Think of happiness as a skill, not so different maybe from learning to play the piano: the more you train, the better you get. That was the encouraging message Wednesday night from Richard Davidson, a pioneer in the biology of emotions.
Our emotions, it turns out, are revealed deep inside our brains, in areas such as the amygdala and the uncinate fasciculus. And these structures of our brain can physically change with training, says Davidson, who is a distinguished professor of psychology and psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and is director of the school's Waisman Laboratory for Brain Imaging and Behavior. He will also head up a planned Wisconsin Center on the Neuroscience and Psychophysiology of Meditation.
Davidson presented the Tanner Lecture on Human Values to an overflow crowd at the Utah Museum of Fine Arts on the University of Utah campus.
It used to be — not that long ago, in fact — that science was sure that our brains were hard-wired, that our happiness had a set point, that our brains could not regenerate. Now we know, says Davidson, that our brains can regenerate, and that they're "plastic," able to create new neural connections not just when we're old, but as we age.
Psychology and psychiatry have often focused on the ways in which we aren't happy, but Davidson's credo is that, since as humans we have widely varying abilities to regulate our emotions, we should be able to learn from those of us who do it better.
Since the early 1990s, after being contacted by the Dalai Lama, Davidson has studied what happens, biologically, in the brains of Tibetan monks who have practiced meditation techniques for an average of 34,000 hours each.
With increasingly sophisticated imaging techniques — picture a robed monk wearing a helmet of electrodes — Davidson and his colleagues have found that certain areas of the brains of these "virtuoso" meditators are enhanced during the practice of compassion meditation.
There's a lot of evidence, Davidson notes, that to become a master of nearly any skill requires a minimum of 10,000 hours of training. But even if you don't have that much time to devote to meditation, he says, he has evidence that smaller efforts can produce results.
And the effects of both this increased well-being and compassion can be measured in better physical health, he reports. After an eight-week mindfulness meditation course via the Internet, meditators showed increased immune response compared to the non-meditators. And that could mean in the long run, he says, fewer people needing to use our overworked health-care system.