Steve Paulson: Part of your story is how we've witnessed a revolutionary change in our understanding of the brain. Really just in the last two or three decades or so. I know paradigm change is an overused word, but I think it's right here. Can you tell me what has changed?
Richard Davidson: Well, I think a lot has changed. At points in the past when we talked about the brain being involved in behavior or an experience, most people assumed that those were fixed characteristics of the brain. If we were talking about the brain, we were necessarily talking about genetically driven characteristics. That's something that's just completely been turned on its head.
The brain we know is the organ that changes in response to experience, and in response to training, probably more than other organ in our body. And as such it really is the vehicle for change and transformation as much as it's the vehicle for anything else.
Paulson: So this is what people talk about when they use that word 'neuroplasticity', that the brain can be rewired?
Davidson: Exactly, exactly. That's been just a huge change. And another change is the idea that thought and emotion are segregated entities. And there was a time, particularly when cognitive psychology first came on the scene in the academic psychological world and the computer was our metaphor for the mind, that emotions were nothing other than disrupters of the cold cognitive calculus which was the real stuff of our mind.
Paulson: So scientists back then, neuroscientists as well as cognitive psychologists, they didn't want to study emotions.
Davidson: No. They did not want to study emotions. Emotions were really relegated to the backwaters of psychology and neuroscience. And if there was any serious neuroscientific study of emotion, it was really primitive kinds of emotion in rodents. That was pretty much what constituted research on the neuroscience of emotion.
Paulson: Why did scientists think that emotions were not a valid subject in brain science?
Davidson: Well again, I think it was really the celebration of human rationality and the idea of the computer is a metaphor for cognitive function. This was the heyday of the cognitive era in psychology. It also interestingly coincided with the stance in economics that we operate as rational calculators. And our economic decision making is utterly rational and not effected by our emotions.
Of course, we now know that both, with respect to the brain, and with respect to decision making, that those assumptions are just completely wrong.
Paulson: So this was the idea that there were certain parts of the brain that dealt with reason and reason alone, especially the prefrontal cortex.
Davidson: Yes, that's precisely the case. And that if emotions did very much what they did is they disrupted the cognitive function that operated in the highest parts of the brain, that is the most evolutionary recent parts of the brain.
Paulson: So here you were, a graduate student at Harvard in the early 1970s, you came along and you wanted to study emotion, right?
Davidson: I wanted to study emotion because I had this kind of inner conviction that emotion was really the key to so much that was important to vet human behavior. And when we think about how our friends and our loved ones, and we ask ourselves what strikes you most about those people, we inevitably resort to language that includes emotion.
A person is friendly, or they're grumpy, or they're cheerful. Those are all words that refer to emotional characteristics. And it just struck me that emotion was key to understanding our personality. It also seemed clear to me that every form of psychopathology, that is of psychiatric disorder, involved some disruption of emotion, or some involvement of emotion in some significant way.
To ignore it would be at the peril of having a real understanding of conditions that were very important to understanding what it means to be human.
Paulson: You know that sounds so obvious, what you're saying. Apparently it was not obvious back in the 1970s. Why did your professors at Harvard think you were a little crazy?
Davidson: Well, I clearly was challenging conventional wisdom, particularly when it came to the notion that the prefrontal cortex had something to do with emotion. Actually, it was a professor I had who had who was not at Harvard but who was at MIT. I had the opportunity to take a neuroanatomy course at MIT because one of the world's great neuroanatimists worked at MIT at the time.
He has since passed away, a scientist by the name of Wally Nauta. And Wally Nauta was really an extraordinary neuroanatamist. His area of research was the prefrontal cortex, and he at the time did more than any other scientist in tracing the connections to and from different regions of the prefrontal cortex.
Actually, it was Nauta that I think was the first person to affirm the legitimacy of my interest. Because he actually wrote a paper in 1971 called the "Problem of the Prefrontal Lobe: A reinterpretation." I still remember the excitement I felt when I first read that paper as a graduate student.
It was published in a very obscure journal, the "Journal of Psychiatric Research." But that was a paper where he talked about the role of the prefrontal cortex and emotion, in a way that made so much sense to me. He was just decades ahead of his time, and never really lived to see it become a reality. It was just conjecture in that paper. That really affected me.
Paulson: You know, you're right about something else that happened back in the '70s when you were living in the Boston area. Some of your circle of friends were involved in meditation. And that somehow seemed to hit home for you.
Davidson: That was a very important influence. I had a phenomenal graduate school education, I loved every minute of it. But I also had a very important education that existed outside the halls of William James Hall, which was really a kind of alternative education.
This was a group of people that I met very soon after I arrived in Cambridge, who all had in common an interest in the practice of meditation. These are all people who had been to India, and who had just come back.
