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On a bone-chilling night in late January, a capacity crowd of roughly 400 people packed the main auditorium at First Unitarian Society on Madison's west side.
The man everyone came to see was selected by Time magazine in 2006 as one of the world's 100 most influential people. He's in regular contact with the Dalai Lama. His work has made him a veritable rock star in the world of neuroscience.
Yet UW-Madison researcher Richard J. Davidson, Ph.D., known simply as "Richie" to friends and colleagues, seemed to genuinely enjoy taking questions from the public just as much as he might from scientific colleagues.
Punctuating his talk with humor, and frequently flashing a broad smile, Davidson seemed thoroughly at ease. The 57-year-old Madison resident (he lives on the west side with his wife, Susan, a perinatologist at St. Mary's Hospital) spoke fluidly without notes for more than an hour, moving freely about the stage.
Davidson, a professor of psychology and psychiatry and director of the UW's Laboratory for Affective Neuroscience, was speaking on neuroplasticity - the ability of the brain to remain flexible, adaptable and trainable. It's one of the foundations of his work.
The adult brain, scientists now realize, continues to make about 5,000 new cells per day. It is ever changing, or "plastic," throughout life.
"Traits formerly considered to be fixed are really not," said Davidson. "They're characteristics that can be changed through training."
In other words, human beings have more control over our minds than previously thought. And one way of training the brain is meditation - another main focus of Davidson's work.
"We're carrying our own laboratory between our ears, and we just need to use it," Davidson told the crowd.
One audience member asked about the potential benefits of meditation for prisoners. It was a prescient question: On Thursday, March 26, Davidson will participate in a panel discussion following a screening of The Dhamma Brothers, a new documentary (see sidebar).
The film explores an intensive meditation course in an Alabama maximum-security prison. And there is reason to believe it works. As Davidson mused, "With a slight shift of mindset, prisons can become monasteries."
This statement seemed to be greeted with a slight ripple of surprise, maybe even shock. It's not hard to imagine saffron-robed Buddhist monks engaged in hours of serene contemplation, but criminals?
Davidson, from within his sunlit office in the UW's Waisman Center, admits his ties to the Dalai Lama are at first a bit surprising.
"It's exceedingly rare," he says of their association. "I don't know any other spiritual leader who has that kind of intense interest in science."
But the Dalai Lama, Davidson suggests, is a scientist at heart: "He has a deep, abiding and tenacious curiosity. He asks amazingly probing questions, and he has made the statement that he is prepared to give up anything in Buddhism that is directly contradicted by scientific fact."
Davidson's interest in contemplative practices predates his friendship with the Dalai Lama. In fact, as he told the crowd at First Unitarian, he first went to India in 1974, after his second year in graduate school at Harvard.
It was in India and later Sri Lanka that Davidson first witnessed intensive meditation, which he began to dabble in himself. He came to the UW in 1984, when contemplative practices were not always considered a suitable topic for research psychologists.
In 1992 the Dalai Lama sent Davidson a fateful fax, encouraging research into the effects of meditation and inviting him to a meeting in Dharamsala, India. That marked the beginning of an enduring intellectual partnership. In fact, Davidson plans to return to India on April 1 to meet with the Dalai Lama again.
Beginning in 2000, Davidson and colleagues at the Waisman Center began studying seasoned meditation practitioners as they engaged in specific exercises, such as compassion meditation. Functional MRI scans were used to record brain activity.
In compassion meditation, one aims to obtain a state of mind suffused with love and compassion for all, without reasoning or distracting thoughts.
The meditators used in this study each had a minimum of 10,000 hours of practice, and their lifetime average was much higher: a whopping 35,000 hours, roughly equivalent to 17 years at a full-time job.
Davidson's research revealed increased activity in the left prefrontal cortex of the brain, an area also correlated with happiness, as well as significant activity in the motor regions of the brain, which are connected to converting intention to action.
While Davidson does not discount the spiritual aspects of meditation for many practitioners, it need not be a spiritual practice to provide benefits.
In fact, mindfulness-based stress reduction, widely taught in academic medical centers, is completely secular. And even the Dalai Lama has said: "Love and compassion are the true religion to me. But to develop this, we do not need to believe in any religion."
Davidson himself lives in the world of firm evidence and peer-reviewed journals, not a gauzy web of hunches.
He frequently uses phrases like "hard-nosed research" or "hard data." He's careful to spell out what is concretely known about meditation's benefits and what is surmised but not yet proven.
For example, when asked about the link between compassion for others and a sense of personal happiness, Davidson cites an experiment conducted elsewhere in which participants were given $50 to spend. Half were instructed to spend it on themselves, half to spend it on others. Those who bought gifts for others reported feeling happier after the exercise.
