Interview with Dr. Richard Davidson, neuroscientist and meditation expert, by Gesine Borcherdt, art critic and curator
Dr. Richard Davidson is one of the most acclaimed neuroscientists of our time. He is best known for his groundbreaking work studying emotion, meditation and the brain. He is a friend and confidante of the Dalai Lama, and he is the founder and director of the Center for Healthy Minds at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.
Gesine Borcherdt is an art critic and curator. One of her focusses is art and perception with a special interest in the cross-pollination of art and mindfulness meditation with its effects on our brain.
LAS is a young institution for contemporary art in Berlin. It is interested in art at the intersection of science and new technologies, that enters a dialogue with different disciplines, specifically with practices that are about cross-pollination of different fields. The framework of this conversation is the exhibition with the American artist Robert Irwin at Kraftwerk Berlin, where he has conceived a large-scale site-specific installation, which is an invitation to the audience to connect with the art and the environment. Seeing and perception are the two core topics of Irwin's practice, as is the engagement with the audience which perceives itself perceiving – basically, Irwin’s work is about understanding the processes of perception, and the connection of seeing and perceiving to whole body. Seeing for him is not just visual – it happens with all senses, and perceiving his work is also about an appreciation of everything that is around us. Irwin has a very holistic understanding of what art is and what art can do. His practice is about direct experience and about entering into a relationship with the work of art. It is about dialogue – a dialogue with architectural surroundings and with the people around us. This is why his art can be understood without knowledge.
Gesine Borcherdt: Art and meditation seem to have some things in common. Obviously, they are both all about perception. Meditation sharpens our mental and physical senses, and art at its best does too. Both can make us pause and see, feel and think more clearly, getting more aware of our bodies and the space around us and even of the world we live in. They both open our perspectives and both have spiritual backgrounds. Actually, mindfulness meditation derives from Buddhism and art was originally developed in a religious context. Just if you think of colored glass windows in medieval churches, of religious paintings or of the Japanese tea ceremony, which might be the most obvious expression of combining both disciplines. In the 60s, when Minimal Art came up – interestingly in the same time when Buddhist meditation started being perceived in the West – the parameters of space, body and perception became important in art. Maurice Merlau-Ponty’s book “Phenomenology of Perception” was a big influence back then. Now Robert Irwin’s work deals with this parallel between art and meditation. Irwin, in fact, was very interested in meditation, practicing and experimenting with it. Dr. Davidson, how would you see this overlap between art and meditation? You were the first one to combine meditation and neuroscience, which back in the Nineties was a very new approach. Do you think you can bring art in as well?
Richard Davidson: Over the course of my career, I have collaborated with many artists in different ways. Visual artists, musicians, dancers, a variety of different kinds of artists. And there are certainly really important areas of convergence that I think are extremely important and interesting. And also, I also think some important areas of difference. So, I think this is very much ripe for exploration. One of the things that I so appreciate about the arts in general is that they provide a mode of expression that is something other than words. In our culture, we tend to privilege words as the central mode of expression. Words necessitate that we form concepts, and concepts are clearly advantageous for our ability to navigate in the world. But they also imprison us because our reality is literally defined by these concepts. I see art in general as a vehicle to help us go beyond this narrow modality of expression that is privileged in our culture, which is a language based on a conceptual mode of expression. And in meditation, we learn the skills of going beyond a conceptual appreciation or understanding of the world. And one of the things that meditation invites us to do is to be able to actually investigate, to experientially glimpse into the concepts that we hold – concepts, that define a reality, and in that way, eliminate our reality. I think that the arts provide this alternative mode of expression, which I think is complementary to what we experience in meditation. It can be really valuable, in order to use a colloquial expression, in getting us out of our heads – because as our concepts and our language so heavily define our experience of the world.
Gesine Borcherdt: It seem like we can benefit from meditation, and also from art by letting concepts behind. How does this benefit look in the context of neuroplasticity? How does “getting us out of our heads” affect our brain?
Richard Davidson: One of the things that is important to recognize about neuroplasticity is that it happens willingly or unwillingly. It's going on all the time. Our brains are constantly being shaped by the forces around us, and most of the time we are only dimly aware of the forces that are shaping our brain. And we typically have very little control over those forces. One of the invitations in meditation is that we can actually take more responsibility for our own neuroplasticity. We can shape our brains more intentionally rather than leaving the shaping of our brains to forces of which we have control. We can intentionally shape our brain – scientific research shows that when we cultivate healthy habits of mind, when we cultivate virtuous qualities in our mind, our brains change. Those changes in the brain, we believe, based on a growing corpus of scientific evidence, those changes in the brain support the more enduring changes that can result from these practices. This is something very important. The most recent book that I wrote with Dan Goldman is called “Altered Traits”. Altered traits are our choice because the ultimate goal of meditation is not some pleasant experience while we are sitting on the cushion, but rather it is the transformation of our life, its enduring transformation. We call a trait something that endures over time. This is really harnessing the power and potential of neuroplasticity.