One of them is someone who became a very popular well known spiritual teacher by the name of Ram Dass. He was a former professor at Harvard.
Paulson: Of course caught up in that infamous scandal with Timothy Leary about studying psychedelics at Harvard.
Davidson: Right, he was absolutely caught up in that scandal. And at the time that I first met Ram Dass, he was really past the psychedelics era and was convinced that we can do things with our mind for which we don't need any chemical stimulant, if you will, or chemical catalyst, that we can change our mind through systematic practice of meditation and other kinds of related traditions.
When I first met these guys, they struck me as being extraordinarily kind, gentle, humble people. And it was there demeanor that impressed me most not the content of what they were talking about, just who they were as people.
It was that that really convinced me that there must be something here that is worthy of more serious investigation.
Paulson: So you ended up going off to India and Sri Lanka to study meditation, right? As well as to do it.
Davidson: I did. I left at the end of my second year of graduate school much to the consternation of some of the faculty at Harvard who thought that either I was going off the deep end or B., that I would never return.
But there was something in me that persisted. Even in the face of tremendous skepticism. And this is not something that graduate students that ordinarily do.
Paulson: Of course this was also the 1970s, the heyday of the Flower Power era, Beatles and the '70s, all that.
Davidson: All of that. There's no doubt that that cultural zeitgeist played a role in my own interests. But yeah, I went off for three months and those were incredibly experiences for me.
Paulson: What did you do over in Sri Lanka and India?
Davidson: Well, in Sri Lanka I actually was living with Dan Goleman and his wife. Dan Goleman of course is the author of the best seller "Emotional Intelligence."
Paulson: He was for years a journalist with the "New York Times."
Davidson: Right, and he at that time was still a graduate student at Harvard. So we overlapped. He played a very important role in my own career. I knew he was at Harvard, but actually the story of me meeting him for the first time...
This is a bit of a digression, but my very first class at Harvard. This was in the days before the Internet. I actually had not seen a picture of Dan. I sat down in this class and someone sat next to me and I looked over and I said, "You must be Dan Goleman."
Now in part it was because of the clothes he was wearing. He had just come back from India and he looked like he had just come back from India in the mid-1970s. That was the beginning of a friendship that still continues to this day.
In fact I'll be with him all of next week.
Paulson: Take me to those months in Sri Lanka and India. Why did they have such an impact on you? What happened there?
Davidson: Well, I was able to meet people who are contemplatives, who've spent their life training their mind and familiarizing themselves with their mind. Of course the word 'meditation' comes from the Sanskrit root which in part means familiarization. And so these were people who were utterly familiar with operation of their own mind in ways that I think are not common in the West. Because they've just spent so much time doing it.
They were again, people whose demeanor was just so infectious to me. And they were people that I wanted to spend more time around because it felt good to be around them.
So I was meeting those people, and at the same time in Sri Lanka I was living... My girlfriend and I who subsequently became my wife, we were living with Dan and his wife and first child in Kandy, Sri Lanka.
We would go off and meet these monks and spend days with them. Talking to them and meditating with them, and the rest of the time Dan and I were working together and produced a number of articles in the very early stage of my career on the psychology and neurobiology of meditation.
Paulson: So you were starting to publish this stuff? Because that was, I would think, academically potential suicide.
Davidson: Yeah, and that was made very clear to me, soon after I got back. But we were writing together at that time. And then just to finish the story, I then went off to India and had my first taste of intensive meditation practice.
This is kind of like meditation boot camp. Where we were in retreat in complete silence, meditating for more than 12 hours a day. Doing it very intensively, and it's very difficult to go through and experience like that and not really feel that your mind can be powerfully effected by that kind of experience.
The only major thing that disrupted that, was in the middle of my retreat time in India was the day Nixon resigned. I will never forget getting a scribbled note from the person who was meditating next to me that said, "Nixon resigned."
Paulson: That broke your retreat there for a moment.
Davidson: For a moment, it didn't last. The disruption fortunately was not too great.
Paulson: So it sounds like what you're saying is that your interest in the science of the mind, the science of mindfulness has very personal roots.
Davidson: It does have very personal roots. You know, I became involved in psychology and neuroscience because I was convinced that if people can transform their mind, we can actually make the world a better place.
That was really my original motivation for getting involved in this. And that motivation has not changed a smidgen.
Paulson: But again, it sounds like you were challenging a fundamental idea about neuroscience which is that the mind is just what the brain does. In fact, I went to a talk not that long ago with a prominent neuroscientist and he was asked, "So, what is the mind?" And his definition was, "The mind is what the brain does." That's not exactly your position, is it?
