Ep. 32: Richie J. Davidson, PhD - The New Science Behind Mindfulness - Center for Healthy Minds


Richie J. Davidson, PhD

Our guest today is Richard Davidson, PhD. He is a pioneer in studying the effects of mindfulness meditation on the human brain.

He is a neuroscientist, psychologist and research Professor of Psychology and Psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin Madison where he is also the founder and director of the Center for Healthy Minds. He is the co-author of The Emotional Life of Your Brain and Altered Traits: Science Reveals How Meditation Changes Your Mind, Brain, and Body.

In this interview Richie explains, “I first met the Dalai Lama in 1992. He challenged me. He said you've been using tools of modern neuroscience to study negative qualities of life stress adversity anxiety. Why can't you use those same tools to study positive qualities like kindness and compassion and flourishing?”  He brought buddish monks from Tibet and Nepal into his lab and the rest is history.

Richie has been studying how a healthy mind has a direct impact on improving physical health.  He recommends starting a daily meditation practice, even it is just for 2 minutes a day. He likens this habit to the way we brush our teeth every day to obtain good physical health.  

He shares stories of the Dalai Lama, including his emotional latitude and his kindness and compassion for not just a small group of family and friends but for all people.  This is why Richie believes that kindness and love is the next frontier. One of the reasons we have studied the body more than the brain in the past is because blood pressure has been easier to measure than well being.  But this is changing.

This fascinating interview includes some of the inspiring research being done today by Richie Davidson and Nobel Prize laureates in the field of happiness, emotions, brain development in gestation, and even what happens to meditators in the body after death.

More From Richie J. Davidson, PhD

Official Website of Richie J. Davidson
Center for Healthy Minds
Twitter: @healthyminds @UWMadison
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Books Referenced in this Podcast

The Emotional Life of Your Brain: How Its Unique Patterns Affect the Way You Think, Feel, and Live--and How You Can Change Them – by Richard J. Davidson

Altered Traits: Science Reveals How Meditation Changes Your Mind, Brain, and Body by Daniel Goleman and Richard J. Davidson
Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers by Robert Sapolsky

Show Notes

  • [06:04] The fact that meditation can be helpful for the brain and the body I think is really well established.

  • [07:22] What we're learning now is that the brain is intimately connected with bi directional pathways to the body.

  • [7:30] And we also know from epidemiological research that people who report higher levels of well-being are indeed physically healthier.

  • [09:10] We know for example that child maltreatment not just physical maltreatment but emotional maltreatment can impair the brain.

  • [09:38] The very mechanisms in the brain that can lead to negative consequences and to suffering can be harnessed for the good by cultivating healthy habits of mind.

  • [11:16] One is I think in the popular media there sometimes is stereotype of meditation making people emotional zombies and sort of decreasing their emotional reactivity. And you don't need to spend a long time with the Dalai Lama to realize that that is a complete misconception. The Dalai Lama is emotionally very lively.

  • [12:13] You know most of us as adults have really lost this capacity to shift rapidly from one emotion to another. You see this in babies who can go from laughing to crying or court crying to laughing at the snap of a finger.

  • [14:24] Everybody is born good, right.

  • [14:27] Yeah well there's actually a growing body of scientific evidence that is focused mostly on young children particularly infants. And if you arrange a little puppet scenario with six month old babies where two puppets are cooperating and helping each other versus another scenario where puppets are actually selfish and aggressive you offer these puppets to these babies and look to see which puppet it reaches for it will reach for the puppet that was warm hearted and cooperative not the puppet that was selfish.

  • [17:28] We read that you described kindness and love as the next frontier. What do you mean by the word love?

  • [17:40] I would say for the Dalai Lama everybody is part of the Dalai Lama in group. He does not have an outgroup particularly in our culture today where there's an increase in divisiveness and a decrease in civility. I think that this is so important to be able to recognize everyone's basic humanity and to do what we can to expand the in group. I have the conviction that if people did this for even a short amount of time each day the world would really look a little different than it does now.

  • [20:03] I think that we don't really appreciate how important our emotions are in many everyday decisions that we make.

  • [00:20:26] How did scientists understand that our thoughts and feelings are essentially one and the same?

  • [20:46] Nobel Prize in Economics Daniel Kahneman is a psychologist by training. He is at Princeton University but his research has been focused on decision making and one of the key insights of Kahnema is that the classic view of economists that we make economic decisions strictly rationally, Kahneman showed that that was just not true. There are emotional factors which enter into decision making all the time. [

  • [21:44] And then also there's the neuroscientific research has been so important in helping us appreciate the idea that emotion and cognition (or thinking) are separate in the brain but the brain does not respect that division.

  • [21:58] Ritchie the two critical parts of the human brain that are involved in our happiness and sense of well-being are the prefrontal cortex and the amygdala. Can you describe what each of these areas of the brain does?

