Change Your Brain by Transforming Your Mind

by Kristina Ponischil, March 27, 2014

Why is it that some people respond to life’s slings and arrows with resilience while others fall apart? What accounts for these individual differences? How do we promote effective coping strategies and more importantly, is it even possible to change coping habits? These were just a few of the notable questions posed by Dr. Richard Davidson at CCFW’s 2nd annual Mindful Living and Practice Public Lecture.

Dr. Davidson is a thought leader in the field of neuroscience and has catalyzed his interest in meditation and contemplative practice to pioneer research around emotion and neuroplasticity. He is the William James and Vilas Professor of Psychology and Psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Founder and Chair of the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds. His lecture, Cultivating healthy minds: Perspectives from affective and contemplative neuroscience, revolved around the notion that well-being can in fact be learned, just like any other skill in life.

Confluence of 4 Themes

Dr. Davidson defines concepts like well-being, happiness, and compassion as skills to be learned, practiced, and mastered. In doing so, he has found the following four themes emerge from his work:

1) Neuroplasticity: Our brains respond to experience, and we all have the ability to actually change our brains through training. Neuroplasticity provides a conceptual framework for understanding how mental practices featured in contemplative traditions operate in the brain.

2) Epigenetics: Picture all of your genes with little volume controls that range from low to high. We are all born with DNA, but the extent to which different genes turn on or off is influenced by our experiences, environments, and training. Genetic expression is dynamic, and epigenetics explores the regulation of these genetic “volume controls.” Dr. Davidson presented some promising preliminary evidence that contemplative practices can change gene expression.

3) Bi-directional communication between mind/brain and body: An increasing body of literature suggests that levels of psychological well-being are related to levels of physical health. The exact mechanisms are not yet fully understood, but research consistently demonstrates the downstream effects that occur in the body as brain circuits are transformed.

4) Innate basic goodness: While the first three themes mentioned above are widely accepted in modern science, Dr. Davidson deemed innate basic goodness as the most controversial. Most contemplative practices teach that human beings are inherently good, and growing data on humans and primates support a preference for pro-social behavior or altruistic choices.  Even infants show a preference for altruistic behavior over selfish behavior, which suggests that basic goodness does not need to be learned, but may be unlearned. 

This is Your Brain...This is Your Brain on Compassion

Dr. Davidson began explaining some of his own research findings by introducing his work on the voluntary cultivation of compassion. His goal was to investigate whether or not detectable changes in the brain occur when individuals enter meditative states. His sample consisted of 15 Monastics living in Asia who had each undergone at least 10,000 hours of formal meditation training (the widely accepted benchmark for hours required to gain expertise). On average, participants had approximately 34,000 hours of formal practice training their minds.

Participants were placed in an MRI scanner and asked to alternate between resting neutral states and periods of meditation. During meditative states, they were asked to “generate a state in which love and compassion permeate the whole mind, with no other consideration, reasoning or discursive thoughts.” The results that Dr. Davidson and his team found were overwhelming. At least among these experts, Dr. Davidson saw dramatic changes in the brain’s gamma oscillations that were specifically induced by meditative states. Typically, these types of changes can be seen for short periods of time if attention is focused, but never before had Dr. Davidson seen such high amplitudes that persisted for so long.

Furthermore, Dr. Davidson found that total hours of lifetime meditative practice are positively associated with brain activity when generating states of compassion. In a study with 15 experts and 15 matched controls, participants were presented with sounds that reflected human suffering and were asked to generate states of compassion. Compared to novices, experts showed dramatic increases in the amplitude of brain-body signals when cultivating compassion. The more hours of contemplative practice a participant had, the greater the brain activity. From this research, we see that transforming your mind through contemplative practice and meditation can truly change your brain.

Promising Results for Short-Term Interventions

For many of us who can’t realistically dedicate 10,000+ hours to contemplative practice, Dr. Davidson described his recent work looking at the effects of short-term compassion training on the brain. This study included volunteers without any previous meditation experience who were told they would learn one of two strategies to increase well-being. Participants were randomly assigned to either learn compassion meditation or a structurally matched derivation of cognitive therapy. All guided practice was administered online for 30 minutes a day for 2 weeks, totaling 7 hours of practice.

Training for participants in the compassion group involved bringing different categories of people to mind, imagining a time in that person’s life when they experienced suffering, and cultivating a strong desire that they be relieved of that suffering. Categories included:

  • A loved one
  • Themselves
  • A stranger (recognizable but don’t know much about their life)
  • A difficult person

Participants were asked to feel compassion emotionally, not just cognitively, and to note any bodily sensations, especially around their heart.

At the end of 2 weeks, participants engaged in a number of economic decision making tasks to measure altruism. These tasks involved real money where participants would lose money if they chose to be more altruistic. Compared to the cognitive therapy group, the compassion group was more pro-social and chose to give up more money. Dr. Davidson’s research here suggests that in as little as 7 hours, you can see measurable differences in pro-sociality and altruism.

Mindfulness Practices for Kids

Dr. Davidson concluded his lecture by describing his work with children and the positive outcomes he has seen through age appropriate mindfulness practices in the classroom. He developed a Kindness Curriculum (KC) for preschoolers and kindergartners with 8 and 12-week variants. Preliminary data have shown that compared to controls, children in the KC group showed significant gains in self-control as measured by a delay of gratification task.  They also showed significant improvements in teacher ratings of learning, health, and social/emotional capacity over their peers who did not receive the curriculum.

Lastly, children in the KC group demonstrated more pro-sociality and altruism in their decisions to share stickers. Similar to the economic decision making tasks described earlier, children were given stickers and two envelops: one for themselves and one with a picture of a sick child. They were told that they could keep as many stickers as they wanted, or they could choose to give some of their stickers to the sick child. Over the course of the year, children in the KC group maintained their initial levels of altruism while children in the control group actually became more selfish. These findings suggest that we can make a difference with mindfulness interventions even at a young age, especially because research has shown that the brain is particularly plastic from ages 4 to 7. Training during this critical time could have positive implications throughout the life span. 

Train your Brain: Next Steps

I left Dr. Davidson’s lecture feeling very inspired that, no matter where you are in life, you can cultivate a more compassionate mind and healthier brain through mindfulness training. When it comes to fostering well-being, adults and children alike can benefit from these types of practices, and it doesn’t take long for the brain to be transformed.

                    

For more information about Dr. Davidson’s work, visit http://www.investigatinghealthyminds.org.

To learn more about the mindfulness training we currently offer at CCFW, please visit our events page.