Davidson: No, it's not exactly my position. Although I still would describe myself as someone who would adopt the paradigm of conventional neuroscience in saying that if it were not for the brain we wouldn't have a mind. However, having said that, I would also say that we can change our brain by transforming our mind.
So I think that there are subtle language issues as well as more deeper conceptual issues which are at play here. But the bottom line is that I think that the involvement I've had with the meditative traditions has convinced me that we should regard qualities like kindness and compassion and equanimity and happiness and wellbeing for that matter, really as the product of skills that can be nurtured through training.
Paulson: I just want to follow up on this early point, because it sounds like a really radical idea that mental activity alone can change the brain, can actually change the physical structure of the brain.
Davidson: I think at that time it was a radical statement, unquestionably. And the amazing this is now, I think the majority of neuroscientist would agree with it. I mean there has been a dramatic sea change. There are all kinds of experiments, rigorous experiments which now show that that is in fact, true.
Paulson: Well let's come closer to your current work which has to do with emotion and emotional style. And that's the main subject of your new book. Why are you so interested in this concept of emotional style?
Davidson: Well, I think that when we think about, again this goes back to a point I made earlier, when we think about those around us, our social relationships which are so meaningful for us. One of the things that I think is so striking is to reflect on the diversity across people in how they respond to life's slings and arrows.
This to me is probably the most salient characteristic of emotion, and it's among the most salient characteristics of people in general. We all are confronted by challenges.
Paulson: So you're saying that if something bad happens to us, the real question is, how do we respond?
Davidson: Exactly, exactly. We know you cannot live a protected life and prevent all things bad. Stuff happens. It's all about how we respond to it. That is a significant determinant of whether a person succumbs to psychopathology, it's a significant determinant of how a person develops and ages, it's a significant determinant of our physical health and wellbeing.
It's so central to everything that really is, I think, important about life. So early on as a graduate student, I decided, even though emotion was very much in the back waters of psychology and neuroscience, that I was going to do what I could to... Although it wasn't very explicit at the time, but I felt it was just incredibly important that I had the intuition that it could be rehabilitated as a worthy topic of study.
Paulson: And you wanted to look at the neuroscience of this, not just have people do psychological experiments. You actually wanted to figure out what was going on in the brain and how that would affect people's responses.
Davidson: Absolutely. We did the first experiments involving the measurement of brain electrical activity, which was the only tool we had available at that time to non-invasively measure brain function in intact human beings.
Paulson: This was before the era of MIRs?
Davidson: It was before the era of MRI. Right. And initially people just thought I was nuts for putting electrodes on the front part of the head, which sits over the prefrontal cortex. People were very skeptical that I would pick up any signals that would be meaningful, that would reflect anything interesting about emotion.
Paulson: So what did you find??
Davidson: Well, in that early work, one of the strategies that we used was a strategy that involved looking at brain activity while we exposed a person to emotional evocative stimuli in the laboratory like film clips, or pictures. We videotaped people unobtrusively so that we were able to use their facial expressions as a flag to denote periods when peak emotion was occurring.
So rather than relying on a person's self-reports, which we know is problematic in various ways, we used objective measures of facial. And this really goes back to Charles Darwin who wrote an amazing book in 1872 called "The Expression of Emotion in Man and Animals."
Darwin underscored the evolutionary value of these facial signs of emotion, and clearly suggested that they could be worthy targets of scientific investigation. So we used those kinds of facial signs as a flag, and then we went in and we extracted the brain activity that was coincident with those periods of peak emotion, as reflected in the facial expressions.
We published a whole bunch of studies showing that the brain activity systematically differed depending upon the emotion that was expressed on the face. So that we can use this subjective measure and see these differences. But there was something about the data that was even more striking, which got me off on a tangent which I'm still pursuing.
That tangent was this, what we saw is that the difference between two different emotions within a person was considerably less than the difference across those two emotions that we saw across different people.
Paulson: Can you give me an example of this?
Davidson: So, we were specifically looking at activity in the prefrontal cortex, and what we noticed is that when you compare a happy expression, for example, to a disgust expression. What we saw is that there was on average greater left prefrontal activity that we recorded with our brain electrical measures during the happy compared to the disgust expression.
This held for all the participants that we tested, or virtually all of them. It was a very robust effect. But when we plot the difference between happy versus disgust, what we noticed is for some people, over all their brain activity was showing very left sided activation. They showed more left sided activation during happy compared to disgust, but overall during both they were showing left sided activity.
Compared to another person who actually was showing right sided activity during both, but they show a little during happy compared to disgust. So while within an individual you see this difference between these two emotion conditions, the difference across people was more than an order of magnitude greater than the difference we saw within a person between these two different emotions.
