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.
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.
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.
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.
The second pillar of a healthy mind is connection.
Connection refers to those qualities which nurture harmonious interpersonal relationships, qualities like appreciation, like kindness, like compassion, having a positive outlook.
And, again, the research shows that it doesn’t take much to start activating these latent qualities, which can flourish and become stronger.
The third pillar of a healthy mind is insight.
And insight is about insight into the narrative that we all have about ourselves. At the very extreme end of the continuum, there are people who have a very negative narrative. They have negative self-beliefs, and they hold those beliefs to be a true description of who they are.
That is a prescription for depression.
And a healthy mind entails changing our relationship to this narrative. Not so much changing the narrative itself but changing our relationship to it so that we can look at the narrative and see it for what it is.
What is this narrative?
It’s a constellation of thoughts. And when we can see it as that, we can foster more room, more breathing room, and this leads to increased well-being.
Finally, the last pillar of a healthy mind is purpose.
And here, we’re talking about having a sense that our life is headed in a particular direction. And most importantly, it is about taking more and more of the activities in our lives as belonging to this sense of purpose.
Can you envision living your life so that taking out the garbage and doing the laundry is still related to your sense of purpose? Being able to broaden it in this way is a very crucial ingredient of a healthy mind.
Have you ever trained your mind?
Research from neuroscience leads us to understand that there are two fundamentally different kinds of learning. One form of learning we call “declarative learning,” which is learning about things. I can learn the value of kindness by sitting down and studying texts about kindness, but this won’t necessarily lead us to become kinder.
We can teach people the value of honesty, but this will not necessarily make them an honest person. In order to cultivate these qualities, we need a second form of learning, and that is called “procedural learning.”
Neuroscience teaches us that these kinds of learning operate through totally different brain circuits. We need both to produce real transformation. The wiring in our brains is not fixed; it’s adaptable. And we can harness the power of neuroplasticity to change our brain.
Let me give you one example.
This is an example from research that we did, where we randomized people to a group that received compassion training for two weeks, another group that received training from cognitive therapy.
We put people in the MRI scanner before and after the two weeks of training, and lo and behold, we see systematic differences after just seven hours of practice.
Our brains can change in a remarkably rapid period of time. The changes that are displayed here are changes in a circuit that involve the prefrontal cortex and the ventral striatum — a circuit very important for certain kinds of positive emotions, which gets strengthened after just this short amount of practice.
So these and other kinds of data indicate that the brain really can change quite quickly. It doesn’t mean that these changes will last, but it means that they can occur, they can begin, and with systematic practice, they will endure.
We view this as an urgent public health need. So we need to start someplace. I would recommend three minutes a day.
When human beings first evolved on this planet, none of us were brushing our teeth. And yet, today, we all do. This is not part of our genome; this is a learned behavior. And it doesn’t take much to start these mechanisms in the brain to change.
So, we can do this when we’re doing other things. We can do this while we’re commuting. We can do this as we’re literally brushing our teeth.
We can do this as we’re having our first cup of coffee or tea in the morning. We can do this as we’re walking. This can be incorporated in routines of our daily life.
So we can nourish our mind, and through it, we can change the world. We can reduce implicit bias, bias that gets under the skin — this is something that we’ve shown can occur with strengthening connection.
We can increase school achievement, and we and others have shown this with training and awareness. We can reduce healthcare costs, potentially, by cultivating well-being, as the connections that I’ve illustrated show.
We can cultivate a strong sense of purpose, we can reduce distraction, and we can increase productivity and focus.
And I’d like to end with just a one-minute, short period of practice to give you an experiential taste of this.
So if you all just sit for a moment, put down your pens and devices. And I invite you to bring a loved one into your mind and your heart. You can leave your eyes open or closed.
And for those who are viewing this online, please share this one minute with us. And as you bring this loved one into your mind and in your heart, cultivate the strong aspiration that they be happy and be free of suffering, and they share the same wish for happiness and the same wish to be free of suffering as all human beings.
And you can envision a time in their life when they may have been having some difficulty, and you can say a simple phrase in your mind, “May you be happy, may you be free of suffering.”
And simply notice whatever may come up for you. And then we can do this for many categories of people, including a difficult person.
So I invite you to join us on this journey, and the very future of humanity, we think, depends on it.
Thank you very much.
Resources for Further Reading: