DANIEL REDWOOD: What led you to your strong interest in brain research?
RICHARD DAVIDSON, PHD: My strong interest in brain research really
came from my interest in the mind and its potential. I had the intuition
and conviction from very early on that much of the world’s problems were
caused by limitations in our mental functioning, that those limitations can
be overcome with the appropriate intervention at the level of the mind. And
that the best way to study the mind was to study the brain, since I was
convinced by many scholars, beginning with William James, who wrote in his
preface to his Principles of Psychology, "The brain is the one immediate
bodily organ that underlies our mental operations." So if the brain is
really the physical substrate of the mind, then understanding the mind can
be approached by studying the brain. So that’s basically what led me to the
path that I'm currently on.
DANIEL REDWOOD: Aside from helping people with structural diseases of the brain, what do you think are the most important uses of brain scans of different varieties?
RICHARD DAVIDSON, PHD: The use of brain scans is helping to provide us with fundamental knowledge about the underlying structure and function of different kinds of mental operations. By identifying the circuits in the brain that underlie particular mental operations, we can identify the more elementary constituents of those mental operations, we can begin to parse more complex psychological processes into their more basic elements, and we can begin to understand things like the basics of temperament, personality, vulnerability to psychiatric disorders, and also the basis of characteristics like well-being and resilience, on the positive side. So this is all something that can be approached at the level of the brain. Understanding the circuits in the brain that give rise to these conditions and characteristics can help us to promote the positive characteristics in what I believe are far more effective ways.
DANIEL REDWOOD: To what extent does the way we use our minds actually change the structure of our brains?
RICHARD DAVIDSON, PHD: It has everything to do with that. Modern knowledge in neuroscience underscores the idea of neuroplasticity, which is a word that means that the brain is an organ that changes in response to experience and in response to training. Essentially everything that we do, the totality of our experience and our behavior, is constantly shaping our brains. So whether we like it or not, whether the conditions are deleterious or salubrious, those conditions and activities are constantly shaping our brains. Our brains are intimately interwoven with our environment, both our internal and external environment, in ways that literally shape the physical structure of the brain, down to the level of gene expression.
DANIEL REDWOOD: An online search of PubMed brings up hundreds of research studies on meditation. What would you say are the major strengths and weaknesses of the current state of the research evidence on meditation? What do we know and what don’t we know?
RICHARD DAVIDSON, PHD: When I think about meditation research, really rigorous research on meditation, hundreds is not the number that comes to mind. In terms of hard-nosed, rigorous research that is not based on self-report methods, we're talking about fewer than 20 publications.
DANIEL REDWOOD: What would are the best ways to develop scientific understanding of meditation?