Last month I was excited to be at the Association for Contextual Behavioural Sciences Annual World Conference in Berlin where Dr Richard Davidson, distinguished neuroscientist and author, gave a talk about his scientific work. Dr Richard Davidson has been investigating what impact, if any, contemplative practices such as mindfulness, meditation and compassion have on the brain our health and wellbeing.
It turns out that his lab has found 4
very interesting things about the brain that have huge implications for our happiness and wellbeing.
1. The brain is designed to be shaped by our experiences – wittingly or unwittingly. Ever heard of neuroplasticity? Well basically this means that the brain evolves, adapts and wires based on our context and experience. Repeated patterns of emotional, cognitive, physical or circumstantial experiences have the ability to ‘wire’ our brain in certain ways that predict increases in certain behaviours, thoughts, emotional experiences, or physical experiences. In the case of someone suffering depression, such wiring may lead to increased experiences of sadness even when in circumstances generally associated with positive mood.
So neuroplasticity occurs whether we like what is being wired or not. It certainly may explain why people suffering from chronic psychological distress such as depression, PTSD, and anxiety, often find it harder and harder to break out of recurrent episodes. The good news however is that we don’t just have to be passive recipients of neuroplasticity. If things we don’t like are getting wired due to repetitive experience, then surely we can attempt to wire more positively by repetitively practicing virtuous qualities that lead to positive emotional experiences and wellbeing.
This is exactly what Dr Davidson’s lab has found. Wellness is a skill that can be cultivated. Practice and repetition is the key that allows the brain to shift and change in ways that make happiness and positivity more likely.
2. Our experiences play a large role in how our genes are expressed and regulated. This is currently one of the hottest areas of scientific and medical research and is known as the field of Epigenetics (for one of the most thorough and fascinating insights into epigenetics you should read Eva Jablonka and Marion Lamb’s book – “Evolution in Four Dimensions“).
Your experience has the potential to change the expression of your genes, and these changes may not only last your lifetime, but may be passed on to your children. Some studies have found that just 8 hours of meditation can produce epigenetic changes and 8 weeks of meditation can alter around 1500 genes (mostly genes responsible for stress regulation and improving inflammation and immunity). So even if you have a very high genetic loading for depression or anxiety, you may not only begin to make changes in how your own genes express this liability, but also change how this is passed on to your children.
So mindfulness may not just be a skill that benefits you, but potentially, if you are planing on having a family, it may lead to you being able to pass on this enhanced stress response and improved coping and immunity to your children!
3. The relationship between the mind and the body is bi-directional. Your health and physical wellness will have an effect on your mind/brain, your mood, thinking and outlook. The reverse is also true. As anyone who has experienced anxiety and depression can tell you, your mood can also have a profound effect on your physical wellbeing. The evidence has shown mood to be related to poor physical health such as increased inflammation and lower immunity. Studies that have looked at the relationship between mindfulness training and physical health have shown that even brief training in meditation and mindfulness skills can increase our immunity and decrease inflammation.
I’m pretty sure then, that it’s no great coincidence that when I practice yoga, eat well and take care of my physical body, my psychological wellbeing and mood is greatly enhanced!
4. Humans come into the world with innate basic goodness. Of all the findings that have come out of labs around the world, this one is, for me, by far, the most profound. It means that whether we like this or not, we all come into the world with the same basic desires to be free form harm and suffering and for those around us to be free from harm and suffering. Our goodness is universal and something that connects us all. We are equal in our goodness. This means then, that individual differences in compassion, prosociality and ‘goodness’ later in life must be due to contextual factors. If this is the case, then there is room for early intervention, prevention, education, change and most of all – hope.