Mental Success through Meditation: a professor’s research to help train your brain

By Amy Parker

Richard Davidson displaying a picture of a test subject in his lecture at the Pick-Staiger Concert Hall.
Richard Davidson displaying a picture of a test subject in his lecture at the Pick-Staiger Concert Hall.

“You may have heard plenty of people say ‘Don’t try this at home’ but in this instance I really do want to say ‘Do it!’”

Thursday, October 17, Professor Richard “Richie” Davidson gave this advice on meditation at his lecture, Happiness as a Skill: The Brain’s Ability to Change Itself through Mental Training. Professor Davidson is the William James and Vilas Professor of Psychology and Psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

The event, sponsored by the psychology department, was part of NU’s 2nd symposium on mind and society Symposium and consisted of two parts: the keynote speech and a panel discussion session that preceded it. In his lecture, Davidson talked specifically about both his personal experience with meditation, and his scientific research of its mental benefits.

“Both sections were set up with the goal of facilitating conversation about information relevant to the community,” says Robin Nusslock, event coordinator and Assistant Professor of Psychology at Northwestern University.

Professor Davidson has been a practitioner of the art of meditation since the 1970’s, although, he admits, he was both a “slow learner” and a “closeted meditator” at first. After a meeting with the Dalai Lama, however, Davidson was encouraged to reveal his secret and blend his goals for personal mental health with his scientific research.

By working close with the Dalai Lama, Davidson was able to run tests on several practitioners, mostly people from the Himalayan region who together had “an average of 32,000 hours of meditation.” Using MRI’s, Davidson could see the vast changes in brain activity before, during, and after entering into a meditative state.

While Davidson admits that his scientific findings are still in its beginning stages, he spoke convincingly of the idea that neuroplasticity, or the way the brain can actually be altered by behavior, has fueled his research. He believes meditation is one way in which we could change the way our brain works and, more specifically, can help with issues of attention and emotion.

One of the most poignant moments of the night was a video clip that Davidson showed near the end of his lecture. The video featured a young boy who was able alleviate symptoms of ADHD and PTSD caused by an earlier incident involving an elevator. With the help of his teachers and a certain mental exercises, he was able to gain a tighter grasp on his reactions to certain stimuli.

“Oftentimes we forget that happiness is a feeling that we can control and I think that Professor Davidson did a great job reminding us of the power of our mental ability,” said Keishel Lee, a freshman in Bienen School of Music, who attended the lecture as a supplement to her Introduction to Psychology course.

If anyone in the audience hoped to actually discover the secret to happiness, they would have been disappointed. But Davidson’s lecture did explore our ability to train our minds to become more efficient and positive, in turn making us happier members of society.

Nusslock believes that the combination of Davidson’s “engaging and positive message” with the fact that he is a luminary in the field of neuroscience allowed him to portray the idea that “happiness, like any skill, needs to be practiced.” It is an optimistic outlook, which puts our ability to develop and enhance our mental skills in direct correlation to the amount of work we put into it.

“There really are no negative side effects to meditation,” said Davidson, “so I encourage you to just try it.”

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