  • [22:53] Human beings have a greater capacity to regulate their emotions than any other species. We can use our thoughts. We can interpret situations in particular ways which influence how we respond emotionally to those situations and the prefrontal cortex is one of those areas in the brain where thoughts and feelings come together in a very important way. I should also hasten to add that the prefrontal cortex clearly has all these amazing adaptive functions which contribute to happiness and well-being but it also is the area of the brain that can get us into trouble and can produce a lot of deregulation and it really goes back to this idea that of neuroplasticity that's neutrally not necessarily positive or negative and the same is true of the prefrontal cortex. It depends on how it's being used.

  • There's a very famous neuroscientist at Stanford who wrote a book a number of years ago called Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers written by Robert Sapolsky. The short reason Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers is because they have a really small prefrontal cortex. One of the things that the prefrontal cortex can do is to allow us to anticipate the future and reflect on the past. If we worry about the future and ruminate about the past - those are the kinds of things that can ensnare us and cause ulcers but we can also harness this potential to direct our minds on positive qualities and nurture human flourishing.

  • [25:39] But the prefrontal cortex also has connections to other areas of the brain that are more directly implicated in positive emotion and it can help us sustain positive emotion and maintain a positive outlook. When we reflect on people we know, we all know people who just have an optimistic attitude toward life and others who don't. This is actually something that can be nurtured and learned.

  • [26:22] If you don't believe that change is possible, it's very difficult to actually change.

  • [26:43] I think it's fair to say that virtually every human being on this planet probably brush their teeth at least a couple of times a day. It's something that we've learned is important for our personal physical hygiene and what we're talking about here is a kind of personal mental hygiene, and I think that pardon, any dentists that may be listeners, but I think most people would agree that our minds are even more important than our teeth or at least as important. And so if we can nurture our minds even for a few minutes a day I think it would really make a difference.

  • [28:58] Choose an amount of time that you think you can do these practices every day for 30 days even if it's as short as one or two minutes a day.

  • [29:41] You know you've described the state of our minds as an urgent public health crisis. Why do you think we've overlooked the mines so much compared to the attention we've given to our bodies?

  • [29:52] Well it's a great question. I think it's a little bit more elusive. It's not is readily measured as taking your blood pressure. We all understand blood pressure but getting the measure of your well-being is more challenging. And so I think that's part of it. But I do think that there is increased serious attention being paid to this largely because of the kind of frightening statistics that we now have. I mean if we look at the evidence from the Center for Disease Control for example looking at anxiety and depression in our adolescence in the U.S. today those rates are skyrocketing.

  • [30:45] And I also believe that it's actually cost effective that if we invest in early interventions to prevent these problems from occurring later on it will actually save money. With all of the resources that are necessary for dealing with the devastating consequences of not intervening.

  • [31:09] Nobel Prize winner James J. Heckman said that for every dollar invested in high quality preschool programs to promote social and emotional learning there is a 13 percent return on that investment by the time the individual is 20 years old.

  • [31:58] The way we define resilience is quite specific. We define it as the rapidity with which you recover from adversity.

  • [33:23] When people die who have been practitioners of meditation, who've trained their mind in the kind of ways we're talking about, particularly if they've trained a lot when they die, their bodies don't immediately decompose.

  • [34:08] One of the physical signs of this is that the body does not decompose until this period has ended, and this period can last anywhere from a few hours up to a few weeks.

  • [34:36] You know the Dalai Lama said publicly that if there's anything in Buddhism that's directly contradicted by scientific fact, he is prepared to give it up. So he wanted to see serious scientific investigation of this. We began a research project where we are trying to evaluate this in the best way we can using known measures.

  • [38:29] Dalai Lama always reminds me when I'm with him is he said there are 7 billion people and we need to do everything we can to reach all of them and not leave anybody out.

  • [39:53] JAMA Pediatrics, the Journal of the American Medical Association, showing that the well-being of mother during the second trimester of pregnancy actually strongly predicts structural differences in the brains of the babies.

  • [40:30] We think that this is really extremely important we can potentially influence brain development in ways that have enduring consequences through interventions that we can do in pregnancy.

Thank you for joining us on HealthGig. We loved having you with us. We hope you'll tune in again next week. In the meantime, be sure to like and subscribe to this podcast, and follow us on healthgigpod.com.

“Human beings have a greater capacity to regulate their emotions than any other species.” - Richie J. Davidson, PhD

“When we reflect on people we know, we all know people who just have an optimistic attitude toward life and others who don't. This is actually something that can be nurtured and learned.” - Richie J. Davidson, PhD

“If you don't believe that change is possible, it's very difficult to actually change.” - Richie J. Davidson, PhD

“I think that we don't really appreciate how important our emotions are in many everyday decisions that we make.” - Richie J. Davidson, PhD

“People who report higher levels of well-being are indeed physically healthier.” - Richie J. Davidson, PhD

Key Words

Neuroplasticity, prefrontal cortex, happiness, amigdala, meditation, Dalai Lama, wellbeing, emotional dysregulation, emotional reactivity, brain science, University of Wisconsin, Center for Healthy Minds, Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction, Daniel Kahneman, Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers, Robert Sapolsky, James J. Heckman, National Academy of Medicine, Journal of the American Heart Association