Psychology prof talks meditation at packed Pick-Staiger

Michelle Kim, Reporter

A psychology and psychiatry professor spoke to members of the Northwestern community Thursday night about the benefits of meditation on well-being and happiness.

Richard J. Davidson, who teaches at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, spoke at a crowded Pick-Staiger Concert Hall as part of the Northwestern Symposium on Mind and Society.

During the event, he discussed the ability of the brain to change itself through mental practices. His experience with meditation includes daily self-practice dating back to the the 1970s and research with the Dalai Lama.

Davidson told the audience about his research on brain activity during meditation, which involved taking MRI scans of experienced Tibetan monks. The scans indicated the monks’ brains were undergoing periods of insight and focused attention while they meditated.

The Dalai Lama encouraged the neuroscientists on Davidson’s team to use tools to study the effect of kindness and compassion on the brain, Davidson said. When the researchers played sounds of suffering while the practitioners were meditating, they found the region of the brain linked to emotion and empathy was amplified.

“I think we come into this world with this fundamental preference,” Davidson said. “Now this preference is something that requires nurturance, and the way that I think of kindness and compassion is very similar in the way that I think of language. We all come into the world with an innate passion for these skills but that requires an open community in which the skills need to be nurtured and nourished.”

Davidson then spoke about his current project, the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. The research center developed the “Kindness Curriculum” which teaches preschool students about mindfulness, empathy and behavior that encourages proactive social engagement.

He suggested college students experiment with meditation as well, touching on his own experiences with the practice.

“It enabled me to not be so bent out of shape by disappointment and disruptions,” he said. “It is a long term process — it’s not going to be instantaneous. But I think these practices can change our relationship with adversity.”

After the speech, Davidson told The Daily that students can incorporate this practice into their lives.

“(Students) can use really short periods of practice and sprinkle it throughout the day and this can help them with academic stress and challenges of everyday life,” he said.

Weinberg junior Tiana Hickey, who attended the event, said she found Davidson’s speech interesting but did not feel immediately compelled to take his advice.

“I think that the fact that there is actual evidence that mental training leads to different changes in your brain is inspiring, especially hearing it as a Northwestern student who is pretty stressed,” Hickey said. “But I think I’ll be applying the mental strategies from his speech more in my free time than with work.”

Psychology assistant Prof. Robin Nusslock, who introduced Davidson during the event, said meditation techniques need sophisticated scientific research.

“I think this research has big potential,” he said after the speech. “It’s untapped right now. We’re just starting to see a shift in society towards this type of technique. The sky’s the limit.”

Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated the day the event took place. The Daily regrets the error.

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