The Science of a Happy Mind, Part 1 | Nat Geo Live

The Science of a Happy Mind, Part 1 | Nat Geo Live


Richard Davidson:The invitation
in all of this work is that
we can take more responsibility
for our own brains.
And shape our brains wittingly
in a more intentional way
by cultivating healthy
habits of mind.
( audience applause )I’m a psychologist and
neuroscientist by training.
And at the very
beginning of my career I was captured by one
fundamental question which still motivates
all of our work today. And the question is
a very simple one And that is, when we look
around at the people we know what we see is great
diversity in how people respond to life’s slings and arrows. Some people are resilient
in the face of adversity and other people are challenged and decompensate
quite rapidly, vulnerable. What are the clues to
understanding those differences and most importantly how can we nudge people
along this continuum to nurture increased
resilience and well-being to facilitate a more adaptive
response to adversity. So, I did a lot of research
on the brain mechanisms and the bodily changes associated with these
differences among people. And then my life went through
what a dear friend of mine calls an “orthogonal rotation.” ( Audience laughter ) And that orthogonal rotation
occurred in 1992 when I met the fellow who is sitting
next to me in this picture.His Holiness the Dalai Lama
invited me
to come meet with him at his
residence in Dharamsala, India
because he was interested incatalyzing serious
neuroscientific research
on the minds and brains
of Tibetan practitioners
who spent years
cultivating their mind.
And in fact, on that…
momentous day in 1992 he was quite stern in a
way and challenged me. And he said, “You’ve been using
the tools of modern neuroscience to investigate depression and
anxiety and stress and fear. Why can’t you use
those same tools to study kindness
and compassion?” And, for me it was
a wake-up call. I didn’t have a very good answer
other than that it’s hard. ( Audience laughter ) When we first began to study
fear and anxiety that was hard, too. And I think most scientists
would agree that the scientific community
has made good progress in a better understanding
of the brain mechanisms and the bodily correlates
of fear and anxiety. So, what I’d like
to do now is to segue into a consideration of
four themes in modern science that enable the work that I’m
describing to go forward.So, the first theme
is neuroplasticity.
Neuroplasticity simply meansthat the brain changes in
response to experience and in response to training. Most of the time the brain
is changing unwittingly. Most of the time there
are forces around us which are shaping our
brains continuously. The invitation in all
of this work is that we can take more responsibility
for our own brains. And shape our brains wittingly
in a more intentional way by cultivating healthy
habits of mind.This guy is an
amazing human being.
Matthieu Ricard,
French by nationality.
He’s been a Tibetan
Buddhist monk since 1967.
And he also has a
PhD in Molecular Biology.
So, he comes to the table
with remarkable credentials and I think, it’s
fair to say that there is no other person on the
planet quite like Matthieu and he has been willing to
subject himself up the wazoofor the sake of this
kind of science.
Matthieu has been in the
scanner many, many times. We’ve recorded his brain
electrical signals and he has been poked and probed
in many different ways to investigate how long
term meditation practice may influence the brain.What I’m showing you here
is actually a figure
from a single participant
in the study
and it illustrates brain
electrical activity.
And you can see that
there is a difference between the resting
period on the left and the meditation
period on the right. What you see here
is the expression of high amplitude
gamma oscillations. These gamma oscillations when they are seen in
normal human beings are typically very, very brief. Less than one second in duration and we observe them
continuously at high amplitude in these long-term
meditation practitioners. These are oscillations,
which are associated with states of focused attention,
as well as periods of insight. When different elements
of a percept, or an idea come together in a kind
of momentary insight you see a burst of
gamma, which again typically lasts about a
quarter of a second.The second theme is epigeneticswhich is the genomic
equivalent of neuroplasticity.
We are all born with a fixed
compliment of base pairs which constitute our DNA. That for the most part, except
under very extreme circumstances is not going to change. However, what will change
is the extent to which different genes are
turned on or turned off. We can think of genes as
having little volume controls. And the forces
around us influence the extent to which different
genes are expressed the extent to which they are
turned on or turned off. For example, there’s very good
hard scientific data to show that the way a mother
treats her offspringwill induce epigenetic
changes in specific genes
as a consequence of
that maternal behavior.
