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Mindful : August 2014
Your brain is unlike any other organ in the body—it’s designed to adapt constantly. “The brain is not static. It is meant to change,” says Richie Davidson, profes- sor of psychology and psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. No matter what we do, he tells me enthusiastically—whether it’s learning to play tennis or spending time playing “Words with Friends” on our phones—we are shaping our brains. The brain is not like a car that comes off the production line and stays the same (except for breaking down and decaying). The brain keeps changing over its entire lifespan. And Davidson thinks that is very good news. Here’s one very big reason that “neuroplasticity” is such good news: Davidson’s research shows that spending as little as 30 minutes per day training our minds to do something different can result in measurable changes that can be tracked in a brain scanner. And much of that research is being done by the 60-65 scientists, post-docs, resea rch assista nts, and graduate students at the Center for Investigat- ing Healthy Minds (CIHM) at the Waisman Center, UW-Madison, for which Davidson ser ves as director and which he founded in 2008. “ We can intentionally shape the direction of plasticity cha nges in our brain,” Davidson says from his office on a sunny Februar y day in Madison. “By focusing on wholesome thoughts, for exa mple, and directing our intentions in those ways, we can potentially influence the plasticity of our brains and shape them in ways that ca n be beneficial. That leads us to the inevitable conclusion that qualities like warm-hear tedness a nd well-being should best be rega rded as skills. They a re skills that can be cultivated.” The broad windows of Davidson’s office on this day feature a cold, snowy ca nvas overlaid with geometric shadows cast from the interconnected buildings that make up the Waisman Center and the CIHM, situated near the UW Hospital a nd Clinics on the university’s campus. In midwinter here in Madison, the blistering cold meets its match in the ready warmth of the locals. Call for a cab here and you’re asked the question: Do you mind sharing? While it bursts at the seams when university is in session, it retains a hometown-America feel. People have time to chat and seem natura lly prone to lend- ing a hand. The fact, then, that a center devoted to exploring healthy qualities of mind such as kind- ness, compassion, forgiveness, and mindfulness is situated here seems a logical fit. The center’s founding marked a persona l and professional triumph for Davidson. As a g raduate student in the mid-1970s, Davidson shocked his pro- fessors by taking off for India to explore meditation practice and Buddhist teachings. After three months there and in Sri Lanka, he came back convinced he would do meditation research. He was quickly dis- abused of this notion by his professors, who let him know that if he had any hope of a career in science, he’d better stow the meditation and follow a more conventional path of research. He became a closet meditator and an affective neuroscientist—a deep student of the emotions. In the early days, Davidson says, whatever “research” there was on meditation wasn’t convinc- ing, filled with extravagant claims of magical results but not following standard protocols or building on the methodologies of previous research in related areas. A study that correlated drops in crime with the activity of Tra nscendental Meditation prac- titioners in the vicinity (and similar misguided efforts) tainted meditation research and helped keep him in the closet. As well, he says, “the science and the methods of the time were not suited to the task of studying subtle internal experience.” They lacked technology like fMRI (functional magnetic reso- nance imaging), which takes a moving picture of brain activity. They didn’t have any appreciation of epigenetics, the process by which our gene makeup can be changed throughout our lifetime. But above all, Davidson says, “we lacked an understa nding of neuroplasticity. It is now widely accepted that the brain is an organ desig ned to change in response to experience a nd, importantly for our work, in response to training.” → A demonstration of a video game intended to train children’s brains in the direction of kindness and empathy. 52 mindful August 2014 science