DANIEL REDWOOD: How might this knowledge be applied in helping people with these problems?
RICHARD DAVIDSON, PHD: I believe this information may be useful in a number of ways and I think we’re really still very much on first base in terms of reaping the potential benefits that this new methodology and information may yield. But let me give you several examples. One is, there is new evidence from our lab as well as from other labs, that indicates that brain scanning measures, for instance with patients with depression, can significantly predict treatment response to both antidepressant medication as well as to non-pharmacological intervention. So knowing the functional status of a depressed person's brain before they begin an intervention, we can better select the treatment which may be more effective. So that's one area where these methods may be particularly helpful.
Another area is that these methods are identifying the specific neural circuits that function abnormally in these conditions. This gives us very specific therapeutic targets for new interventions, both pharmacological as well as, potentially, behavioral interventions. With the pharmacological interventions, by knowing what circuits are involved, we can identify genes that may be uniquely expressed in these brain regions, and based on that information can tailor with far greater precision pharmacological treatments which operate on very specific subsystems that are locally expressed in the brain. That something that is really a promissory note, it has not yet occurred, but certainly this kind of information will be tremendously helpful in that regard.
Finally, there are now scientists who are using feedback from these brain scanning methods themselves, literally neurofeedback using functional MRI, to directly modulate local brain function in ways that may have direct therapeutic benefit. So we know, for example, that if a particular area of the brain is over-activated in a depressed patient, we may be able to train that person to reduce the activation in that area through real time fMRI feedback. Again, that is a promissory note; there’s just a tad of research that suggests that this may be a real possibility. But it’s exciting and important and, we believe, worthy of pursuit.
DANIEL REDWOOD: Is the popular use of the terms 'left brain' and ‘right brain’—where left applies to linear or logical thinking and right applies to more intuitive, emotional or artistic processes—accurate, inaccurate, or an oversimplified version of accurate?
RICHARD DAVIDSON, PHD: I would say it's mostly inaccurate. It's a hyper-simplified version and it’s just far more complicated than that. Different areas within each hemisphere do different things at the same point in time. To characterize a whole hemisphere as linear, or whatever the word is, is just a gross oversimplification.
DANIEL REDWOOD: You said at the beginning of this interview that your initial motivation for going into this whole field was about helping people. What do you foresee in your own future work, along those lines?
RICHARD DAVIDSON, PHD: I'm deeply committed to the goals that I articulated. I do very genuinely believe that we can use this work to help reduce suffering in the world and to promote well-being. I am getting increasingly involved in research that applies these methods on a wider scale in different kinds of settings, with the potential to effect change in a more significant way.
To give you a concrete example, one of the ways in which we’re doing that is by beginning to explore the application of meditation and other contemplative practices in educational settings in the K-12 years. We believe that the brain is particularly plastic in those early years of life. We have a real opportunity to effect more dramatic change at this time, change that is potentially more long-lasting. This is an especially important period in the human lifespan for these kinds of interventions, not to treat disease but as a preventative measure to cultivate resilience and to guard against the development of psychopathology. And so this is something that I think you’ll see more of in the future and represents a very promising domain in which to extend some of this work.