Systematic Practice is Necessary

Dr. Richard Davidson, from "Investigating Healthy Minds," a conversation with Krista Tippett on Being, June 23, 2011:

If you look at the history of the behavioral sciences and the intersection of behavioral sciences with biology, the 1960s was the heyday of behaviorism, when the environment was actually emphasized as being the primary cause of our behavior and there was no attention to the mind, no attention to biology, and the pendulum was very far to the extreme of considering what is inside the head to be really irrelevant, and we begin as a tabula rasa, an empty slate, and the environment through conventional mechanisms of learning determines who we are.

And then, in many ways, I think the pendulum swung in the opposite extreme for quite some time, where everything was attributed to our genes. And there were voices among public intellectuals who were pulling into question any programs, for example, like Head Start and other programs to help disadvantaged individuals because the claim was that it's all in our genes anyway and there's nothing much we can do about it. That's a bit of a caricature, but, you know, I think it really does contain the kernel of truth in some of those statements.

And I think that what modern neuroscience is teaching us is that, in fact, there is a lot of plasticity, that change is indeed possible, and the evidence is more and more strongly in favor of the importance of environmental influences in shaping brain function and structure and even shaping the expression of our genes. So it's not that genes are unimportant. It's just that they're much more dynamic than we previously understood.

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The work with long-term practitioners that we've done, as well as we're continuing to do, is important because it sort of defines the further reaches of human plasticity and transformation...when we study these experts, we see things in their brain that have not been reported before in human brains.

There is a brain rhythm that is called gamma oscillations, and gamma oscillations are recorded through the electrical activity of the brain. When you observe gamma oscillations in a normal conventional person who has not gone through this kind of training, you see the oscillations for very short periods of time, typically one second or less. What we observed in the long-term practitioners during certain kinds of meditation, particularly meditation on compassion, was that these gamma oscillations persisted for a much longer period of time than has ever been reported. They persisted for minutes continuously at very high amplitude. This was just something that had not been observed before.

We know a little bit about what the phenomenal logical correlates are in these long-term practitioners, and the clearest is a quality of clarity of their perception. They are very good at providing granular accounts of their experience because they spend a lot of time interrogating their own minds. And actually, the word meditation in Sanskrit, one of its meanings, comes from the word familiarization. We can think of these individuals as being just utterly familiar in a very deep way with their own mind, and that familiarization allows them to provide very granular reports. When they give those reports, it turns out that they could scale the extent to which their experience has this quality of clarity, and that quality of clarity turns out to be very highly correlated with the presence of these gamma oscillations. The more clarity, the more gamma.

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There are literally hundreds of different kinds of meditation practices. And so often in the West, we have this idea that meditation is one thing and that every kind of meditation will produce the same kinds of effects, and that's just simply not true. The contemplative traditions from which we draw have literally hundreds of different kinds of practices and they are designed for different kinds of people or for a person in different situations. They are understood within their own traditions to produce different effects and, biologically and behaviorally in the laboratory, they produce different effects. And it's kind of the way I often talk about it lay audiences is that the word meditation is kind of like the word sports. There are many different kinds of sports that can be performed. Some are more active, some are less active, some are performed in groups, some not. The same is true of meditation.

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I'd like to believe that some of the work that we do may have some implications or relevance for kind of on-the-ground, in-the-trenches psychotherapy or related strategies for behavior change in several ways. One is a kind of meta-level which helps a client or patient understand that, based upon everything we know about the brain in neuroscience, that change is not only possible, but change is actually the rule rather than the exception. It's really just a question of which influences we're going to choose for our brain. But our brain is wittingly or unwittingly being continuously shaped. Another thing is the idea of practice. The classical model of Western psychotherapy which is, you know, a client coming to a therapist for an hour a week for a 50-minute session without doing daily practice in between just flies in the face of everything we know about the brain and plasticity.

So if we want to make real change, that's not a good prescription for doing it. If we want to make real change, more systematic practice is necessary, in my view. This is something that comes directly from neuroscience. And I think that certain kinds of psychological therapies are now understanding that, so certain kinds of cognitive therapies, for example, do assign specific kinds of homework or practice for people to engage in on a daily basis. So I think there's growing recognition of that.

I think that most people still don't think of qualities like happiness as being a skill rather than it's typically conceptualized as a fixed trait and some people have more of it; some people have less of it. But if you think about it more as a skill, then it's something that can be enhanced through training. Fundamentally, I think that the kind of mental exercise that we're talking about is no different than physical exercise. People understand that they can't just do two weeks of physical exercise and then expect the benefits to remain for the rest of their lives. And the same thing with mental exercise.

...and I think that that's a very different conception of happiness, one that is a more enduring and I think more genuine in the sense that it's a kind of happiness that is not dependent on external circumstances.

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