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Shambhala Sun | March 2012
You'll find this article on page 42 of the magazine.

Taking the Measure of Mind

At the newly created Center for Investigating Healthy Minds, prominent neuroscientist Richie Davidson and his team try to see how far our minds can go and how many ways meditation can help us. BARRY BOYCE reports.

We’re pretty clear about what leads to a healthy body: good nutrition, exercise, sleep, moderation in all things. But what leads to a healthy mind?

As a longtime meditator, Richie Davidson has strong suspicions. His firsthand experience suggests to him that becoming familiar with how your mind works by paying attention to it helps you cultivate and maintain a composed, alert, and attentive mind.

As a renowned neuroscientist, he wants evidence. And he wants a picture of how the process works. Not only that, he wants to explore the limits of the mind’s possibilities, by studying those whose intensive meditation practice seems to have opened up vast potentialities of mind. He also wants to learn how different practices work differently for different people in ordinary walks of life. He wants to reach out to a variety of groups—schoolchildren, patients, veterans, and more—and find out how they can be helped. And he wants to measure the results. Above all, he wants to learn.

“Science,” Davidson tells me in the boardroom of the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds (CIHM) at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, “is not a process of merely confirming what you already suspect. It’s a process of learning from what you observe. In good science, we learn as much from experiments that don’t show the result we expected. In the study of meditative practices, our science needs to have that kind of rigor to be accepted by the broader scientific community and the public.”

For more than a decade, Davidson has been leading teams doing just that kind of science, where long years of basic research help in developing models for how a system works. It’s slow, time-consuming, even tedious, but it’s the time-honored way to do good science. His Holiness the Dalai Lama, an early and consistent mentor of Davidson’s and a champion of his work, was delighted with the focus on basic research, even saying that if the research proved his tradition wrong, he would alter the doctrine he had learned. However, in recent years, Davidson told me, His Holiness began to give him a nudge. He suggested that perhaps it wasn’t necessary to wait until decades of solid basic research had been conducted before venturing into applied research (what is now commonly called translational research). It could help people while also advancing scientific knowledge and educating others about the value of meditation from a scientific perspective. The idea for the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds was born, and Davidson founded it in 2008.

The center has a mandate to study the effectiveness of meditative practices through both basic laboratory research and applied research in many societal contexts. It seeks to answer basic questions: does meditation work, how does meditation work, what are the benefits of specific practices, and how can they be used to help people in their daily lives—in schools, doctors’ offices, hospitals, community centers, you name it. If solid evidence for the effectiveness of meditative practices can be established, they will become adopted as standard methodologies in many public institutions. After seeing only a few of its many activities, I understood why the Dalai Lama put his faith in this initiative. It’s going to help a lot of people. It already is.

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