When I looked at the data, when I saw them in this way, it just struck me that there must be something here. This must be related to something important because it was so massive. We then began to pursue that. The first thing we wanted to see is whether these differences across people are actually reliable. That is, if I brought you in today and then brought you in a month from now, are you showing the roughly the same kind of pattern?
Because if you weren't showing roughly the same kind of pattern, then it's less interesting. What we saw is yes, it was indeed reliable. So in the language of science we would say that there is good test, retest reliability.
Paulson: So it sounds like you’re saying, to some degree you were isolating what I think in the old days, the non-scientific terminology would be sort of different personalities that people might have. But I think you're saying something more specific here, that people have distinct emotional styles.
Davidson: Yes, so in the book I talk about six different emotional styles. These are six different dimensions, or six different ways in which people differ in how they respond to emotionally significant events. And they're not obvious emotional styles. They're not, for example, introversion and extroversion. They're not personality types. They directly come from neuroscientific research, and each one of these emotional styles is grounded in a body of neuroscientific understanding.
Paulson: Can you briefly run through the six?
Davidson: Sure. One I call resilience. Resilience refers to the rapidity with which you recover from adversity. Another way to say it is, how long negative emotion persists once something bad happens.
The second style I call, outlook. Outlook refers, in many ways, the flipside of this. Which is how long positive emotion persists. So you can think of this as the duration of time with which positive emotion persists following a positive event in the environment.
Third style, we call context. What context refers to is how you are to the context in which your behavior is occurring, the extent to which you modulate your emotional responses in a context appropriate way. So for example, if you're having a conversation with your boss, presumably there are certain rules, if you will, that govern your emotional behavior that would be different than if you are having a conversation with your spouse.
The fourth emotional style we call social intuition. This refers to the sensitivity to social signals, or non-verbal signals of emotion. Some people are very sensitive to these signals, signals like facial expressions or tone of voice. Other people are less sensitive to these signals.
The fifth emotional style is self-awareness. The extent to which you are aware of the signals within your own body that are associated with emotion.
Paulson: And how you project this to the people around you.
Davidson: Right. Although it's really primarily how accurate you are in detecting the signals within your own body. Some people are very accurate and notice the slightest change in their heart rate or the extent to which they're sweating. Other people are less sensitive to those signals.
The sixth style we call attention. Attention is not what you would obviously think of as an emotional style, but it's so important and basic, and it effects things emotional that I included it. On one end of the continuum would be the ability to focus very specifically and finely. On the other end of the continuum would be much more scattered kind of attention.
Paulson: So you're saying that there are specific brain functions that determine each of these emotional styles. Let's just take one as an example. Resilience, how we respond to bad things happening. What's happening in the brain?
Davidson: Resilience is primarily governed by the interaction between the prefrontal cortex and the amygdala. When we recover rapidly from a negative event, we recover rapidly because signals from the prefrontal cortex modulate the activity in the amygdala.
When we recover in a stickier way, where negative emotions perseverate and persist, it's because the prefrontal cortex is failing to put the brakes on the amygdala.
Paulson: The amygdala, that's the thing that really generates fear?
Davidson: Right, it's a key area in the limbic system which is really important for detecting threat and has been strongly implicated in fear and a number of other negative emotions.
Paulson: So this goes back to your point that you really cannot draw a clear line between reason and emotion. The prefrontal cortex, that center of our rationality. That has a lot to do with how we deal with fear and threat and stress.
Davidson: Absolutely. There is no single part of the brain that we can stay with any certainty is exclusively dedicated to either reason or to emotion. Every part of the brain that's been implicated in one has also been implicated in the other.
Paulson: What about depression? How does that figure into this discussion of emotional styles?
Davidson: Yeah, it's a great question. One of the things about any psychiatric disorder for which we currently have a categorical label is that there is a lot of heterogeneity. There are different kinds of depression, and I think that the framework of emotional styles really helps us to think about what sub-type of depression we may be dealing with.
One sub-type of depression may primarily be a product of differences in the resilience style. So in this form of depression a depressed person would be unable to turn of negative emotion once it's turned on. And in fact, one of the criteria in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of the American Psychiatric Association, which is the bible for diagnosis, is having negative emotion persist, or having this sad mood persist for a certain duration of time.
That's actually in the diagnostic criteria. Duration is part of the diagnosis.
Paulson: What would be happening in the brain that would cause this depression to persist?
Davidson: Well, in the case of a person who has a problem with the resilience style, it would be in the interaction between the prefrontal cortex and the amygdala or it could be in one or another of those structures by itself. Or all three. That is, in the connections between them as well as in the prefrontal cortex and in the amygdala.
It's something in that circuit that would be awry. And we know there are actually findings in the scientific literature that point to problems in all three. That is, problems in the prefrontal cortex, problems in the connection between the prefrontal cortex and the amygdala, and problems in the amygdala itself.
