How Mindfulness Changes the Emotional Life of Our Brains: Richard Davidson (Transcript)

Full text of neuroscientist Richard J. Davidson’s talk: How mindfulness changes the emotional life of our brains at TEDxSanFrancisco conference. In this fascinating talk, Richard Davidson discusses how mindfulness can improve well-being and outlines strategies to boost four components of a healthy mind: awareness, connection, insight, and purpose.


Richard J. Davidson – Psychologist & neuroscientist

I’m a psychologist and a neuroscientist by training.

When I first began my career, I began with a question: Why is it that some people are more vulnerable to life’s slings and arrows and others more resilient?

And that question is still central to all the work that we do. And we’re particularly interested in how we can nudge people along this continuum to nourish and nurture the qualities that promote human flourishing.

In the early part of my career, I focused almost exclusively on the negative side of the equation, on adversity, on the brain circuits that were important for understanding why some people are more vulnerable to stress, why others may be more likely to develop a depression or anxiety.

And then something very significant happened in my life.

In 1992, I first met His Holiness the Dalai Lama. And this picture of His Holiness was taken in Madison, Wisconsin, and he’s visited us several times. And he was the chief inspiration in our turning toward the positive.

And in that critical moment, in 1992, he challenged me, and he said, “Why can’t you use the same tools of modern neuroscience to study kindness and to study compassion in addition to studying anxiety and fear and depression and stress?”

And I didn’t have a very good answer for him on that day other than that it’s hard.

But you know, when we first began to study kindness — when we first began to study anxiety and depression, that was hard too, and we’ve made some progress in that area.

So the work that we and others have been doing is predicated on a critical insight in modern science: the insight concerning neuroplasticity.

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Our brains are constantly changing, constantly being shaped by the forces around us. But we have, typically, very little awareness of what those forces are.

Our brains are changing, wittingly or unwittingly. Most of the time, it’s unwittingly. Most of the time, we’re not aware, and we also have little control over those forces.

And the invitation in the work that I’m sharing with you today is that we can actually take more responsibility for our own brains by transforming our minds.

But first, let me share with you what some of the consequences of having our brains being shaped unwittingly are.

And I’d like to focus on four challenges that have been critical in our society today. And these challenges are failures of well-being in very important ways.

The first is distractibility.

Research indicates that if we take people out and about in the world, and we text them — and this has been done in a study that was published a number of years ago, very influential study with several thousand people — we text them, and we ask them three questions.

The first question is “What are you doing right now?” And they check off from a list of activities.

Second question, “Where is your mind right now? Is it focused on what you’re doing or is it focused elsewhere?”

And the third question is “At this very moment, how happy or unhappy are you?”

Here’s what was found: the average American adult spends 47% of her or his waking life not paying attention to what we’re doing. Folks, we could do better.

And when they were not paying attention to what they’re doing, they were significantly less happy. The scientific paper upon which this is based was titled “A Wandering Mind is an Unhappy Mind.”

In addition, there is a huge increase in the incidence of attention deficit disorders in children in this country. This is a graph showing a trend over the last decade. There are many reasons for this increase, but some of them have to do with a genuine increase in distractibility.

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If we’re all honest with ourselves, our nation is suffering not simply from a fiscal deficit but from an attention deficit. We also are suffering from loneliness.

Despite the fact that we’re all so much more interconnected, 76% of middle-aged Americans report that they have moderate to high levels of loneliness. And this loneliness is not an ephemeral, subjective state; it also impacts our bodies, our physical health.

Recent research shows that loneliness is actually a more significant predictor — by more than a two-fold magnitude — of early mortality compared to obesity.

So this exacts real tolls on our brains and our bodies. And, again, research shows we can do better.

Negative self-talk and depression.

We all have a narrative in our mind that we carry around about who we are, and sometimes we have negative beliefs about ourselves, which can culminate in depression. And this turns out to be a very serious problem.

Depression is on the rise. If you look at trends just over the last few years, what you see is a very large increase, particularly among women.

Over the last three years alone, there’s been a 33% increase in diagnoses of major depression in women. And this trend is occurring in teens as well. These are disturbing trends in kids ages 12 through 17, and the gender difference also is, very unfortunately, robust, where the incidence is much greater in females, and this trend is getting worse over time.

And, again, the evidence suggests that we can actually train our mind and harness the power of neuroplasticity to change these qualities in our mind.

Suicide rates are very disturbing.

During the Great Depression, there was a huge elevation, and those rates have come back down.

And then since the year 2000, there has been, unfortunately, a steep rise in suicide rates. And, again, this is not something restricted to adults. Our teens are showing more than doubling over the last 10 years in suicide, so that today in the United States, unfortunately, more than one teenager, every single day, is taking her or his own life.

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There also is a pervasive loss of meaning and purpose that people are reporting.

And this loss is not simply, again, a subjective quality but also exacts a toll on our health and other aspects of our well-being.

Research shows that a lack of purpose predicts an early death. In a recent study, people who are in their 60s with a low sense of purpose had more than twice the likelihood of dying within five years compared to people who reported a high sense of purpose.

So, again, there are intimate connections between our psychological well-being and our systemic health. Each of these challenges affects the mind and the brain.

We’re not thriving, but the invitation is that we really could be. So we’ve developed a framework for understanding a healthy mind, and this framework includes four pillars.

The first pillar is awareness.

And awareness includes the capacity to focus our attention, to resist distraction. It also includes a quality that psychologists and neuroscientists call “meta-awareness.”

Meta-awareness is knowing what our minds are doing. How many of you have ever had the experience of reading a book where you’re reading each word on a page, and you read one page, you may read a second page, and after a few minutes, you have absolutely no idea what you’ve just read?

That is an example of a lapse in meta-awareness.

But the moment we recognize that we’ve been lost and come back, that is a moment of meta-awareness. And we have reason to believe that meta-awareness is crucial — actually, it’s necessary, we believe, for real transformation to occur.

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