What if you could improve your health and wellbeing, not only for yourself but for generations to come, just by practicing mindfulness?
The modern science of mindfulness took a turn with the discovery of neuroplasticity - the simple fact that our brains can change. Now, we’re learning more about the mind-body connection and how meditation influences not only our brain, but our physiology and the expression of our genes.
In this episode, Dr. Richie Davidson, a pioneer in mindfulness and meditation research, highlights the breakthroughs of modern science which have helped us to better understand both meditation and ourselves.
Dr. Richard J. Davidson is a research professor of psychology and psychiatry and the founder & director of the Center for Healthy Minds at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He has published over 400 research articles, and edited or authored over 17 books. Titles include “The Emotional Life of Your Brain,” “The Mind’s Own Physician: A Scientific Dialogue with the Dalai Lama on the Healing Power of Meditation,” and “Altered Traits: Science Reveals How Meditation Changes Your Mind, Brain, and Body.”
This talk is a brief excerpt from Dr. Richie Davidson’s guest teacher presentation to those enrolled in our Mindfulness Meditation Teacher Training Program. Learn more about this unique, online, self-paced certification program at mindfulnessexercises.com/certify
What You’ll Learn in This Episode:
Show Notes & Quotes:
The four primary themes of mindfulness research
The discovery of neuroplasticity, the fact that our brains are constantly changing, may be among the most significant breakthroughs in understanding the human mind. If our brain is continuously shaped by the forces around us, it’s possible to influence how it’s shaped by choosing where we place the mind. Just as you can shape your muscles with physical exercise, you can shape your brain by choosing healthy habits of mind. Imaging studies of long term practitioners demonstrate that the mind of an expert meditator is indeed different than a non-meditator’s.
“When people cultivate healthy habits of mind through meditation, their brains change. That’s an amazing fact! And so we can actually be in the driver’s seat. We can play a role in the shaping of our own brain through the cultivation of these healthy habits of mind. And it’s difficult to overstate the importance of this.”
The bidirectionality of body and mind communication
Meditation is not just a mind-training practice. It can also influence the health of the body. This discovery implies that meditation may be a useful practice for promoting physical, as well as mental and emotional, wellbeing. We can use the mind to trigger positive changes in the body, just as exercising or eating healthy positively impacts the mind.
“People who report higher levels of wellbeing are physically healthier. Now this is not true of everyone, but if you look at large population-based studies, epidemiological studies, this is indeed what you find. And this leads to the conjecture that the intentional cultivation of wellbeing will result in changes in our physical health for the positive. Now, this is still an area that requires a lot more scientific research, but the evidence clearly suggests this.”
Meditation and the science of how our genes are regulated
Not only does meditation change the brain, but it may also alter how our genes are expressed. For the most part, the genes we’re born with are the genes we’ll have our entire lives, but the extent to which each is expressed can change. This is called epigenetics, and it affects not only you, but your descendants.
“Very recent research indicates these epigenetic changes can actually be transmitted across at least a couple of generations. Now, some of you have heard about the intergenerational transmission of trauma, which certainly occurs. And epigenetics is in part a mechanism responsible for that, and there’s good scientific evidence to show that. I’d like to invite you to consider the possibility of the epigenetic transmission of awakening. Same mechanism - very different outcome. But all of the data suggest that it’s possible.”
The basic goodness of human beings
Among the more controversial scientific breakthroughs is the idea that every human being is born with an innate, basic goodness. Studies show that before the age of 3, when implicit bias starts to take hold, we choose prosocial, kind and compassionate interactions over selfish or aggressive ones. Enhancing these good qualities through meditation, then, is not about creating something new, but about nurturing the basic nature of our mind and familiarizing ourselves with who we really are.
“A combination of mindfulness and connection practices, loving-kindness and compassion practices, together are particularly effective in reducing implicit bias. [...] We have a moral obligation to provide skills to our children to resist the devastating impact of certain messages that they get from media and other sources that inculcate these biases. And these biases, by the way, are also at the root of the achievement gap in the United States.”
How meditation protects us from the impact of aging
We cannot prevent the brain from aging, but a consistent meditation practice may help the brain age more slowly. Studies show that meditation can protect against the neurodegenerative disease associated with aging. Dr. Davidson points to the results of a longitudinal study of the brain of a lifelong meditator, Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche. At 41 years of age, his brain resembled that of most 33 year olds. It could be that meditation protects the brain from inflammation and aging.
“The other issue is that we know that one of the factors which is a trigger for neurodegeneration is neuroinflammation. So, we know that there’s inflammation in the body and that plays a role in many chronic illnesses, there’s also inflammation in the brain. And we now, for the first time, very recently, have ways of measuring inflammation in the brain non-invasively in humans. [...] And so another thing that we’re studying is this phenomenon of inflammation in the brain as we age and looking to see whether different kinds of meditation may influence this inflammation in the brain.”
The urgent need for mindfulness and meditation
In the United States, people are reporting feeling more loneliness, anxiety and depression, and suicide is increasing at alarming rates. So it’s morally imperative that we create a culture of wellbeing. Dr. Davidson describes how in the early years of his research, many people were skeptical about the benefits of mindfulness and meditation. Thanks to modern science, we now know differently and we have a precious opportunity to share these free and accessible practices with others, to change lives for the better.
“There’s clearly an urgent need and many of these problems can be traced at least in part to a failure to cultivate wellbeing. So, we need to do everything we can to bring strategies which can be used upstream preventatively to help address this need. [...] There has been a lot of movement in the mainstream scientific community around this.”
About Dr. Richie Davidson:
Dr. Richard J. Davidson is a research professor of psychology and psychiatry and the founder & director of the Center for Healthy Minds at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Dr. Davidson is a close friend of His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, who he credits for inspiring him to apply the tools of modern neuroscience to better understand positive traits such as kindness, compassion and happiness.
Dr. Davidson is best known for his studies on emotion, mindfulness and the brain. He has published over 400 research articles, edited 14 books, and authored 2 books of his own, “The Emotional Life of Your Brain” and “Altered Traits: Science Reveals How Meditation Changes Your Mind, Brain, and Body.” In 2000, he was the recipient of the American Psychological Association’s most distinguished award for scientific contribution. In 2006, Time Magazine named him among the world’s 100 most influential people.
Dr. Davidson is the founder of Healthy Minds Innovations, which translates science into tools to cultivate and measure well-being. The non-profit takes the discoveries and insights gleaned from the Center for Healthy Minds and translates them into tools that help people around the world build skills of well-being.