Dr. Richie Davidson, a neuroscientist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, has been meditating for more than 40 years, but it was the Dalai Lama himself who convinced him to dedicate his life to researching the effects of meditation on the brain.
“He challenged me, saying, ‘You’ve been using the tools of modern neuroscience to mostly study anxiety, depression and fear, all these negative feelings. Why can’t you use these same tools to study qualities like kindness and compassion and equanimity?’ And I didn’t have a very good answer for him,” Davidson said. “It was a total wake-up call for me and really was a pivotal catalyst.”
Davidson, who founded the Center for Healthy Minds, met the Dalai Lama in 1992 and has since gone on to conduct multiple studies on mindfulness, compassion and cognitive therapy training. He talked about his research and personal meditation practice with ABC News’ Dan Harris for his “10% Happier” live stream/podcast show.
Early in his career, Davidson said he “became a closet meditator and didn’t talk to any of my colleagues about my interest in meditation ... [the Dalai Lama] played a major role in me coming out of the closet and encouraging serious scientific research in this area.”
His relationship with His Holiness led to Davidson and his colleagues to conduct a study a few years ago looking at the brain scans of Buddhist monks as they meditated. The Dalai Lama had granted permission for his monks to have their brains studied at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, home to one of the most renowned brain labs in the world.
Davidson’s team flew in monks from Tibet and Nepal for the study and asked them to meditate while undergoing EEG, MRI and FMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) scans. When they first looked at the scans, Davidson said the results were so shocking, he thought the equipment was malfunctioning.
“What we saw in these individuals, not a burst of gamma, but a long duration [of activity] for minutes while they were meditating, which is crazy,” Davidson said. “This had never been seen in a human brain before.” Typically in an “untrained mind,” Davidson said, a burst of activity would last for about one second, but the monks could sustain it.
“And [they] can turn it on pretty much at will,” he said. “Any of us can have it and we may not be able to sustain it, that’s the difference … a thought will come into our mind and we’ll get lost in it for a few minutes, and so the ability to sustain it I think really requires much more practice.”
As a scientist, Davidson has been criticized in the past for his close relationship with the Dalai Lama, a religious figure. Davidson also has been questioned about whether he is biased toward a certain outcome in his research because he has been practicing meditation for decades. But Davidson argued that his personal practice and the Dalai Lama’s support are beneficial to his work.
“I understand the concern and really my push back is simply that we are trying to do the science at the highest possible level with the most integrity,” Davidson said. “And I actually believe that if you’re going to study meditation scientifically then you’ve got to meditate yourself…. It would be like telling a cardiologist that they can’t do any physical exercise for the rest of their active career because they’re biased.”
Every morning, Davidson said he will do a period of meditation and then take two to three minutes to scan his calendar for meetings. Then for a few seconds, Davidson said he pauses to reflect on how he can bring “the right stuff” to each meeting in order to “be present and be most helpful.”
“I can go through a day where I have 10 straight hours of meetings and at the end of that period feel totally nourished and refreshed,” he said.
His advice for those who want to start meditating was to commit to a daily practice for at least 30 days, but set a reasonable amount of time.
“There are published studies which show as little as eight minutes of meditation can actually produce a measurable objective change, but again it says nothing about how long these changes will last,” Davidson said. “It doesn’t matter how small that number is, but do it every day.”