Paulson: And now you said there are other kinds of depression as well.
Davidson: Other kinds. The second style that I mentioned is the outlook style. And we actually, as well as other scientists, have published evidence showing that there is a kind of depression that primarily involves the inability to experience pleasure. That really is the most salient symptom of the depression.
For those who have an inability to experience pleasure, it's really the outlook style which is the primary one. Those people, what's so interesting is that when a positive thing happens, they actually do experience pleasure but it's really fleeting. It just doesn't last.
Paulson: And so again, from the neuroscience perspective, what's going on?
Davidson: Here it's the interaction between the prefrontal cortex and the ventral striatum. The ventral striatum is a part of the brain that sits below the cortex that's very important in reward and motivation. And a specific part of the ventral striatum is called the nucleus accumbens which we know is involved in certain kinds of positive emotion.
The nucleus accumbens is very rich in the neurotransmitter dopamine and that is likely involved in some way. We have shown in some work that we've done that the specific functional connection between a region in the prefrontal cortex and the nucleus accumbens is problematic in patients with major depression who specifically have, as one of their primary symptoms, the inability to experience pleasure.
Paulson: And you mentioned there was a third kind of depression.
Davidson: There is at least a third. Another kind of depression that we can talk about is problems with the modulation of emotion in a context appropriate way. The reason why that's important is that some depression arises from specific events that have occurred. For example, the death of a loved one where it's actually a very normal process to grieve.
But when that grieving begins to intrude into all kinds of other contexts, beyond which it may be appropriate, and when it persists for a long time. This is a case where the persistence can be a product of either the resilience style or the context style, or both.
Particularly when it persists in contexts where it really isn't appropriate. So if after several months if a person's at work, and they find themselves just grieving in a context where that's just not what is called for, it's likely that there is an abnormality in the context style.
The context style is primarily governed by the hippocampus. The hippocampus is an area of the brain which is very important in providing information to other brain regions about context, and it is a context processor.
We know from scientific work that there are indeed sub-types of depression where there are clear functional and structural abnormalities in the hippocampus in depression.
Paulson: Now there's something else that I'm wondering about as you're talking about these different parts of the brain. And that is, what happens on the left side of the brain, what happens on the right side of the brain. For years there was that talk that some people were left brained, others were right brained. The left brained people were supposedly analytical, rational. The right brained people were more intuitive. Is there any truth in that dichotomy?
Davidson: I would say it's a gross oversimplification. It's an oversimplification for a couple reasons. One is what is asymmetric in one part of the brain may be different in another part of the brain. So while the analytic versus intuitive was based upon research that primarily focused on asymmetries in the back of the brain, there are different kinds of asymmetries in the front of the brain, in the prefrontal cortex, for example.
A person can show left sided activation in the prefrontal cortex and right sided activation in the parietal region which is in the back of the brain, at the exact same moment in time.
So the idea that a person is left brained or right brained is just a... You can't really say that because a person can be both left brained and right brained at the same point in time and it depends which part of the brain we're talking about.
Also, there's the left and right amygdala, there's a left and right hippocampus. There are some asymmetries there as well. It's just much more complicated than the old popular ideas about this would lead us to believe. I think at this point in time the most responsible thing to say is that we don't fully understand the nature of these asymmetries.
Paulson: And yet there are clearly different things that happen on each side of the brain. I mean, there are certain left side functions and other different right side functions.
Davidson: There are, and the most robust asymmetry has to do with speech. In most right handed people, the left hemisphere is specialized for speech. And if you have damaged the left hemisphere your speech will be much more impaired than if you have comparable damage to your right hemisphere. That's unambiguous.
In our early work, which we talked about earlier, we found clear asymmetries in the prefrontal cortex that have to do with aspects of emotion. With the left prefrontal region being more involved in certain types of positive emotion, and the right hemisphere being more involved in certain types of negative emotion.
Having said that, it's also the case that those findings are based on early studies with brain electrical measures. And as we have used more sophisticated measures that give us a much more differentiated picture of what's going on in the brain, we've actually gotten a more complicated understanding.
While the earlier work is still valid, we know that it is only a small piece of the puzzle.
Paulson: But I guess I'm wondering, why do we even have these two hemispheres of the brain? Why not just have one large undifferentiated mass of three pounds of Jell-O up there.
Davidson: Well, that's a great question. It is precisely in reflecting on that question why we and other scientists are interested in asymmetry. Because the fact that our nervous systems have evolved in this way clearly means that it is likely that it confers some advantage.
The most crisp way to simply frame this for listeners is to say that it is a very strategic solution that evolved over the course of evolution to help segregate functions that would otherwise be competitive.
