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Lions Roar : July 2012
SHAMBHALA SUN JULY 2012 79 exercise trains the body to fitness. Stressed workers who took an eight-week mindfulness course showed a tripling in left-side brain activation, Tibetan monks in the lab produced more gamma activ- ity (a sign of neural synchrony) than ever before reported in the literature, and compassion practice reduced distress and increased meditators’ desire to help others. Written with journalist Sharon Begley, The Emotional Life of Your Brain presents sometimes dense material with verve, and the interweaving of Davidson’s personal narrative lends a wel- come structure to proceedings. If it sometimes feels that the identification of six distinct emo- tional styles is a distraction from the main story (albeit an empirically demonstrable one), then the short self-help section at the end brings things neatly into harmony (the advice, in summary, is: “Meditate, it’s good for you”). We’re still near the beginning of a scien- tific journey to understand what’s going on in the brain when we train in these practices, but whatever happens next, Davidson’s shoulders will be ones that future researchers stand on. Without scientific work like Davidson’s, it’s difficult to imagine Congressman Tim Ryan’s A Mindful Nation: How a Simple Practice Can Help Us Reduce Stress, Improve Performance, and Recapture the American Spirit getting written. It’s quite the remarkable document: a sitting member of the United States Congress comes out as a meditator, and puts a passionate case for placing mindfulness at the heart of public life. A Mindful Nation begins with a personal account of Ryan’s own journey into meditation, and expands to advocate ardently for its adoption into fields as widespread as health care, education, the military, economics, and the environment. Ryan’s argument is strongly grounded in research, and that’s what may make it persuasive in a culture where this could be dis- missed as off-the-wall, soft, or even un-American. Ryan doesn’t mince his words, stating that if mindfulness brings the benefits that science suggests, it would be a dereliction of his duty not to shout about it from the political rooftops, using his position to enlist the support of government. “Although it may seem like an unusual way to approach serious practical problems,” he writes, “I am convinced that our capacity to be mindful is the natural pathway to addressing so many of the difficulties we face.” Taking a tour of some of the settings where the “heroes” and “pioneers” of mindfulness are at work, Ryan describes how their efforts are transforming lives. He visits research laboratories to learn how stress affects the brain and body, and finds that medi- tation can bring our nervous systems into balance. He explores its impact on health, by reducing inflammation and a range of stress-related illness, and sees huge possibilities for easing the strain on the American health care system. He attends schools where the practice and brain science of mindfulness is taught to first-graders (as well as their teachers), and reveals how “mind- fitness” is being introduced to the Marines to help them cope the brain signatures of well-being and distress, hoping to find clues to a healthier, happier existence. This quest formed the core of his early work, and he was able to establish that people with an upbeat, engaged approach to life also tend to show more activity in the left prefrontal cortex of the brain, as measured by EEG readings. Meanwhile, those who are less sunny in their manner, tending more toward anxiety, depression, and an avoidant style, have less activity in the left prefrontal cortex and more on the right side of the brain. Contrary to prevailing scientific orthodoxy, Davidson also found that these markers of well-being were not set in stone. Whereas it had been thought that mental disposition was basically fixed, and that people were more or less stuck with the outlook they’re born with, Davidson’s research suggested that emotional style is far more malleable, sometimes changing greatly over the course of a lifetime. This was significant, because it heralded the possibility that we can take conscious action to change our tem- perament, a hypothesis that would have seemed barely credible to scientists when Davidson began his work. These discoveries formed a platform from which he could return to the study of meditation. By this time a respected pro- fessor at the University of Wisconsin, and inspired by a grow- ing wealth of research that showed remarkable plasticity in the human brain (with functional and even structural changes occurring in response to events), Davidson started applying himself to the question of what kind of activity might promote neural well-being. More specifically, as even mental events— thoughts and emotions—had been found to change the brain and its workings, could it be that mental exercise might help the mind be happy? This, of course, is a claim traditionally made for meditation, and since the early 1990s, Davidson has rigorously tested the assertion. The results have helped transform meditation from scientific pariah to darling of the day, simultaneously giving birth to the field of contemplative neuroscience. From the study of expert medita- tors (those happy yogis who have clocked more than 10,000 hours of practice) as well as novices, Davidson’s lab has produced paper after paper suggesting that training in mindfulness and compas- sion leads the brain toward greater well-being, just as physical