On well-being

Groundbreaking neuroscientist Richard Davidson visited campus for two days of lectures, discussing the emotional life of the brain and how well-being can be learned.

Neuroscientist Richard Davidson, PhD, gave the Assembly Series’ 2014 Witherspoon Memorial Lecture on Religion and Science. His lecture was titled “Change Your Brain by Transforming Your Mind.” (Photo: Mary Butkus)
Neuroscientist Richard Davidson, PhD, gave the Assembly Series’ 2014 Witherspoon Memorial Lecture on Religion and Science. His lecture was titled “Change Your Brain by Transforming Your Mind.” (Photo: Mary Butkus)

Richard J. Davidson, PhD, is a renowned neuroscientist and one of the world’s leading experts on the impact of contemplative practices such as meditation on the brain. He visited Washington University in early March to give the 2014 Witherspoon Memorial Lecture on Religion and Science.

Beata Grant, PhD, director of the Religious Studies program and professor of Chinese and religious studies, in Arts & Sciences, explained why Davidson was an appropriate choice for the lecture: “Davidson is an exceptionally strong choice for the annual Witherspoon lecture, which is sponsored by Religious Studies, because his work offers an exciting example of a demonstrably beneficial synergetic convergence of modern cutting-edge science and ancient meditative techniques and contemplative practices, many of which are associated with religious traditions such as Buddhism.”

Davidson, author of the New York Times bestseller The Emotional Life of Your Brain, is the William James and Vilas Professor of Psychology and Psychiatry and director of both the Waisman Laboratory for Brain Imaging and Behavior and the Laboratory for Affective Neuroscience, at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He also serves as chair of the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds, which he founded in 2008 with the encouragement of the Dalai Lama. The center conducts rigorous scientific research on healthy qualities of mind such as kindness, compassion, altruism, forgiveness, mindfulness and well-being. Its work is rooted in the insights of neuroplasticity — the discovery that our brains change throughout our lives in response to experience — suggesting that positive changes can be nurtured through mental training.

Prior to his Assembly Series lecture, titled “Change Your Brain by Transforming Your Mind,” Davidson sat down for separate conversations with Washington University professors Grant and Randy Larsen, the William R. Stuckenberg Professor of Human Values and Moral Development and chair of the Department of Psychology, in Arts & Sciences.

In speaking with Larsen, Davidson shared how he got his start: “The first time I met the Dalai Lama was in 1992, and it was a very critical meeting. He was very challenging and said, ‘You’ve been using modern tools of neuroscience to study depression and anxiety and fear, why can’t you use those same tools to study kindness and compassion,’” Davidson says.

“One of the ways we frame it, is that we are trying to change a cultural meme that … well-being can be learned. It’s very analagous to skills training: It is through repeated practice that connections get established in the brain that support the new skill or habit.”

With Grant, Davidson discussed the ongoing conversation among Western scientists, contemplative/Buddhist scholars and practitioners regarding the fundamental nature of reality — and their work to help relieve suffering. Whereby research is pointing in interesting directions, Davidson cautions that scientists need to cultivate humility because they still don’t know the answer to the hard problem: “How does consciousness derive from hard matter.”