Meditation, Positive Emotions and Brain Science – an Interview with Richard Davidson

Richard Davidson is one of the world’s foremost brain scientists. He is the Vilas Professor of Psychology and Psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he is Director of the Laboratory for Affective Neuroscience and the Waisman Laboratory for Brain Imaging and Behavior. A native of Brooklyn, New York, Dr. Davidson is a graduate of New York University and received his PhD from Harvard University in 1976.

Davidson specializes in research on brain function related to emotion, both in normal individuals and those with, or at risk of, depression and anxiety. His labs are state-of-the art facilities utilizing quantitative electrophysiology, positron emission tomography (PET scan), and functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI).

He is the recipient of numerous awards for his research, including a National Institute of Mental Health Research Scientist Award, a MERIT Award from NIMH, an Established Investigator Award from the National Alliance for Research in Schizophrenia and Affective Disorders, and the William James Fellow Award from the American Psychological Society. He was the 1997 Distinguished Scientific Lecturer for the American Psychological Association. He served as a Core Member of the MacArthur Foundation Research Network in Mind-Body Interaction, is currently a Core Member of the MacArthur Foundation Mind-Brain-Body and Health Initiative and a member of the Board of Scientific Counselors, NIMH. In 2001-02 he served on the National Academy of Sciences Panel to evaluate the validity of the polygraph. He was the year 2000 recipient of the most prestigious award given by the American Psychological Association for lifetime achievement—the Distinguished Scientific Contribution Award. He has published more than 150 articles, many chapters and reviews and edited 12 books.

Throughout its history, psychological science has focused on mental illness
and dysfunction, in order to help people suffering from these afflictions.
Davidson has been deeply involved in such studies, but also sees the need
for a science of positive emotions, of compassion, caring and altruism.
Psychologist Daniel Goleman, author of Emotional Intelligence, credits
Davidson with having pioneered a significant new field of study, in which
“the methods of science are able to get their arms around questions of the
brain and human consciousness with rigor.”

In this interview with Dr. Daniel Redwood, Davidson discusses one his most intriguing ongoing projects, in which his team is studying brain function during meditation, focusing on the short- and long-term effects on the meditators’ brains. With the encouragement and direct involvement of the Dalai Lama, his team was given access to Tibetan monks who have spent at least one three-year period in retreat, where they meditate eight hours a day for three continuous years. Davidson calls these monks “the Olympic athletes of meditation,” and sees his research on their brain function as a way to study the fullness of human potential. Davidson also co-authored a study with Jon Kabat-Zinn, PhD, that evaluated the effects of mindfulness meditation training, including its effects on indicators of immune system function.

Readers with a scientific bent can learn more about Davidson’s work at his University of Wisconsin web page: There are links there to Davidson’s scientific papers, many in full-text versions.

Non-scientist readers interested in learning about Davidson’s work on
meditation and emotions will enjoy his book (with Anne Harrington), Visions
of Compassion: Western Scientists and Tibetan Buddhists Examine Human
(Oxford University Press, 2001), as well as Daniel Goleman’s
Destructive Emotions: How Can We Overcome Them? (Bantam, 2002), and Healing Emotions: Conversations with the Dalai Lama on Mindfulness, Emotions and Health (Shambhala, 2003). These highly readable books describe meetings where the Dalai Lama met with Davidson and other Western scientists, sponsored by the Mind and Life Institute (

DANIEL REDWOOD: What led you to your strong interest in brain research?

RICHARD DAVIDSON, PHD: My strong interest in brain research really
came from my interest in the mind and its potential. I had the intuition
and conviction from very early on that much of the world’s problems were
caused by limitations in our mental functioning, that those limitations can
be overcome with the appropriate intervention at the level of the mind. And
that the best way to study the mind was to study the brain, since I was
convinced by many scholars, beginning with William James, who wrote in his
preface to his Principles of Psychology, “The brain is the one immediate
bodily organ that underlies our mental operations.” So if the brain is
really the physical substrate of the mind, then understanding the mind can
be approached by studying the brain. So that’s basically what led me to the
path that I’m currently on.

DANIEL REDWOOD: Aside from helping people with structural diseases of the brain, what do you think are the most important uses of brain scans of different varieties?

RICHARD DAVIDSON, PHD: The use of brain scans is helping to provide us with fundamental knowledge about the underlying structure and function of different kinds of mental operations. By identifying the circuits in the brain that underlie particular mental operations, we can identify the more elementary constituents of those mental operations, we can begin to parse more complex psychological processes into their more basic elements, and we can begin to understand things like the basics of temperament, personality, vulnerability to psychiatric disorders, and also the basis of characteristics like well-being and resilience, on the positive side. So this is all something that can be approached at the level of the brain. Understanding the circuits in the brain that give rise to these conditions and characteristics can help us to promote the positive characteristics in what I believe are far more effective ways.

DANIEL REDWOOD: To what extent does the way we use our minds actually change the structure of our brains?

