Photo: Nora Tam

My life: Richard Davidson

The professor of psychology and psychiatry tells Kylie Knott how meditation can improve not only individual lives but also society

I was born in Brooklyn (in New York) in 1951. A large chunk of my life has been involved with studying the brain and emotions. I'm a professor of psychology and psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin-Madison as well as founder and chair of the Centre for Investigating Healthy Minds at the Waisman Centre. The turning point for me was when I had the great fortune, very early on, to meet some people whose demeanour was infectious - they were kind, warm-hearted people and I learned that they had a common background, in meditation. As a student of psychology and neuroscience this prompted me to want to learn more about it. I first went to India in 1974, when I was a graduate student at Harvard University, and I came back having tasted the kind of change and insights meditation can bring.

I was eager to bring meditation to Western psychology and neuroscience but the timing was not right for this kind of research. These were still early days and the study of neuroscience was coarse and not very precise, so I pursued a career on the brain and emotion and was a "closet" meditator. It was clear that I could not pursue it in a mainstream way and garner the necessary resources; government funding agencies were not sympathetic to this kind of work.

All of this changed in 1992, when I met the Dalai Lama at his home in India. He was interested in encouraging neuroscientific research on meditation and encouraged me to use the tools of modern neuroscience to investigate how the brain and the mind may change as a consequence of years of meditation. Since then, we have done serious research on this and there have been dramatic changes and progress: many scientists are pursuing this and government funding is becoming more open to it. Health care services are interested in incorporating these practices while the education system is also interested in using these methods, from preschool to university. One of the greatest insights of modern neuroscience concerns neuroplasticity - the idea that the brain can change in response to experiences and training. We now have some understanding of how the transformations occur.

Meditation for me is very important - I do it every day and it would be hard for me to live the kind of life I do without it: I'm very active, I run a large lab and push my studies. Without it I'm sure I'd be more emotionally unbalanced. I believe happiness is a skill that can be enhanced through training and is fundamentally no different to other kinds of skills. Contemplative practice is a way we can transform our well-being so it's not dependent on external factors, which will change. The search for happiness in material possessions has been demonstrated to be ephemeral.

I'm not anti-medication. For people who are seriously ill and need medication for a specific reason, then there is a role for it. But, in general, I think we overprescribe - particularly psychiatric medications. In the United States, about 15 per cent of children aged under 13 are on stimulant medication for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and the long-term maintenance is deleterious. Attention is something we can learn. We can learn to concentrate and focus, so if these strategies are incorporated in a widespread way, in particular in schools, then we can avoid many of the problems we see today. In the US, we are starting programmes for four- to five-year-olds where we teach them practices of mindfulness and kindness. The kids seem to intuitively appreciate them and use them spontaneously. Incorporating technology is something we are interested in. We recently received a grant from the (Bill & Melinda) Gates Foundation to develop an app for middle-school children to cultivate mindfulness and kindness. The game is designed to encourage pro-social skills, to help kids take the perspective of others … and to be rewarded for being kind rather than shooting people. We believe it can be as exciting as a violent game but it's about kindness, while scientifically looking to see if this changes their behaviour.

Last year, I published , a summary of 30 years of research. There are two important features of this book: one is how I describe differences among people and how we respond differently to emotional challenges and the brain circuits associated with them. The second point is that these circuits are plastic and therefore can be transformed through training - by training the mind we can transform our emotional reactions to the challenges we face and thus become a more compassionate society. My work with the US military has been with returning soldiers. These people are suffering greatly and the suicide rate among them is very high: the US has lost more soldiers to suicide than from war. I believe we have a moral responsibility to do all we can to help relieve their suffering. More than 50 per cent of these individuals are not benefiting from traditional therapies so we need to try other things. Initial studies suggest some of the practices derived from meditation and yoga techniques may benefit those suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.



This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Richard Davidson