We know that when you have functions that are close together geographically in the brain there is competitive interaction between them and it can disrupt those functions. And the best way to minimize competition between resources and functions in the brain is to segregate them into two hemispheres. That's one reason.
A second reason is for redundancy. We all know when NASA sent the space shuttle up into space there were redundant computers so that if one computing system completely failed another one could take over. The brain is similar. It has two sides with are asymmetric, but actually what is striking about the two hemispheres from another perspective is their symmetry not their asymmetry.
If one hemisphere is damaged there is a lot in the other hemisphere that can take over and still preserve basic life functions.
Paulson: I would to follow up on this idea of how certain parts of the brain can compensate for things that are not going right in other parts and this doesn't necessarily have to do with the left side and the right side. It goes back to our discussion of plasticity. You have an amazing discussion of how the brain can be rewired for instance for blind people.
How for instance people who are blind from birth actually have different parts of the brain that are wired that go into that visual part of the brain that supposedly that can't even use.
Davidson: Yes. And those are some of the amazing stories in the field of neuroplasticity. The kind of stories that really bring this back home. So a person who is cognitively blind from birth where the blindness is caused by a peripheral problem in their eye not a problem in the visual cortex.
What I found is that rather than having that visual cortex that big piece of real estate in the back of our brains lie dormant it turns out that actually that real estate is used for other kinds of functions. It is one of the reasons why blind people have such an acute sense of hearing. Because some of the real estate that would otherwise be dedicated to vision in a typically developing person is not processing auditory information. There's expanded real estate for other sensory modalities.
Paulson: And then when blind people learn to read brail doesn't that activate a particular part of the brain?
Davidson: Yes. That's another example where the representation of brail of touch is considerably expanded in a blind person than it would be in a person with normal sight were he or she or learn brail.
Paulson: You mention in your book when the research first came out that blind people actually activated this visual part of the brain scientists didn't believe it I mean the other scientists and the "Journal of Science" actually refused to publish this research.
Davidson: Right and so there are some wonderful examples in the sociology of science and hopefully they'll say the same thing about meditation 20 years from now. But yes the mainstream scientific at that time was just very skeptical and looked at this work with considerable concern. I think it's fair to say that the zeitgeist has really changed dramatically.
Paulson: Well I know part of the thrust of your research is not just to understand the neuroanatomical of emotion. To sort of figure out why things happen in the way they do. But actually to give us the tools to do something about it. It comes back to your early experiences in meditation to that ancient of mindfulness that contemplatives have practiced for the millennia. Is there now a science of mindfulness?
Davidson: I think there's a growing scientific basis or foundation for this. Mindfulness has been defined in different ways. But one of the popular teachers of mindfulness who first established mindfulness based stress reduction, Jon Kabat-Zinn, defines mindfulness roughly as paying attention on purpose non-judgmentally.
When a person practices that kind of attention stance the brain in fact has been shown to change.
Paulson: Tell me about this. How do you determine this from a neuroscience perspective?
Davidson: Well the best way to determine it is with a longitudinal study. Where we can actually take people and randomly assign them to a condition where they have learned mindfulness and have another group be a control group. And test the individuals before they receive any training and test them after they've received training and practice for some period of time and see how their brain has changed.
Those experiments have been done. We actually published in 2003 what I think was the first randomized control trial of mindfulness based stress reduction and its effects on brain activity as well as on other biological characteristics. We in fact showed that eight weeks of practicing mindfulness meditation in otherwise meditation naive individuals lead to a significant change in their brain function and in their behavior. In that study we also measured aspects of their immune system and found that those changed as well.
Paulson: So what's changing in the brain after eight weeks of meditation?
Davidson: Well what we found with change was that the prefrontal cortex gets tweaked a little bit. And becomes more active particularly on the left side which may promote more of a resilient kind of emotional style. It's exactly the kind of pattern that conforms to what I call resilience. While that study that I've been referring to that was published in 2003 used fairly primitive methods for measuring brain activity. Those were brain electrical methods the kind that we used in the early days and that was largely because this study that was first published in 2003 was before we really had financial support to do these support to do these studies. We had to do it on a shoestring budget and needed to use methods that were relatively inexpensive even though we did have MRI at the time. That would have been preferred.
We did find some very interesting things and it had to do with shifting a person toward more prefrontal activation particular on the left side. We also found that that coincided in a reduction of their reports of anxiety and in enhancement in their reports of positive emotion. And also a change in their immune system.
Paulson: Now I'm willing to bet that people who have read about you in the popular press actually know you best because of your work with the Dalai Lama and with a number of Buddhist monks. And I know this has been important to you personally. Can you take me back to the first time you met the Dalai Lama?
