultivating well-being.

TV: That’s great. I know we all talk about well-being, but we seem to live in a cocoon. When we look outside, we live in this highly polarized world. We seem to be caught up in these currents of social, cultural, and racial problems, the pandemic and so on. You have referred to innate human goodness several times. How do we cultivate this innate human goodness in people? How do we all come back together?

RD: It’s a great question and I like the way you’re phrasing it. So, the scientific evidence really does show that we all come into the world with a propensity for goodness. Young infants exhibit that propensity, and more than 95% of six-month-old babies show prosocial orientation. So, it is very clear that this is how we come into the world.

The fact today we see so much conflict, difficulties between in-groups and out-groups, and inequalities, is really a product of learning. This happens through forces in our culture, which, unfortunately, promote this kind of conflict, dichotomy, and suffering.

Our true nature is basic goodness,
and when people resonate with that,
when they get back in tune with that, they feel it.
It’s palpable and it is recognizable.

The invitation in all this is that we can use the same mechanisms in our brain and our body, that have been hijacked by the media and the cultural artifacts around us, which promote these unfortunate views. We can train our mind to return to our true nature. Our true nature is basic goodness, and when people resonate with that, when they get back in tune with that, they feel it. It’s palpable and it is recognizable.

It is something that is enjoyable, and they can sense that it is a very authentic way to be. And so, one of the things that we are trying to do is to promote strategies to cultivate these qualities in different sectors of society, in the education sector at many different levels, in the workplace, in the healthcare sector. All of these different sectors are ripe for this kind of training, and I think that one of the things the pandemic has done is – it has exposed this in a stark way, the fact that the trajectory that we were on is not a particularly healthier, sustainable one. And so, we need to come back to our senses, we need to come back to our nature and so we’re doing everything we possibly can to get this out into different sectors in the world.

TV: That’s great. And then, alter traits, right?

RD: Exactly, alter traits. Through that we can change the world.

TV: That’s fantastic.

AM: So building on this, I’m wondering if you have any thoughts on the power of the collective efforts of various meditation practices coming together for a common cause. Have you studied or plan to study this in the future?

RD: I think a lot depends on exactly what you are referring to with collective efforts. Certainly, I think that there is power in the collective. There’s power in groups of people engaging in these practices. Doing it with others can be enormously helpful in supporting our practice. In the Buddhist view, we have the sangha, which is the community, and it is the group that supports us in the practice. And so, to the extent that we can encourage groups to take this on, I think it can be enormously valuable.

We are trying to do that in the systems we work with. For example, we are doing a lot of work in the Madison public school system, as well as in other school systems including those outside the USA. And when more and more people are committed to doing these practices, it then takes on a sense of the collective and the entire organization really begins to embody this change. It can be very, very helpful.

AM: You refer to the deep and wide paths in your book, Altered Traits, and it seems like only a small minority, who are already invested in some form of self-improvement or self-transformation, seek such practices. And well-being is a skill as you say. So how do you propose to encourage contemplative practices in a real-world setting, like you just talked about?

RD: That’s a really important question. The way we promote it, first of all, is by encouraging people to take small realistic steps to do this. The second thing is in our App – you can engage in practices that are not formal meditation, but that are done during the activities of daily living. You don’t have to be sitting still. You can be walking, you can be commuting, you can be washing the dishes, or you can be doing your laundry. You can be engaged in any of these activities of daily living and also engage in practice in the background. We find this very, very valuable, and we have demonstrated that it doesn’t take much to begin to change.

You can start with just five minutes a day, and that can actually produce discernible, measurable change after just one week. That’s a little more than 30 minutes of practice a week. It is through this gradual step-by-step approach that I think people can incorporate this into their life.

One of the things I frequently remind people is that when human beings first evolved none of us were brushing our teeth. Yet, today, virtually everyone on the planet brushes their teeth. When you reflect on that, it’s not part of our genome. It’s something we’ve all learned to do, because it is good for our physical hygiene. I think most people would agree that our minds are even more important than our teeth, yet most people don’t even take the small amount of time they spend brushing their teeth to nurture their minds. This is really a message that we want to convey to the world.

I think that there is power in the collective.
There’s power in groups of people
engaging in these practices.
Doing it with others can be enormously
helpful in supporting our practice.

AM: Commuting and meditating is certainly something I can relate to, because I live in the city and have to take the subway. That’s how I cope with the commuting – by meditating.

Our last question is regarding your personal journey and research, which we find remarkable to say the least. What do you envision next?

RD: Well, whenever we are with the Dalai Lama, he reminds us that there are seven billion people, and we need to do everything we can to figure out strategies to scale these practices to nurture the minds and hearts of everyone. This is one of the reasons we developed the App, and we’re making it freely available to remove any kind of financial barrier so that anyone, anywhere, can use it. We are developing different versions of this App for different communities; more specialized content for college students, teachers, for example.

Second, along with this, we need to develop better measures of well-being. You can’t really change something unless you can measure the change that you are promoting and measure sensitively. And we don’t have great measures that we can deploy on a large scale. This is something we are working on intensively.

Then, we’re doing a lot of work internationally. We have a large collaborative effort in Mexico, where we are training a group of schoolteachers and principals, and examining the impact of training the staff on the students. We have recently worked with 1100 principals and teachers in elementary schools, who are responsible for teaching around 250,000 students, and we’re seeing the benefits to the students. So, this is a very strategic and cost-efficient way to benefit large numbers of students without having to work with each individual student. This is something we are exploring in different parts of the world.

AM: That’s wonderful.

TV: Thank you again for chatting with us. It was really a pleasure. We will send you our research on the effects of Heartfulness, and we hope to meet you in person soon.

RD: That would be great. I’d be happy to. As soon as we can easily travel again, we’d love to have you visit our center.


Richard Davidson

Richard Davidson

Richie is a neuroscientist, speaker, meditator and author. He is the William James and Vilas Professor of Psychology and Psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin–Madison and the founder of the Center for Healthy Minds. His work is focused on the neurobiology of emotion and the effects of meditation on the human brain. He has numerous... Read more


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