Gesine Borcherdt: Transformation is an important term for artists, because all they do is transforming – not just materials but they can transform our way of thinking, which is similar to what meditation can do, as you just described. With your important experiments that you have done with Tibetan monks you have proven for the first time how meditation can really change the brain as an organ, as organic material, from a sculptor’s point of view – and that the brain can change during our entire life. Could you speak about these groundbreaking experiments?
Richard Davidson: Yes, certainly. Early on in this research we had some conversations with His Holiness the Dalai Lama. The Dalai Lama encouraged us to investigate the practices that were common in his tradition, through which people train their mind through systematic meditation. We reasoned that this would be a very good place to start – because if we studied these very long-term practitioners who have spent decades training their mind, we would expect to see something different in their brains. And if we didn't see that in these very long-term practitioners, the likelihood of seeing changes in more novice practitioners would be very low. So, we began the study in 2001. Over the next few years, we brought a group of very long-term practitioners into the laboratory to study what might be different about their brains. Remarkably, we saw some profound differences. The very first scientific paper that we published on these long-term practitioners was published in 2004. This article has been cited hundreds of times and was really instrumental in launching this whole area of research. We saw that these practitioners exhibited a kind of oscillation in their brain electrical recordings, which is seen in anyone – but in in most of us, the gamma oscillations are typically very short: less than one second, and they typically only occur occasionally. But in these practitioners, they were present for the entire duration of time that they were meditating. They were also present in their baseline state and they were even present when they were sleeping! This was a really important discovery. It convinced us and the scientific community that there was really something there. There was a there there, if you will. This suggested that all of this training really did dramatically affect their brain – which was therefore worthy of serious scientific exploration.
Gesine Borcherdt: From that knowledge that you gained there: Do you think that meditation and mindfulness practices make our brains more open, more curious, more creative?
Richard Davidson: Well, one of the important insights in our work concerns what meditation is really evolved to do. Meditation did not evolve for us to become more curious. It really evolved for us to awaken, to realize the full extent of what it means to be a human being. That is in the historical context. That is why meditation was developed. It was not developed to help us focus our attention better. It was not developed to cure illnesses. It was not developed to decrease our anxiety. It was developed to produce awakening, to enable us to flourish in the fullest extent that it is possible for a human to flourish. What does that mean? We have been led to develop a framework that is jointly informed by contemplative traditions and by scientific research to define what the elements of flourishing are. We have specified four important elements, and they are the following: The first pillar is awareness. Awareness includes what you describe as openness, the ability to really panoramically, fully appreciate all that exists in one's environment, both externally and internally, in the body and the mind. The second pillar we call connection. Connection is about the qualities that are important for healthy social relationships. Qualities like kindness, appreciation, compassion – those qualities that enable the maximal potential that we can exhibit in social interaction. The third pillar is well-being, or a flourishing. It is what we call insight and insight is about self-knowledge. Here we think of it as a curiosity driven self-knowledge to really understand the nature of this thing that we call the self. What is the self and how does it shape our experience of reality? When we come to a deep, experiential understanding of that, we can loosen the grip that it has on us – because this narrative that everyone carries about herself or himself is a set of cognitive blinders. It limits our experience of the world. When we can deeply understand that, it is liberating! So, the invitation here is not so much to change the narrative but to change our relationship to the narrative, so that we can see the narrative for what it is, which is really a constellation of thoughts. And finally, the last pillar of flourishing is purpose. Purpose here is about identifying where our life is headed – connecting our values to our sense of purpose and connecting more of our everyday behavior so that more and more of what we do on a routine basis every day is deeply connected to our sense of purpose. Can you envision a time when washing the dishes in your home is deeply connected to your sense of purpose, taking out the garbage deeply connected to your sense of purpose? There is no separation. There is no such thing as doing something more purposeful because everything that you do is imbued with the same sense of purpose. Those are the elements, the core elements of human flourishing. Meditation in its authentic form is really designed to activate all of those pillars. Through that, we can realize our potential as human beings.
Gesine Borcherdt: Which basically means that meditation is not only a contemplative practice that we do on a cushion, but also an active practice that we do in real life.
