Watching the brain on the road to serenity (WSJ)
People Need Both Drugs and Faith to Get Rid of Pain Relief
The search for happiness can take many paths. For example, you might
Buddhist monks and teachers from India and Nepal to UW-Madison so you can
watch the electrical impulses inside their brains while they meditate.
At least, that's what Richard Davidson has done. The science superstar
present "Be Happy Like a Monk," an overview of his ground-breaking research
into the nature of happiness, at the Overture Center for the Arts this
"In this culture we don't take our minds as seriously as they are taken
other cultures," says Davidson, a professor of psychology and psychiatry.
"It's my belief that the emotional mind shouldn't be treated any differently
than other components of the mind, or the body."
Davidson's work as director of UW-Madison's Laboratory for Affective
Neuroscience and the W.M.
Keck Laboratory for Functional Brain Imaging and Behavior has garnered
attention from the London Independent newspaper, CNN, the BBC and a Time
magazine cover story. The leader of Tibetan Buddhism, Tenzin Gyatso, the
14th Dalai Lama, wrote an article for The New York Times after visiting
Davidson's labs. The Dalai Lama also collaborated with Davidson and
co-editor Anne Harrington for their 2001 book, "Visions of Compassion:
Western Scientists and Tibetan Buddhists Examine Human Nature," published by
Oxford University Press. We can have the same serenity for which Buddhists
are popularly renowned, says Davidson.
"Happiness can be thought of as a skill that can be learned in a way
not dissimilar from learning a musical instrument or athletic skill. If you
practice, you will get better at it," he says.
But, he adds, "To produce the kinds of changes that people really yearn
requires work and training."
A little background on Buddhism and the Dalai Lama: Siddhattha Gautama
founded Buddhism in India around 580 B.C., following extensive travel and
study. He became Buddha, "the enlightened one," after he received a series
of visions during three days of intense meditation. (The Deer Park Buddhist
Center in Oregon is named after Gautama's own religious settlement at
Gautama's fundamental teaching, wrote H.G. Wells, "is clear and simple
in the closest harmony with modern ideas. It is beyond all dispute the
achievement of one of the most penetrating intelligences the world has ever
Buddhism grew to take many forms; the Dalai Lama leads just one branch.
religion strives to overcome three principal forms of craving in the
individual - for sensuality, prosperity and personal immortality - in part
through "right mindfulness" and "right composure," two sign posts on "The
Eightfold Path" that emphasize awareness, concentration and consideration.
In other words, meditation.
Tests here of visiting Buddhists show that "there are some rather profound
changes in the brain that occur with this purely mental exercise," Davidson
says. In "Visions of Compassion," Davidson and co-editor Harrington identify
three steps to Buddhist meditation. The first is relaxation, with an
emphasis on breathing. Davidson suggests that we can all benefit from a form
"If we have a moment in our day when we're not otherwise engaged, we
come back to our breath, since it's always there, and just pay attention to
a few breaths and use that to center ourselves," he says.
The next step is attentional stability, focusing on a real or imaginary
object. The third step is attentional clarity, during which the object is
envisioned with increasing vividness.
During Buddhists' meditation, "we don't know if they're changing the
structure of the brain, though it's our hunch that they do," says Davidson.
"But they do change the function of the brain over time, in a rather
enduring way. So that kind of evidence suggests that these changes really do
persist in a way that infuses everyday life with certain qualities that are
cultivated by the meditation."
For some automatic emotional responses, Davidson says, meditation may
more effective than Western psychology and psychiatry's cognitive therapy.
In an eight-week UW- Madison study of non- Buddhists given meditation
training, magnetic resonance imaging and other testing revealed changes,
some lasting four months: 50 percent more electrical activity in the left
frontal regions of the brain, associated with positive emotions and anxiety
reduction, and an increase in antibodies of as much as 25 percent. "There
are some detectable changes after even a week of training," Davidson says.
He also notes that Buddhist- style meditation is not the only route
happiness. There are other faiths, and other contemplative paths to "right
mindfulness." "Many different traditions call upon many similar basic
mechanisms to call upon these effects," says Davidson. "I do believe there
is something quite generic about this.
"I think the most important thing for the individual is to find the
that he or she feels most comfortable with, and which is most appropriate."
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