Anyone researching meditation and mindfulness is bound to come across the work of Richard J. Davidson. A prominent neuroscientist at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, he’s at the leading edge of research into how we can train our minds to improve human health and performance.
Dr. Davidson’s work may very well have a major effect on the next generation. His incorporation of meditation and mindfulness into early education has yielded such dramatic results that many schools are clamoring to start programs. And that’s only the beginning. He currently spearheads several important studies at the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds, which he founded at the University of Wisconsin in 2008—probing everything from how mindfulness can foster enduring compassion in very young children to how meditation alters gene expression.
Dr. Davidson’s mindfulness research stems from his college days, when he was impressed by the overall kindness of the longtime meditators he met. While earning his Ph.D. at Harvard in the 1980s, he traveled to India to study the meditation practices of Buddhist monks. He soon began actively practicing meditation himself and grew eager to spread the word. “I clearly felt that these practices could be of great benefit in helping people cultivate well-being and resilience,” Dr. Davidson told me in a recent interview.
Dr. Davidson has learned much about how meditation affects the brain by studying gamma waves, an indicator of brain plasticity (which refers to the brain’s ability to form new connections between nerve cells). In the average person, gamma oscillations typically last less than one second—but in experienced meditators, they last much longer. Recent research has also shown that these waves are more prevalent when we focus on positive emotions. For longtime meditators such as Buddhist monks, they persist even during sleep.
It’s no surprise that mindfulness training has typically been an adult activity; it requires focused attention and patience—hardly hallmarks of childhood. Now Dr. Davidson is changing all that. With his center, he has started one of the nation’s most innovative mindfulness programs for children.
Designed for children as young as four, the program uses simple techniques to teach kids how to relax and focus. One exercise, for example, helps them learn to concentrate on their breathing when lying down by watching a stone placed on their stomachs move up and down as they inhale and exhale.
According to Dr. Davidson, young children are actually good candidates for mindfulness training. “We know that the brain undergoes a particularly sensitive period of plasticity between about four and seven years of age,” he says—which is why learning a foreign language or how to play a musical instrument is also easier at an early age.
Making Compassion Part of the Young Mindset
Through his research, Dr. Davidson has learned that mindfulness training can also lead to greater empathy—a realization that led to the development of the Kindness Curriculum, a 12-week program designed to foster kindness, caring, and mindfulness that’s being implemented in public schools in Madison, Wisconsin. One activity promotes awareness of the value of being good to others by having students give a “seed of kindness,” made of paper, to another student when he or she does something nice for that student. Children keep these seeds and watch their “gardens” grow with each kind gesture—thus learning that kindness involves giving to others, which often leads to receiving kindness in return.
“So far, the curriculum has shown benefits in some measures of self-control, particularly delayed gratification,” says Dr. Davidson. Other benefits include improvements in attention, willingness to share with other children, and even higher grades (which Dr. Davidson credits to improved focus in the classroom).
Dr. Davidson is developing learning initiatives for other age groups, too—for example, by working with top game designers to create games for smartphones and tablets that cultivate mindfulness and kindness in middle schoolers. The impact on their brain and behavior will then be evaluated.
What about adults? Dr. Davidson is about to start a major project that implements visual tools at workstations. “Simple practices that are short (three to five minutes each) can be done several times a day to cultivate healthier habits of mind,” he says, adding that these practices may help increase productivity and well-being in the workplace—and even decrease healthcare costs over time. “The potential here is nothing short of revolutionary,” he claims.
Meanwhile, other pathbreaking work in meditation continues under Dr. Davidson’s leadership—especially with regard to how it can affect our DNA. “After one day in intensive practice, we can actually detect alterations in gene expression,” Dr. Davidson reports. Of particular importance, meditation has been shown to reduce expression of genes that promote inflammation—a finding that has far-reaching potential for improving health, given that inflammation is implicated in everything from heart disease and cancer to arthritis, allergies, and kidney failure.