And those changes
in gene expression
persist for the entire duration
of the life of the organism
and in fact, very new
research indicates
that these epigenetic changescan be passed down for at least
a couple of generations.
Now, ten years ago this
was complete heresy. And this is not fringe
science, folks. This is published in the very
best scientific journals. So, these findings along with
other similar findings suggest that there’s a lot
more malleability a lot more flexibility in what we once thought
was a very closed system. Now, up until now the only
way that epigenetic changes can be studied in the brain is to actually
biopsy brain tissue which obviously we cannot
do in a human being. It’s unsafe and unethical. And so, we now have, for the
very first time, a technology which allows us to
actually look at epigenetic changes in
human brain tissue for the first time. And the way we do it is
we can take a blood celland we can convert that cell
into a pluripotent stem cell.
And once it’s converted
into a stem cell
we can turn it into any
other kind of cell.
And one of the things
that we do in a dish
is we can turn it into
any kind of neuron
that we find in the brain,
and we can then look at
gene expression in
that neuronal stage.
And so, this is
going to usher in a whole new era of investigation that enables us to look
with much greater specificity than has ever been
looked at before in terms of how these
kinds of mental exercises can, can infiltrate, if
you will, and penetrate down to the level
of gene expression.The third is the
bi-directional communication
between the mind and
brain and the body
underscore the notion that
there is a connection between our psychological well-being
and our physical health.Can you envision a time
in the future when
mental exercise is engaged
in the same way
that physical exercise is today.And can you envision the
impact that that might have?
Healthcare utilization
should go down. Prescription drug
use should go down. And therefore, healthcare
costs would go down.Now, one snippet
of data came from
the first randomized
controlled trial of
mindfulness based
stress reduction.
And, we did it in
participants who worked at a hi-tech corporation
in Madison, Wisconsin. And it was taught onsite and
the study was designed so that the training occurred,
beginning in September and that coincides with the
onset of flu season. And the time when individuals
typically will get flu vaccine if they get a flu vaccine. So, what we did is we gave all of the participants
in the meditation group and all of the participants in a
control group a flu vaccine. The only difference
in how we did it compared to how it would
be done clinically is that we took blood samples before and
after the flu vaccine was given that allowed us to quantify
the antibody titers mounted in response
to the vaccine. This gives us a
quantitative index of how effectively the vaccine
actually is working.These are the data
from that study.
And it’s really quite remarkable
after two months of training
the meditators
actually show a boost
in their antibody titer
response to the vaccine
compared to the controls.And these data show that
if these participants were exposed to the same level
of flu virus those who went through the eight weeks
of mindfulness meditation would have more protection
against the virus. The virus– the vaccine
would be more effective.The fourth theme here is
innate basic goodness.
It doesn’t mean that the
negative stuff isn’t there. It simply means that if
we are given a choice we will choose the good. So, I’m going to show you
two short video clips. They were actually shown live,
what’s in the clips to six-month old babies. And then I’ll explain to you what was done
in this experiment. ( Audience laughing ) Those little… puppets were then offered to
the six-month old babies. One is the elephant
with the yellow and the other is the
elephant with the orange. And by the way, the colors were
all randomized across babies. Which do you think the
babies preferred? Woman in audience:
The helping elephant.
Dramatic. Dramatic! The preference rates
dramatically skewed… The babies at six months show a clear and unequivocal
preference for cooperation compared to the hindrance. And there are a number of other
strong empirical findings which are consistent with this in showing that we indeed
come into the world with this quality of
innate basic goodness. And one of the reasons
why these data on innate basic goodness are
so interesting is because in the contemplative traditions from which these practices
are derived they suggest that when we cultivate kindness and
compassion, we are not trying to create something de novo
in the human mind. What we’re doing is nurturing
seeds which are already present. We all know that human beings
are endowed with a capacity for language. And in fact, there are some
case studies of feral children who were raised in the wild. And, when they’re raised in the absence of a normal
linguistic community they do not develop
proper language. And in the same way, we reason
that kindness and compassion are qualities that are
present from the start but they require… nurturance. They require a loving, caring, kind, compassionate community for those seeds to be nurtured. And so, the practices which
strengthen these qualities are practices which are said to nourish and cultivate qualities
which are already there but simply need to be
nurtured and strengthened.