RICHARD DAVIDSON, PHD: It has everything to do with that. Modern knowledge in neuroscience underscores the idea of neuroplasticity, which is a word that means that the brain is an organ that changes in response to experience and in response to training. Essentially everything that we do, the totality of our experience and our behavior, is constantly shaping our brains. So whether we like it or not, whether the conditions are deleterious or salubrious, those conditions and activities are constantly shaping our brains. Our brains are intimately interwoven with our environment, both our internal and external environment, in ways that literally shape the physical structure of the brain, down to the level of gene expression.

DANIEL REDWOOD: An online search of PubMed brings up hundreds of research studies on meditation. What would you say are the major strengths and weaknesses of the current state of the research evidence on meditation? What do we know and what don’t we know?

RICHARD DAVIDSON, PHD: When I think about meditation research, really rigorous research on meditation, hundreds is not the number that comes to mind. In terms of hard-nosed, rigorous research that is not based on self-report methods, we’re talking about fewer than 20 publications.

DANIEL REDWOOD: What would are the best ways to develop scientific understanding of meditation?

RICHARD DAVIDSON, PHD: I think the best way to develop a scientific understanding of meditation is to apply the tools of rigorous neuroscience and psychological science. It’s fundamentally not different than understanding how other kinds of therapeutic interventions work. There is a technology for such rigorous assessment of the mediating mechanisms through which various kinds of interventions might work. We just have not yet seen the widespread application of these rigorous procedures to the study of meditation. It’s just beginning to happen now.

DANIEL REDWOOD: You’ve done research with Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn, who founded the Stress Reduction Clinic and the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. What did you find?

RICHARD DAVIDSON, PHD: That was a study that was done with employees of a high-tech company here in Madison, Wisconsin. It was a study where we randomly assigned individuals to a meditation group or a wait-list control group. We were primarily interested in some of the biological effects of meditation. What we found is a change in brain activity over the course of eight weeks of training. The change was a shift in the pattern of prefrontal activation toward a pattern which we had previously identified as being more indicative of positive emotions.

DANIEL REDWOOD: So activation occurs in some parts of the brain with positive emotions and in other parts of the brain with negative emotions.

RICHARD DAVIDSON, PHD: Yes, and what we saw was a shift toward the positive in the meditators. The second thing we did was to administer an influenza vaccine to the participants and we looked at antibody titers mounted in response to the vaccine. We specifically predicted that there should be an enhancement of the immune response to the vaccine if certain changes were brought about by meditation. In fact, we found that the meditation group showed significantly greater antibody response to the meditation intervention when compared to the control group.

DANIEL REDWOOD: And this would reflect a strengthening of the immune system.

RICHARD DAVIDSON, PHD: That’s correct.

DANIEL REDWOOD: Could you describe your work with Tibetan monks who are long-term meditators?

RICHARD DAVIDSON, PHD: This is a very unusual project that is still ongoing. It was launched with the active encouragement and facilitation by the Dalai Lama himself, and what we are doing is testing very long-term practitioners of Tibetan Buddhist meditation. These are practitioners who have devoted at least 10,000 hours to formal practice. The average number of lifetime practice hours for this is 35,000. So these are very experienced practitioners. These are, in many ways, the Olympic athletes of meditation. These are individuals who have spent at least one three-year period in retreat, where they were meditating for approximately eight hours a day for three continuous years.

In this project, what we are interested in is using these individuals as experts to help define what the farther reaches of mind training might be. So these individuals are really helping us to define these end points. We’re studying many different things with them. In our initial publication which came out in 2004, we examined patterns of brain electrical activity during certain meditation practices and found a very unusual pattern of very high amplitude, highly synchronized gamma activity. This is very high frequency activity in the electroencephalogram (EEG) which is typically found, in untrained subjects, for a much, much shorter period of time during periods of focused attention and perceptual integration.

In our more recent study, which was published in Proceedings of the
National Academy of Sciences
, we reported on changes using functional
magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) in brain circuits that are associated
with attention. What we show in that paper are robust differences between
the advanced practitioners and novices, in circuits that we know from prior
work are importantly involved in the regulation of attention. We are
continuing to study these practitioners in a variety of other paradigms.
For example, one of the things we’re studying right now is their response
to pain, to physically painful stimuli, since one of the important clinical
applications of meditation is among patients with various kinds of chronic
medical conditions where chronic pain is a pervasive accompaniment. We’re
interested in understanding how meditation may alter the brain’s response
to painful physical stimuli.

DANIEL REDWOOD: In the first chapter of Visions of Compassion, you and your co-authors described your first conversations with the Tibetan meditators, in which they wanted to be certain that your research was altruistically motivated. This is consistent with the core nature of Tibetan meditation, in which meditators focus on compassion for all beings and decreasing suffering in the world. Do you feel that the work you are currently doing marks the early stages of developing a science of attributes like compassion and caring and altruism?

RICHARD DAVIDSON, PHD: Absolutely. There’s increasing evidence that this is becoming a real field. There are very serious scientists, some of whom are Nobel Laureates, who are now dedicating their attention to these positive qualities in an effort to give them the attention that I think they deserve.