Richard Davidson: Yes, the doing it on the cushion is a practice for doing it in the real world. The reason we put our butts on the cushion is that it helps these qualities – awareness, connection, well-being and purpose – spontaneously to arise in our everyday life. Most people would say that this is important to them, but in in the thick of things, so to speak, they forget. We all know things that are good for ourselves, but we don't do them because we forget to do them well. The reason we put our butts on the cushion is that we actually can remember more easily.
Gesine Borcherdt: So, sitting down on a cushion is a reminder, a ritual that we need in order to remember to pause. Today in our Western world we do not have many rituals, maybe because there is a spiritual quality to them. Art used to be very connected with rituals, and somehow it still is. You need a regular practice, and in creating art, even rhythm often matters, which brings artists into a meditative state. Can art also be a reminder to pause?
Richard Davidson: You have really good intuition about the possible uses of art as a reminder. In fact, in the classical definition of mindfulness, there is a critical element of remembering: Remembering to bring a certain view or perspective to every interaction, every nook and cranny in our everyday life, to the extent that art can help us to remind ourselves of this. It could be enormously valuable.
Gesine Borcherdt: Meditation can obviously make us better people, nicer characters. Art, in a way and with its humanistic approach, wants that too. Just like meditation, it can trigger certain characteristics such as tolerance and connection.
Richard Davidson: Well, meditation is embedded within an ethical context, even in a secular framework. I think that is really important. The ethical context is around non-harm and kindness. I don't think it is possible to effectively teach meditation outside that context, this would undermine some of the core intention of the practice. Is art always framed in an ethical context? I don't know. And if you look at the personal characteristics of artists at their life: do they exemplify the qualities of kindness and compassion that we might identify in a great spiritual teacher? I don't know. I think that these are important questions to ask. I have lots of artist friends and I enjoy asking them these questions. It is really when you probe in this way, I think you can recognize that the arts and meditation are not the same thing. They could be complementary and help to reinforce each other. I think they are both important and valuable and one is not a substitute for the other.
Gesine Borcherdt: In fact, there is a lot of theory about aesthetics and ethics, and they are really quite opposed to one another. It is interesting that they meet half-way, speaking to our bodies and minds in similar ways – even if art can be very disruptive and overloaded with information, and meditation is overtly peaceful and can be entirely free from any information. Still, they both make us more aware of ourselves and the world around us. You mentioned that you were working with artists. How did you do that?
Richard Davidson: I have been approached by lots of artists. We have had them in our center, which is really a science-based center. We have occasionally had artists in residence just come hang out with us, which was great. I firmly believe that, as we spoke earlier, that because the arts represent a different mode of expression of communication, there are certain insights from the meditative practices that may be more directly communicated through an artistic medium than they can be through words. This could be a very effective way in reaching people. A jazz musician friend of mine and I have collaborated on a number of live events where I have talked about awareness, this first pillar of well-being, and how it is exemplified in jazz. Miles Davis, the famous jazz musician, once said that it is all about how you recover from your mistakes. That is a very deep insight! That has parallels in meditation because one of the consequences of meditation practice is the cultivation of resilience – resilience is about recovering from your mistakes and from adversity in general. This is also really interesting in collaboration with dancers. We have done some multimedia presentations together with images of the brain, helping to illustrate the embodied quality of some of these states, showing that they are not simply subjective mental states, but they are cinematically embodied. The body is really important in meditation practice and it is important in the arts. Recognizing the embodied nature and being able to express it through a medium like dance could be particularly powerful in helping to appreciate this true mind-body interaction.
Gesine Borcherdt: This is the point which interests Robert Irwin: The mind-body perception. As we spoke before, art started looking at this in the 60s, at the same time when meditation became more popular in the West. Artists like Irwin were working with space, light and geometric shapes – they wanted to take the narrative out of the artwork and bring the body in. And the pause was also really important. John Cage talked about silence as a part of music, Carl André spoke about the void as part of a sculpture. The physical experience of the body in space became key and really changed the arts.
Richard Davidson: John Cage's work has a beautiful parallel in meditation. We often invite people to notice the pause, if you will, or the space between two thoughts. Notice that gap! When you begin to inspect your own mind, you will see lots of thoughts. And when you are fully awake, there will be moments between thoughts, that are moments of no thought. That is a glimpse of what a non-conceptual apprehension of reality might be.
Gesine Borcherdt: And that pause means freedom. Freedom from thoughts, freedom to choose how do continue.
Richard Davidson: Absolutely. Freedom. Yes.
Gesine Borcherdt: Dr. Davidson, thank you very much for this conversation.