‘Be Happy Like a Monk’

By Marta Tarbell, Telluride Watch, March 26, 2007

Distinguished Psychologist, Neuroscientist Working With Dalai Lama to Map the Road to Happiness Gives Out Loud Lecture Thursday

Telluride, CO (USA) -- Is happiness a human birthright? “Yes, I would absolutely say that,” says Richard Davidson, Ph.D., a professor of psychology and psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin, in Madison, as well as director of its influential Waisman Center Brain-Imaging Laboratory.

Davidson comes to Telluride Thursday night to deliver an Out Loud Lecture titled “Be Happy Like a Monk” at the Palm Theatre, 7-8:30 p.m.

Recently named one of the world’s 100 most influential people by Time, Davidson, who has a Ph.D. in psychology and neuroscience, has spent 35 years researching the human brain and emotions. He has published roughly 200 scientific papers on the subject of the brain circuitry underlying human emotions, as well as many textbook chapters and reviews, and edited 13 books. In 2003, Davidson was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences; a year later, he was inducted into the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts and Letters.

Happiness can be taught, says Davidson, whose basic message Thursday will be this: “We can change our brains by changing our minds.”

Davidson spent the first half of his career “focusing on the changes in the brain” associated with disorders of emotion and mood, anxiety and autism.

“We still do that work,” he says of research into psychological and mood disorders, but since 1992, when he first approached the Dalai Lama with a request to research the brain waves of meditating monks, the focus has shifted to further understanding “what goes on in the brain” of persons experiencing positive emotions, “and the ways we may cultivate those qualities.”

To that end, Davidson has spent the last 15 years researching and imaging the brain waves of monks in meditation – brain waves that “are very distinct,” he says, and reflect “the focused attention and integration of large-scale networks of the brain” in those who are trained in meditating.

Conversely, Davidson says, brain-imaging shows that “an untrained individual has a difficult time focusing his or her attention on an object for more than a few seconds before the mind wanders.”

That’s because “the state of the brain is the product of our conditioning, our learning histories, and the environments in which we live.” In the untrained meditator’s brain, he explains, “there is typically a lot of cognitive chatter, a lot of random thinking associated with change that happens very automatically,” a state often referred to in meditation circles as the monkey brain. “This is the kind of brain state that is radically altered through long-term meditation practice,” he explains.

Altering one’s brain state “takes years of training,” cautions Davidson, who meditates from 30 to 45 minutes daily. Meditation, he emphasizes, is not necessarily “something one can try at home, by oneself,” although “our work does show that even short amounts of meditation training for complete novices can have a measurable beneficial effect.”

Happiness can be learned, says Davidson, even though “there is so much in our culture which inculcates fear and other negative kinds of emotions.

“We all come into the world with a certain propensity for happiness,” he further explains, but “just like any other propensity, to reach very high levels, it needs to be nurtured. No propensity can be realized without nurturing.” The result: “We think of happiness like a skill – no different from learning to play music or golf.”

Humans have a leg up on the rest of the animal kingdom when it comes to learning happiness, Davidson says, thanks in large part to our “innate cooperative tendencies” that mostly result from the fact that “humans have the longest period of child care on the planet.” Human babies, “in order to survive, are nurtured, and cared for, for a longer period of time than any other species,” which “really establishes the roots of cooperation and compassion and kindness.”

As for the proliferation of brutality that seems to abound in our world today, he says, we humans “simply have our attention directed toward threats and dangers and the negative side of life by the media. I don’t think it reflects anything fundamental about the human condition.”

Davidson is skeptical about the high use of anti-depressants in the U.S. today, advising users to consider learning “things that one does oneself instead of taking pills externally” to attain emotional equilibrium.

“My own view is that they are over-prescribed,” he says of antidepressants, and that furthermore, “we don’t know what the long-term side effects of these medications are. We need to approach these things with balance,” he says, “and right now, I think, things are skewed in one particular direction.

“Mental training is something I envision as being as important as physical training to maintain our physical health,” Davidson says is his conclusion after decades of research into the workings of the human brain. “Today most middle-class people in western countries believe physical exercise is good for their health, and incorporate physical exercise into their weekly routine.

“We need to care for our minds in the same way we care for our bodies,” he maintains. “We would all be better off, and the world would be a better place.”

After Telluride, Davidson travels to India to meet with the Dalai Lama, with whom he has worked regularly since 1992 upon first approaching him with the then-novel idea of “possibly doing neuro-scientific research on advanced meditation practitioners.”

Fifteen years later, Davidson has a ready answer when asked about the high degree of reverence accorded Tibetan Buddhism in the world today. “It is a contemplative tradition which is extremely important and powerful,” he says, “but it’s not any more powerful than others.” And while he is careful to “not in any way minimize the extraordinariness” of Tibetan Buddhism and other forms of Buddhism as well, Davidson says, “I think that the reason why it has the kind of halo it does is because of the Dalai Lama,” pointing out that “no other contemplative tradition” has a leader of the Dalai Lama’s stature.

Contemplative is the keyword when it comes to the science of happiness, Davidson observes. “Every one of the world’s great religions has a contemplative side,” he says, “and the contemplative sides of all of the great religions are distinctly non-fundamentalist.”

The road to contemplation requires practice, he maintains.

“With sufficient practice, we all have the capacity to live happier lives,” he says. “Mental training is something I envision as being as important as physical training to maintain our physical health,” and with it, he emphasizes, comes an increased ability to treat our fellows “with compassion and kindness.”

Dr. Richard Davidson’s “Be Happy Like a Monk” Out Loud Lecture is free and open to the public, 7-8:30 p.m at the Palm Theatre on Thursday, March 29. For information, contact the Ah Haa School at www.ahhaa.org or call 728-3886. For more information about Dr. Davidson and the Waisman Center visit http://brainimaging.waisman.wisc.edu.