Julie Sneider
View from the Waiting Room

Changing hearts and minds for better health

By - May 31st, 2010 04:00 am

Photo courtesy gmayster01 and Flickr

What does it mean to be happy and healthy?

Is the absence of physical illness enough, or must a person also have a healthy state of mind? What constitutes a healthy mind? Can the mind be trained to be happy, kind and caring?

Dr. Richard Davidson, a professor of psychology and psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, has spent his career researching such questions. Davidson is director and founder of the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds, which hosted its grand opening celebration in Madison earlier this month.

Photo courtesy Elton Melo, Flickr

The event featured a visit by the Dalai Lama, who Davidson credits as the inspiration for the new research center, which is currently under construction inside  UW’s Waisman Center. When completed this fall, the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds will be the world’s first transitional research facility equipped with a brain imaging lab and meditation space.

The center and its scientists are leading groundbreaking research into how “transforming the mind can change the brain and body,” according to the center’s website.

Psychology professor Richard Davidson describes how this geodesic sensor net containing 256 electrodes picks up electrical impulses from numerous parts of the brain when placed on a subject’s head. © UW-Madison University Communications Photo by: Jeff Miller

Over the years, Davidson has used brain imaging technology to study Buddhist monks associated with the Dalai Lama and other experts in meditation to determine how their practice of meditating changed their brains to encourage happiness, kindness and compassion.

The center’s researchers will continue such studies, looking for scientific evidence that “contemplative practices” can improve a person’s mental health and overall well-being.

Davidson first met the Dalai Lama on a trip to India in 1992. It was at that meeting that the Dalai Lama challenged him to use the rigorous tools of neuroscience to determine how positive human qualities like kindness and compassion impact the mind.

“It became clear to me early on in this dialogue with the Dalai Lama that we can’t define health simply by the absence of illness or the absence of fear, anxiety or depression; it really is something more,” Davidson said in a recent interview on Wisconsin Public Radio. “The other nugget in this is that qualities like happiness, kindness and compassion are best regarded as the product of skills that can be enhanced through training.

“This is something that is central to the Dalai Lama’s message, and something that modern neuro-scientific research is actually bearing out,” Davidson said.

Davidson and other scientists at the new center are hopeful that one day their work will help improve the quality of life for everyone.

“Learning to understand how positive qualities such as attention, concentration, clarity, cooperation and kindness can affect the brain will allow scientists to develop interventions to nurture these capacities in children and adults so that they can be more attentive, focused, loving, forgiving and compassionate,” the website states as the center’s purpose.

The creation of a center that investigates healthy minds couldn’t come at a more opportune time. At best, the current level of kindness and compassion in American society can be described as depressing.

Incivility seems to be the new norm for how people treat each other. Spend five minutes reading a newspaper’s online comment section, listening to talk radio or watching cable TV news —  the angry rants found on the Internet or heard over the airwaves are enough to ruin an otherwise happy day.

When it comes to politics, many Americans are getting sick of so much incivility. In a recent report titled “Nastiness, Name-Calling and Negativity,” researchers at Allegheny College in Pennsylvania reported that 95 percent of Americans polled believe civility is important for a healthy democracy. About half said they believe the tone of politics has declined since the 2008 presidential election, and more than two-thirds believe politicians behaved shamefully during the recent debate over health care reform.

All the hostility and meanness in America’s air can’t be good for anyone. Hopefully, the research coming out of UW-Madison’s Center for Investigating Healthy Minds will change hearts and minds, making us all healthier in the process.

0 thoughts on “View from the Waiting Room: Changing hearts and minds for better health”

  1. Anonymous says:

    The Center for Investigating Healthy Minds and other efrorts like it have been the cause of too many advances to our society to mention in a comment and no doubt this will continue. This publication is to be lauded for bringing it to our attention.

    Now to the inevitable side-topic: I’ve been increasingly disturbed by the trend in the general acceptance of, even reverence to what has been called ‘uncivility’. I have thought that it is both a cause and effect, and/or at least a correlation, of another trend that seems to be on the rise: the abrupt disconnect between what the ‘public’ says it believes and how it behaves.

    Comparing the recent report titled “Nastiness, Name-Calling and Negativity,” with the actual popularity of the ‘shouting’ media programs and the frequency and viciousness of the comments that you mentioned provides a striking example. Ninety-five percent of Americans polled believe civility is important for a healthy democracy, and Fox is still in business!?

    Not to pick on Fox or even the so-called ideologies that it tends to espouse; other networks and proponents of opposing ideologies are also guilty. Likewise the individual commentators perpetuating and provoking the hostility. Not to mention the consumers who crave, complete and participate in the cycle. And don’t forget the advertisers who support them, and the consumers of THEIR products. Now look, I’ve fallen into the trap of imitating the haters, in this case by seeking blame. But it shows a thing: Just as in all blame-seeking, there is no shortage of directions to point, and no good can come from it, possibly even harm.

    So, what to do? It seems responsibility falls on all who are capable to respond. Fortunately, my observations of these trends has led me to question my own views and actions. Fortunately, all who do this won’t find themselves too far out of line. So I would like to see more light shown on this issue of artificial hostility, examples and effects of it in history, both past and recent.

    For one example out of countless others, let’s consider, for instance, an element common to all forms of genocide: the early use of denegrating and dehumanizing propaganda. And don’t think for a second that this isn’t a risk for us (Western Society)! But I won’t get into that now.

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