Concludes Davidson, "We are built to experience happiness when we can facilitate the happiness of others and facilitate the compassion that is the relief of suffering of others. I think there is this connection, but there is precious little hard-nosed research at this point in time."
While much psychological research focuses on dysfunction - negative feelings and destructive patterns - Davidson seeks to investigate correlations between brain activity and positive human emotions. The goal is to see whether human beings can produce physical changes in the brain that can improve their lives.
Early studies suggest meditation could help people coping with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, depression, hypertension and asthma. And Davidson and his colleagues want to study how meditation might benefit K-12 students, medical patients, prisoners and others.
Two new grants will help advance these goals, though further funding is needed and actively being sought.
Last November, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) awarded a $6 million grant to the Wisconsin Center on the Neuroscience and Psychophysiology of Meditation. Some of this funding will go toward supporting ongoing research in Davidson's lab.
The Fetzer Institute, a foundation based in Kalamazoo, Mich., has donated $2.5 million toward the formation of the UW Center for Creating a Healthy Mind. The five-year grant is specifically geared toward work on the "neuroscience of compassion, love and forgiveness." The new center will have space within the Waisman Center; renovations are already under way.
"Architects are designing 4,000 feet of new space that will include a meditation room for both research and the use of students and staff," says Davidson.
Outreach has also begun, such as training in mindfulness-based stress reduction, offered free to teachers and staff at the Waisman Early Childhood Program.
The Center for Creating a Healthy Mind is set to open in May 2010. It's already lined up a keynote speaker: Jon Kabat-Zinn, professor emeritus at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, the author of such books as Wherever You Go, There You Are: Mindfulness Meditation in Everyday Life.
Davidson's work is not without controversy. He's been criticized for collaborating on studies involving the use of nonhuman primates. He's defended that work publicly in lectures and media interviews.
"Contrary to some of the claims that have been made by people who have been objecting to this," he says, "I've actually never received a penny of research dollars [as the principal investigator] either from a federal agency or any private foundation for research on animals ever in my career. That is a matter of public record."
Neither the NIH nor Fetzer Institute grants involve research on nonhuman animals.
Davidson says he is "not defending the status quo" in terms of how animals are treated, seeing this as an area in which scientists and animal rights activists can work together.
"Animal research is not going to go away, I think everyone would agree," he says. "So the most practical thing is to try to change the culture to reduce the suffering of animals."
Man on a mission
Like other scientists, Davidson is optimistic that the Obama administration will change the scientific climate for the better.
"The sensibility and the inclination of the new administration is, in my own view, a terrifically healthy change from the past," he says. "In the stimulus package, there's an enormous increase for the NIH budget; that's a very hopeful sign. So I think that it's great news for science in general."
Speaking more specifically about meditation, Davidson continues: "There is an unbelievable crisis in this country with health care costs. Something has to be done. There is some reason to believe that individuals who engage in a regular practice of meditation will show decreased health care utilization. This needs to be studied very carefully.... [Meditation] is an extraordinarily low-cost intervention with very few, if any, side effects."
Indeed, meditation is practiced by some members of Congress - including Tim Ryan (D-Ohio), who sits on the House subcommittee dealing with appropriations for health and education.
"[Ryan] has actually visited my lab very recently," says Davidson. "He is intensely interested in this area and strongly believes in its importance. He is currently in the process of organizing hearings on Capitol Hill that will allow me and several other scientists to testify."
Like any scientist needing ongoing funding, Davidson seeks to ignite the interest of government officials, foundations and individual donors. He's a man on a mission.
Yet he seems equally keen to share his ideas with the public. Thus his talk at First Unitarian or one he gave at the Overture Center on behalf of the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts and Letters, which inducted him as a fellow in 2004.
"It's very important to me, and I enjoy talking to lay audiences," says Davidson of his public speaking engagements.
"I do it because we as scientists in general have a moral obligation to communicate with the public, since so much research is supported by taxpayer dollars.
"But in my case," he adds, "it's even more important because we're discovering things and dealing with issues that are genuinely beneficial to people in their everyday lives."
Something to talk about
A free public screening of The Dhamma Brothers at the Waisman Center Auditorium Thursday, March 26, at 7 pm will be followed by a panel discussion on the use of meditation by prisoners. The panelists include filmmaker Jenny Phillips, professor Richard Davidson, the Rev. Jerry Hancock and Lucia Meijer, formerly the warden of a Washington state correctional facility that offered a vipassana meditation program. Dimitri Topitzes will moderate.