Dr. Richard Davidson of the University of Wisconsin – Madison is a Neuroscientist who has also been practicing and studying mindfulness since the 70s. In this talk from the Wisdom 2.0 2015 Conference he talks about four big discoveries that are informing how we think about wellness:
- Neuroplasticity – essentially the brain changes in response to experience and training, including growing new cells (neurogenesis). In other words, you can literally rewire your brain based on what you pay attention to, which is crucial for forming new habits and breaking patterns in your life.
- Epigenetics – The science of how genes are expressed via environment and experience. We now know that gene expression is highly dynamic and our experience and choices in life literally affect how our genes express themselves. For example, the way a mother interacts with her offspring significantly alters brain structure for the entire life of the offspring. He also cited an example where they took blood samples before and after 8 hours of practice from long-time meditation practitioners and they were able to see measurable alternations of gene expression simply via mental practice.
- The bi-directional highways between brain and body: High levels of emotional well-being are highly correlated with better physical health, although the specific mechanisms are obviously complicated and under investigation. We have the ability to improve our well-being and brain structure by cultivating awareness and attitudes mentioned below which in turn seem to have a beneficial result on our physical health. Similarly, taking great care of your body has beneficial impact on the brain.
- Humans come into the world with innate basic goodness: In experiments using sophisticated eye tracking technology we can see that infants as early as six months have a preference for altruistic and warm hearted encounters. Just as we are born with an innate ability for language, we need a supportive environment to teach us how to best express our innate attributes.
If those are the most impactful discoveries affecting wellness, what are its constituents? He believes they are:
- Resilience – the ability to quickly bounce back from adversity
- Unconditional positive regard – the ability to have an always-on, unconscious, positive regard of others and infuse that into every experience
- Generosity – being kind and giving to others without expectation; the joy of giving to others is like a “superfood” for well-being
- Attention – negative emotions are most likely to occur when the mind drifts, so cultivating an awareness of your attention and an ability to focus your attention via mindfulness is directly related to well-being.
Each of the above aspects of well-being are mediated by different neural circuits and all exhibit Neuroplasticity. Why wait to be happy and well? Give mindfulness and meditation a try and see how it affects your well-being and your effectiveness.