Davidson: I met him for the first time in the fall of 1992 at his residence in Dharamsala India. That was a very special moment for me. I was in India as part of a small scientific team that he wished to encourage to begin to investigate the minds and brains of advanced meditation practitioners that were practicing in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. The Dalai Lama had heard about the work I was doing and was very interested in talking to me and in encouraging me and a few other colleagues that I was with to begin this kind of scientific investigation. It was a very special moment. I was the spokesperson for this group of four and when you go into meet the Dalai Lama you have to go through certain security, he's considered a head of state.
I'm not a person who I'd consider to be high anxious but in the period just after we were searched I nearly had a panic attack. It was really the only time in my life when I would say I nearly had a panic attack and it was because I could not envision how I was going to start the conversation.
I just reflected here I was about to meet his holiness the Dalai Lama. This was in 1992 and I was flooded with all this self-doubt why am I here? Who am I to be wasting the Dalai Lama's time? And I had no idea how I was going to begin the conversation I was designated to start.
We were ushered into a room and the Dalai Lama came in maybe 15 seconds after we were ushered into the room so there wasn't a lot of time to think about things. And palpably within less than one minute all of my anxiety was completely and utterly and totally gone. I mean just completely.
And not only was my anxiety gone but I felt more secure and more content than I had felt in a long long time. I felt that this was exactly where I needed to be on this planet at this time. And I had felt this sense of deep comfort and a deep sense of ease.
Paulson: So what happened in that first minute?
Davidson: You know the Dalai Lama has an amazing presence. He walked in made some joke and started laughing and just instantaneously... He has I think an extraordinarily skillful way of seeing suffering in others. And he clearly I'm sure saw that I was very uncomfortable. And this was a way that he spontaneously and just with enormous facility dissipated.
I'm sure he in some grand scheme knew exact what he was doing. At the time I just was the sort of recipient for this. Then everything came out very smoothly.
Paulson: Now you've written that that first meeting with the Dalai Lama has had a tremendous impact on your life. It changed your life both in career sense and in a personal sense. What happened? How did things go in a different direction after that?
Davidson: Well he at one pointed in the conversation really challenged me. And he said "You know you've been using the tools of modern neuroscience to study things like fear and disgust and depression and anxiety." He just rattled off all of these negative emotions that were in our papers. And he said "Why can't you study kindness? Why can't you study compassion?"
You know it was a really pivotal moment.
Paulson: Had you thought about that before?
Davidson: Not really. You know it just was so outside the scientific world view. And nobody studied kindness and compassion who was a real scientist. I just looked at His Holiness and said "You know it was hard when we first began to study fear and anxiety and this is going to be hard to but that's not an excuse."
Then by that time in my career in 1992 I was a full professor and I had begun to get some awards in my career. I felt that I would be a coward if I really didn't step up to the plate. But it wasn't the fear of being a coward that motivated me it was really the wish to do something and to get back to my roots. I wanted to get into this business in the first place to help people and to contribute to the world. I just felt like that was the trigger I needed to step over this horizon and declare that I'm going to do this.
Paulson: So that among other things lead you studying various Buddhist monks. Experienced meditators who'd spent thousands of hours in some cases meditating. To actually bring them into your lab into your MRI machines.
Davidson: Yes it directly lead to that. And so I made a commitment to His Holiness on that day that I was going to do everything I could to put compassion on the scientific and specifically the neuroscientific map. And that one of the ways we would do it is to begin to seriously study long term practitioners.
Paulson: What's been the most important thing you've learned from those studies from studying long term practitioners?
Davidson: I would say the most important thing we've learned is that we haven't even begun to approach the limits of human neuroplasticity. It's been a humbling experience to work with these long term practitioners to get a glimpse of the depth in which we can actually change our brain and do that through that through changing our mind, transforming our minds.That has been really an extraordinarily powerful opportunity to learn that.
Paulson: You're saying that there is much much more we can do to rewire our own brains to be more positive?
Davidson: Absolutely absolutely. And I think we're just scratching the surface today. One of the things that is interesting about some of these long term practitioners is they began contact with these traditions when they were young children.
The Dalai Lama began his training when he was two. This is very very recent in my own work but this has lead us to think about how we can actually start really early in life. It's not to say that we as adults don't have neuroplasticity we do. The evidence is unambiguous, but it's also unambiguous that plasticity is greater earlier in life.
If we can help young children to cultivate more positive habits of mind early in life I think we can really bring something so valuable to the next generation.
Paulson: I want to step back for a moment to talk about how you as a scientist talk about how you as a scientist think about particularly your work with the Dalai Lama and these Buddhist monks because it seems to me you have entered into a realm of what I would call the sacred. I don't know if that language means anything to you in particular I know a lot of scientists don't want to talk about this publicly. Is there a spiritual dimension to your work?
