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Lions Roar : March 2012
SHAMBHALA SUN MARCH 2012 44 The center has a mandate to study the effectiveness of medita- tive practices through both basic laboratory research and applied research in many societal contexts. It seeks to answer basic ques- tions: does meditation work, how does meditation work, what are the benefits of specific practices, and how can they be used to help people in their daily lives—in schools, doctors’ offices, hospitals, community centers, you name it. If solid evidence for the effectiveness of meditative practices can be established, they will become adopted as standard methodologies in many pub- lic institutions. After seeing only a few of its many activities, I understood why the Dalai Lama put his faith in this initiative. It’s going to help a lot of people. It already is. THE UNIVERSITY’S Waisman Center, in which CIHM is housed, has one of the best laboratories in the world for the kind of brain imaging research that Davidson directs. The lab has an impressive armamentarium of hi-tech tools to study the brain, but overall the facility doesn’t have the cold, clinical feel of a research institution. For one thing, the scientists—starting with the youthful and jaunty Davidson himself—don’t stalk the halls absentmindedly, looking at the floor. They’re cheerful and ener- getic and they greet you with interest. Most of them engage in the practices they’re studying. It’s also the only scientific research facility that contains a world-class meditation room, complete with comfy and sustainable cork flooring. Davidson wanted the center’s facilities to convey the contemplative qualities of the practices that are studied there. It does. The Healthy Minds center has three aims: Research—both basic and translational, intended to lead to more widespread incorporation of practices that nourish posi- tive qualities of mind by various parts of society; Outreach—the center conducts projects with members of the local community (including educators, parents, and children) in the context of doing research, and globally communicates about the work through talks and the CIHM website (investigating- CIHM website (investigating- website (investigating- healthyminds.org); Training—conducted for postdoctoral fellows and senior sci- entists on site, as well as for participants in research conferences. Reflecting the insatiable curiosity of its founder, CIHM has more than a dozen projects underway and new possibilities pop- ping up all the time (investigation of videogames designed to develop kindness and compassion, for example). While Davidson is its leading light, the center clearly operates collegially and col- laboratively. More than twenty-five people are on the go, includ- ing scientists, graduate students, research assistants, outreach specialists, and support staff. During an extensive visit there, I learned about basic meditation research, a study of meditative methods for decreasing asthma symptoms, programs in local schools, a study of mind wandering, research on our ecological mindset, and how veterans are being helped through yoga prac- tice. I also learned about the work they do at the center to find good controls to compare with the practices they are studying. “Otherwise,” Davidson says, “how will we know that the effects of eight weeks of meditation are any better than eight weeks of taking time to let your mind wander?” Davidson talked about his days as a graduate student in the mid-1970s, when he shocked his professors by taking off for India to explore meditation practice and Buddhist teachings. After three months there and in Sri Lanka, he came back convinced he would do meditation research. He was quickly disabused of this notion by his professors, who let him know that if he had any hope of a career in science, he’d better stow the meditation and follow a more conventional path of research. He became a closet meditator and an affective neuroscientist—a student of the emo- tions. In those early days, he says, whatever “research” there was on meditation was half-cocked, filled with extravagant claims of magical results but not following standard protocols or build- ing on the methodologies of previous research in related areas. A study that correlated drops in crime with the activity of Tran- scendental Meditation practitioners in the vicinity (and similar misguided efforts) tainted meditation research and helped keep him in the closet. As well, he says, “the science and the methods of the time were not suited to the task of studying subtle internal experience.” They lacked technology like fMRI (functional mag- netic resonance imaging), which takes a moving picture of brain activity. They didn’t have any appreciation of epigenetics, the process by which our gene makeup can be changed throughout our lifetime. But above all, Davidson says, “we lacked an under- standing of neuroplasticity. It is now widely accepted that the brain is an organ designed to change in response to experience and, importantly for our work, in response to training.” For many meditators, talking about “the brain” seems mater- ialistic, as if all we were was a lump of electrically charged flesh; similarly, many scientists are uncomfortable talking about some- thing as intangible as mind. Where is it? How do you measure it? Davidson is comfortable talking about both, and says that nowa- days many more researchers are too. Mind may not be so eas- ily defined and delineated as brain, but the center uses the term healthy minds, he says, because it is minds—different types of minds—that can be trained in beneficial ways. And the effects of this training leave their mark on the brain, and can be observed and measured. These demonstrable positive results are the point. Not only do they increase Western science’s understanding of the brain’s nature and capabilities, they offer convincing evi- dence for U.S. institutions like the Department of Education, the National Institutes of Health, the Department of Defense, even the Department of Energy, that mind/brain training could offer beneficial results that would help them fulfill their missions. “How do we know eight weeks of meditation is any better for you than eight weeks of mind wandering?” Davidson asks.