DANIEL REDWOOD: In Daniel Goleman’s book, Destructive Emotions, one chapter included the transcript of a conversation (which you took part in) among a group of scientists and the Dalai Lama that addressed the issue of anger. The participants discussed whether there is such a thing as positive anger, how anger can be controlled or creatively channeled, and also the neurological basis of anger. What can you share with us about those questions?

RICHARD DAVIDSON, PHD: I think it’s a very interesting and important theme. There is beginning to be a little bit of work on the neural bases of anger. The prototypical situations that engender anger are situations where we are thwarted from our goals, where there’s some obstacle to our goals. The emotion of anger may have evolved to facilitate the removal of obstacles that are in the way of our goal pursuits. So there may be some positive quality to anger that facilitates action, that facilitates the removal of obstacles to pursuing worthy goals, particularly if the anger can be divorced from the propensity to harm or destroy the person or object that is impeding our goals. So this is something that is just conjecture at this point in time, but there may be this positive quality to anger that mobilizes resources, that increases our vigilance, and in general facilitates the removal of obstacles to pursue worthy goals.

DANIEL REDWOOD: Do the brains of people with depression and post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) function differently from those of healthy people?

RICHARD DAVIDSON, PHD: There’s a lot of evidence now using modern neural imaging methods that quite definitively indicates that the functional status of the depressed brain, as well as the brain of a person who experiences post traumatic stress disorder, is different. There are also some data to indicate that there may be structural differences between the brains as well. Precisely what those differences are varies with the subtype of depression, and this is an area where there is a lot of active investigation. But we know that there are areas of the prefrontal cortex that function abnormally in depression, and there are adjacent areas of the anterior cingulate which have been very explicitly identified as exhibiting abnormalities in depression. In posttraumatic stress disorder, there have been findings that suggest that both the amygdala and the hippocampus—these are two subcortical structures that are very involved in emotions, and that have extensive reciprocity with these prefrontal regions—that these areas of the brain are functioning abnormally in PTSD.

DANIEL REDWOOD: How might this knowledge be applied in helping people with these problems?

RICHARD DAVIDSON, PHD: I believe this information may be useful in a number of ways and I think we’re really still very much on first base in terms of reaping the potential benefits that this new methodology and information may yield. But let me give you several examples. One is, there is new evidence from our lab as well as from other labs, that indicates that brain scanning measures, for instance with patients with depression, can significantly predict treatment response to both antidepressant medication as well as to non-pharmacological intervention. So knowing the functional status of a depressed person’s brain before they begin an intervention, we can better select the treatment which may be more effective. So that’s one area where these methods may be particularly helpful.

Another area is that these methods are identifying the specific neural circuits that function abnormally in these conditions. This gives us very specific therapeutic targets for new interventions, both pharmacological as well as, potentially, behavioral interventions. With the pharmacological interventions, by knowing what circuits are involved, we can identify genes that may be uniquely expressed in these brain regions, and based on that information can tailor with far greater precision pharmacological treatments which operate on very specific subsystems that are locally expressed in the brain. That something that is really a promissory note, it has not yet occurred, but certainly this kind of information will be tremendously helpful in that regard.

Finally, there are now scientists who are using feedback from these brain scanning methods themselves, literally neurofeedback using functional MRI, to directly modulate local brain function in ways that may have direct therapeutic benefit. So we know, for example, that if a particular area of the brain is over-activated in a depressed patient, we may be able to train that person to reduce the activation in that area through real time fMRI feedback. Again, that is a promissory note; there’s just a tad of research that suggests that this may be a real possibility. But it’s exciting and important and, we believe, worthy of pursuit.

DANIEL REDWOOD: Is the popular use of the terms ‘left brain’ and ‘right brain’—where left applies to linear or logical thinking and right applies to more intuitive, emotional or artistic processes—accurate, inaccurate, or an oversimplified version of accurate?

RICHARD DAVIDSON, PHD: I would say it’s mostly inaccurate. It’s a hyper-simplified version and it’s just far more complicated than that. Different areas within each hemisphere do different things at the same point in time. To characterize a whole hemisphere as linear, or whatever the word is, is just a gross oversimplification.

DANIEL REDWOOD: You said at the beginning of this interview that your initial motivation for going into this whole field was about helping people. What do you foresee in your own future work, along those lines?

RICHARD DAVIDSON, PHD: I’m deeply committed to the goals that I articulated. I do very genuinely believe that we can use this work to help reduce suffering in the world and to promote well-being. I am getting increasingly involved in research that applies these methods on a wider scale in different kinds of settings, with the potential to effect change in a more significant way.
To give you a concrete example, one of the ways in which we’re doing that is by beginning to explore the application of meditation and other contemplative practices in educational settings in the K-12 years. We believe that the brain is particularly plastic in those early years of life. We have a real opportunity to effect more dramatic change at this time, change that is potentially more long-lasting. This is an especially important period in the human lifespan for these kinds of interventions, not to treat disease but as a preventative measure to cultivate resilience and to guard against the development of psychopathology. And so this is something that I think you’ll see more of in the future and represents a very promising domain in which to extend some of this work.

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Written by Daniel Redwood DC

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