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Mindful : August 2014
Participants for the gene study came into the lab and meditated for eight hours. Blood samples were taken before and after those hours of practice and then Davidson a nd crew looked for gene-expres- sion changes over the course of that time in the lab. Results from this meditator g roup were compared to a control group that was not familia r with medita- tion and that came into the laboratory for “a day of leisure.” That group watched quiet videos, read, and took gentle walks. The findings? The control-g roup participants didn’t show the same kind of gene-expression changes, Davidson says. It’s the first study that shows “we can actually see gene-expression changes within a very short period of time.” As a ny hard-nosed scientist would, Davidson is quick to put things in context. “This is really just the beginning,” he says. “There are ma ny more ques- tions this study raises than we were able to answer.” Understa nding how gene expression is “not fixed and deterministic” is not a new concept for David- son. He addresses it in his 2012 book, The Emotional Life of Your Brain, w ritten with Sha ron Begley: Our DNA is more like an extensive CD collection. Just because you have a CD doesn’t mean you will play it, a nd just because you have a gene doesn’t mean that it is turned on (or as geneticists say, “expressed”). Instead, the extent to which genes are expressed is st rongly affected by the environ- ment. Thus, while we may have, say, a genetic pro- pensity for anxiety, being raised in an environment that nurtures equanimity can silence that “anxious DNA” and prevent it from having an effect in the bra in a nd thus on our behavior or temperament. It is as if we never slip that CD into the player. Davidson invites us to imagine how contempla- tive practices being a habitual a nd widespread part of daily life might keep nudging us toward healthy habits of mind. He also creates environments where contemplative practices do become habitual so that he and other scientists can directly test the effect meditation might have in real-world settings. To date, there are more than 20 studies underway at CIHM. Some examine mental and physical health and illness. Others look at the effects of medita- tion a nd compassion training. Others consider the effect on our brains of acts of compassion, and still others look at child development and education. It’s no wonder funding agencies, the university, his colleagues, and a whole generation of newly minted neuroscientists put their faith in Davidson and his work. It’s going to help a lot of people. It already is. ● Tracy Picha is a freelance writer and former Editor of Mindful. Her most recent piece, about her brain on tango, appeared in the February 2014 issue. CURRENT RESEARCH AT CIHM The focus of CIHM’s “Kindness Curriculum,” now being tested in Madison schools, is three- fold: social and emotional learning, emotion regulation, and pro-social skills. “ We hope developing these skills will increase social and emotional health and enable kids to be more available for learning,” says teacher Laura Pinger. The curriculum, designed to help both children and teach- ers in the classroom, is a result of a collaboration between Lisa Flook, whose research inter- ests include prevention and early inter vention strategies to promote well-being early in life, and Pinger, who has 30 years’ teaching experience, including teaching mindfulness. (David- son was one of her students.) While data gathering and analysis is ongoing, initial findings in the “Kindness Cur- riculum Study with Pre-Kinder- gar ten Students” indicate that children who took par t showed “improved response times on Kindness Curriculum Lisa Flook and Laura Pinger computer measures of atten- tion and larger gains in social competence as compared to the children who did not receive the curriculum.” Pinger offers another snap- shot. “What’s interesting for me is the number of parents who are writing to teachers or talking to them about the impact the Kindness Curric- ulum has made at home,” she says. The mother of one boy comes to mind. “She wrote a letter saying she had never heard her son talk about understanding how somebody else was feeling, but he’s now talking about that at home, and it’s really shifted how he’s interacting with his siblings. “ We send materials home with the children with letters explaining to parents what we’re talking about in class,” Pinger says, “but what I think is really amazing is that all of this is having enough of an impact that parents are repor ting see- ing differences at home.” ● August 2014 mindful 57 science