Saturday, April 25, 2015

Can Mindfulness Rewire the Brain to Cause Kindness, Compassion, and Ease?

The Dalai Lama issued neuroscientist Richard Davidson of the University of Wisconsin-Madison a challenge: instead of spending so much time studying conditions like fear, depression, and anxiety, why not apply your rigorous scientific methodology to studying the qualities of kindness and compassion? That was in 1992, and Dr. Davidson has been doing just that ever since.

One manifestation of Dr. Davidson’s work is the mindfulness training going on in schools like Glenn Stephens Elementary, here in Madison where I currently teach. Our 4K classes have been learning the power of empathy and kindness through mindfulness as part of their social emotional curriculum; and our fifth graders and their teachers are learning mindfulness techniques as well. Both experiences are part of larger research studies being conducted by the UW's Center for Investigating Healthy Minds, founded and headed by Dr. Davidson.

This week I was invited to watch and discuss an incredible documentary on the power of mindfulness meditation (thank you, Marci of Backyard Yoga!) called Free the Mind: Can You Rewire the Brain Just by Taking a Breath? The film traces two unique research projects at the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds. In one a group of veterans, all suffering from PTSD, went through an intensive meditation training program. The purpose of the training was to attempt to rewire their brains so that they could reduce the amount of daily trauma they were suffering. The research methodology was rigorous, using MRIs, attitude inventories, and other methods of documenting and analyzing emotional and physical changes in the men. A corollary project was going on in the Waisman Center’s preschool program. The children participated in compassion meditation training.

The focus of the film was on two Iraq war veterans suffering from PTSD and a five year old suffering from ADHD and extreme anxiety.  One of the veterans had witnessed unforgettable horrors during the war including when one of his buddies had all four limbs blown off. The other had been an intelligence officer and interrogator and suffered immense guilt over what he’d done to others. The five year old had many manifestations of his anxiety, but the most visible and heart wrenching was his deep fear of elevators. 

The men made measurable improvement in their ability to deal with their PTSD in just seven days, with residual effects in the months afterward. The film ended with the little boy getting onto the Center’s elevator with a group of his classmates—although not without trepidation—and riding to the sixth floor to look out the window from that height.

I’ve been reading a lot about the success various schools have been having with meditation techniques such as Transcendental Meditation. Celebrities like Anderson Cooper and Jerry Seinfeld have reported on how learning meditation changed their lives.  The technique used by Dr. Davidson and the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds is called “mindfulness.” 

Dr. Davidson is quoted on the movie’s website as saying, “We actually have no idea of how conscious experience arises from this blob of matter that weighs three pounds. It’s really still very much a mystery.” And, "The brain is the most complicated organ in the universe...we're just beginning this journey [of discovering how it works]."  Watch for more posts on this subject as I begin to explore my own mindfulness and the work of people like Dr. Richard Davidson.

If you’d like to read more this topic, try these titles:

Read about my experience when the Dalai Lama came to Madison.

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