On Being today, Investigating Healthy Minds with Richard Davidson, Director of the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds and a principal investigator at the Waisman Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Based on research on how the brain changes (neuroplasticity), he’s done pioneering work on contemplative neuroscience, which investigates the impact of contemplative practices on the brain. It all started with a challenge from the Dalai Lama:
When I met the Dalai Lama for the first time in 1992, the Dalai Lama challenged me at that meeting in a very direct way and said that, you know, you’ve been using the tools of modern neuroscience to study qualities like depression and anxiety and fear and disgust. Why can’t you use those same tools to study qualities like kindness and compassion?
Why not, indeed? This takes us beyond the six classic emotions identified by Western psychology: happiness, fear, anger, disgust, sadness, and surprise.
Those are the six that have been classically studied as so-called discrete basic emotions. So surprise can be either positive or negative. The others are negative, and then there’s one positive emotion. You know, when we talk to the people in the contemplative traditions about this, I mean, they just are amazed that this is the best you can do in Western psychology?
Davidson and his colleagues have done better. Through studying the brains of meditating Buddhist monks, they’ve discovered that our brains can be intentionally rewired through mindfulness.
Mindfulness is moment-by-moment nonjudgmental attention or awareness. Self-awareness, but also other awareness, including awareness of what’s going on in one’s body, which can be very helpful in understanding what emotions you’re experiencing. But also very much focused on being aware of others, being aware of one’s environment.
That strikes me as also a wonderful definition of the researcher as instrument in qualitative research.
Davidson and colleagues have also learned that happiness is not an innate state of mind, but a skill that can be developed through practice and experience, with implications for how we, from early childhood (Pre-K Kindness Project) through adulthood (Teacher Wellness Program), can make positive changes in our lives.
I’d like to believe that some of the work that we do may have some implications or relevance for on-the-ground, in-the-trenches psychotherapy or related strategies for behavior change in several ways. One is a kind of meta-level which helps a client or patient understand that, based upon everything we know about the brain in neuroscience, that change is not only possible, but change is actually the rule rather than the exception. It’s really just a question of which influences we’re going to choose for our brain. But our brain is wittingly or unwittingly being continuously shaped.
Another thing is the idea of practice. The classical model of Western psychotherapy, which is a client coming to a therapist for an hour a week for a 50-minute session without doing daily practice in between, just flies in the face of everything we know about the brain and plasticity. If we want to make real change, more systematic practice is necessary, in my view. Certain kinds of cognitive therapies, for example, do assign specific kinds of homework or practice for people to engage in on a daily basis. Most people still don’t think of qualities like happiness as being a skill rather than as a fixed trait and some people have more of it; some people have less of it. But if you think about it more as a skill, then it’s something that can be enhanced through training. Fundamentally, I think that the kind of mental exercise that we’re talking about is no different than physical exercise. People understand that they can’t just do two weeks of physical exercise and then expect the benefits to remain for the rest of their lives. And the same thing with mental exercise. I think that that’s a very different conception of happiness, one that is a more enduring and I think more genuine in the sense that it’s a kind of happiness that is not dependent on external circumstances.
An aside on multitasking, the bane of my web-embedded life:
One question is whether we actually ever are truly multitasking in the sense of literally doing two things simultaneously or whether we are rapidly oscillating between the things that we are doing when we’re multitasking. But the larger issue, I think, is really just being present with whatever it is that we’re doing. So if what we’re doing is multitasking, being present with the multiple tasks that are before us. I have a wonderful picture of Matthieu Ricard. When he comes to Madison, he stays at our house. And he was sitting in the living room with a laptop computer on his lap, looking at the computer, and he was talking on his cell phone and he also had a book right next to him opened. This wonderful picture of this Tibetan Buddhist monk who is our digital monk engaged in multitasking, but, you know, I think doing it in a way which was really quite present to all of the various tasks in which he was engaged. I do think it’s possible. I’ve seen it in others. I’ve seen Matthieu do it, I’ve seen the Dalai Lama do it.