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Reflecting the insatiable curiosity of its founder, CIHM has more than a dozen projects underway and new possibilities popping up all the time (investigation of videogames designed to develop kindness and compassion, for example). While Davidson is its leading light, the center clearly operates collegially and collaboratively. More than twenty-five people are on the go, including scientists, graduate students, research assistants, outreach specialists, and support staff. During an extensive visit there, I learned about basic meditation research, a study of meditative methods for decreasing asthma symptoms, programs in local schools, a study of mind wandering, research on our ecological mindset, and how veterans are being helped through yoga practice. I also learned about the work they do at the center to find good controls to compare with the practices they are studying. “Otherwise,” Davidson says, “how will we know that the effects of eight weeks of meditation are any better than eight weeks of taking time to let your mind wander?”

Davidson talked about his days as a graduate student in the mid-1970s, when he shocked his professors by taking off for India to explore meditation practice and Buddhist teachings. After three months there and in Sri Lanka, he came back convinced he would do meditation research. He was quickly disabused of this notion by his professors, who let him know that if he had any hope of a career in science, he’d better stow the meditation and follow a more conventional path of research. He became a closet meditator and an affective neuroscientist—a student of the emotions. In those early days, he says, whatever “research” there was on meditation was half-cocked, filled with extravagant claims of magical results but not following standard protocols or building on the methodologies of previous research in related areas. A study that correlated drops in crime with the activity of Transcendental Meditation practitioners in the vicinity (and similar misguided efforts) tainted meditation research and helped keep him in the closet. As well, he says, “the science and the methods of the time were not suited to the task of studying subtle internal experience.” They lacked technology like fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging), which takes a moving picture of brain activity. They didn’t have any appreciation of epigenetics, the process by which our gene makeup can be changed throughout our lifetime. But above all, Davidson says, “we lacked an understanding of neuroplasticity. It is now widely accepted that the brain is an organ designed to change in response to experience and, importantly for our work, in response to training.”

For many meditators, talking about “the brain” seems materialistic, as if all we were was a lump of electrically charged flesh; similarly, many scientists are uncomfortable talking about something as intangible as mind. Where is it? How do you measure it? Davidson is comfortable talking about both, and says that nowadays many more researchers are too. Mind may not be so easily defined and delineated as brain, but the center uses the term healthy minds, he says, because it is minds—different types of minds—that can be trained in beneficial ways. And the effects of this training leave their mark on the brain, and can be observed and measured. These demonstrable positive results are the point. Not only do they increase Western science’s understanding of the brain’s nature and capabilities, they offer convincing evidence for U.S. institutions like the Department of Education, the National Institutes of Health, the Department of Defense, even the Department of Energy, that mind/brain training could offer beneficial results that would help them fulfill their missions. While the brain-mind conundrum is likely to remain a koan and a Buddhist metaphysical contemplation, if people develop more positive states and traits, does it really matter whether we can pinpoint the mind on our Around Me app?

In his new book coming out in March, The Emotional Life of Your Brain, written with Sharon Begley, Davidson counsels using your mind to train your brain. To oversimplify, the pathways carved in the brain take you quickly to places you need to go, but they can also take you quickly to less desirable places, like anger, jealousy, depression. Through training, you can use the power of your mind to change the pathways in your brain. As you follow those new pathways, it has beneficial effects on your mind, such as greater composure and a combination of attentiveness and relaxation. Mind and brain form a virtuous circle.

The brain imaging and behavior laboratory is a Frankenstein- like lair of lab benches, booths, wires, screens, and dials. The list of high-end measuring devices would require a treatise to explain: a 3T MRI scanner; visual, auditory, and gustatory stimulation capabilities with online eye tracking during MRI scans; a PET (positron emission tomography) scanner; a micro PET scanner; a scanning simulation room with a mock scanner; a tandem accelerator to support the PET scanners; a 256-channel EEG facility for stand-alone and combined electrical and hemodynamic imaging studies; and dedicated computing facilities.

This machinery, Dr. Antoine Lutz tells me, has been blessed by many meditation adepts, including, most famously, the Dalai Lama. Both Matthieu Ricard and Mingyur Rinpoche underwent studies of their brain activity there. Lutz, who began his studies in Paris working with Francisco Varela, a pioneer in the study of consciousness using first- and third-person methods of investigation, has long focused on experts. In psychology, he says, an “expert” is someone who has devoted at least ten thousand hours to develop a specific skill (playing a violin, hitting a baseball, knitting). In the case of meditators, many of the people he has studied have completed the traditional Tibetan three-year retreat.

We look first at the fMRI facility. A study participant lies down and enters the MRI tube. Researchers on the other side of the glass might show participants images that appear on the inside of goggles. How do their brains react to a gory image, a pleasant one, a neutral one? What brain pattern emerges when they’re asked to move a thumb? Or think about moving a thumb? They might ask participants to do some compassion practice.

The fMRI is expensive to run and maintain, so meditators are not being fed through it right and left. Time in the machine must be scheduled and prepared for. By the time someone goes into the machine, the researchers know exactly what they will ask the person to do. After collecting the data, they spend months crunching it, using sophisticated computer algorithms to interpret what they’re seeing.

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