Davidson: Well I think a lot depends on you define spiritual and sacred. I certainly believe or experience these mind states if you will as having a sacred dimension. When I use the word 'sacred' I think of something larger than oneself. Something that takes you out of oneself. Sacred understood in that way it's certainly the case that this is entering some realm where it touches on the sacred.
I don't think there's any question about that. My own experience as a meditation practitioner myself.
Paulson: Which you still do to this day, right?
Davidson: I still do very very passionately. And actually just to go back very briefly to the time I first met the Dalai Lama. One of the other things that meeting did is it really injected for me the importance of my own personal practice.
I had been practicing regularly but it gave the practice a new kind of vigor and determination. I think it's unquestionably the case that since that time my practice has become even more important to me and something that I do for even a longer period of time than I did before then.
Paulson: I would think also your work with the Dalai Lama must raise some larger metaphysical questions. You are dealing with a tradition a religious tradition that talks about another reality. Tapping into I think what you could call a transcendent reality. Do you go there?
Davidson: Again I'm not sure what exactly all those words mean. One of the attractions that I have as a scientist in working with the Buddhist tradition in particular and with the Dalai Lama especially is if you take a look at the Dalai Lama's book that he wrote on science on spirituality. The title is "The Universe in a Single Atom." In the very first chapter or the preface of that book the Dalai Lama writes "If there's any tenant in Buddhism that is directly contradicted by scientific fact I am prepared to give it up."
There are very very few religious leaders that would make that same statement about science. So I would say that whatever sacred space or transcendent space you want to talk about it still can be accommodated within the realm of science. And if science is able to show that some particular belief in Buddhism is clearly contradicted by scientific fact then I put my allegiance squarely in the realm of science.
Paulson: It's also worth pointing out that Dalai Lama believes in reincarnation. Whether you believe in reincarnation I don't think is necessarily that important but it does raise questions about can consciousness survive death? All kinds of fascinating questions about death. Are those questions that you think about?
Davidson: That are they're questions that I do think about. I think that... And this is where I practice the discipline of not knowing and also practice humility. There's a lot in science is associated with hubris and a kind of kneejerk conviction that our models of reality are fairly well understood.
When I hear stuff about reincarnation and things around dying I take a step back and say "We don't know." I don't think that it's going to be very soon within science that we do know. But I think that one of the things about biological processes is that there are very few biological processes that are all or none and that happen instantaneously. With death for example, it's inconceivable to me that every part of the body and the brain died at the same time. That just doesn't make sense biologically. So once you begin to entertain that possibility well you know there may be certain things that are slower to end their biological activity than other things. And just what those things are doing, what kinds of processes may persist for some period of time. We don't know at this point.
I think that there are ways to investigate this using hardnosed scientific methods. First and foremost science provides us with a toolkit of methods and a set of procedures to investigate and to replicate. I think that we can use those procedures to begin to nibble at the penumbra of what we know. Which is where we bump into when we begin to take on these kinds of questions.
Paulson: Are you comfortable with the idea that there might be realms of reality that might exist but science will never be able to explain.
Davidson: I don't like the word 'never'. I'm uncomfortable using the word 'never'. To me it's hard to conceive of what 'never' might mean. I know there was a time probably a hundred years ago when scientists would say "We'd never be able to do this." And we're doing it now. And that's a very short period of time in evolutionary history.
I would strongly prefer not to use the word 'never'. I certainly think there are realms of our understanding or realms or potential human experience that we're nowhere close to investigating today. But science is changing very rapidly. If 50 years ago you talked about behavioral activity changing the expression of our genes, I think most biologists would have said You're a Lamarckian, that's already been shown to be false."
And we now know that that's true. So I think that we just need to practice the discipline of being open and not prematurely to paraphrase Shakespeare not prematurely closing our accounts with reality.
Paulson: It seems to be that the great extensile question is where we can find meaning in our lives. And let's just say if for whatever reason we don't believe in God what are we left with? Does science have something to say about that where we can find meaning?
Davidson: I think science has a lot to say about that. I think the whole science of wellbeing in part is a science about meaning. Because a major constituent is finding meaning and purpose in life. I think that people can find that in all kinds of places. I think that when they do find that it seems to be an important ingredient to our wellbeing.
I think some people may find that in religion other people may find that by playing a musical instrument and other people may find that doing some other kind of activity. And so I think we need to be open about the realms in which the search and the finding of meaning may occur. But the fact of meaning and purpose is really a significant one in helping us to understand the nature of wellbeing.
Paulson: Thank you very much.
Davidson: My pleasure, thank you Steve.