Meditation As Medication--In-Depth Doctor's Interview
Richard J. Davidson, PhD, Professor of Psychology and Psychiatry and Founder of the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds at the Waisman Center, University of Wisconsin-Madison, talks about how meditation can be a form of medication.
If you could first just tell us what neuroplasticity is?
Dr. Davidson: Sure, neuroplasticity is the idea or the concept that the brain changes in response to experience. It’s probably the most important discovery of modern neuroscience over the last 10 or 15 years. We are beginning to understand the different mechanisms that are responsible for neuroplasticity. They range from the brain making new connections to actually new neurons growing in the brain to the impact of experience on gene expression in the brain. So, there’s a whole range of mechanisms that account for neuroplasticity, but the fact of neuroplasticity is very powerful. It indicates that throughout our entire lives the brain is constantly changing and being shaped by experience.
And how does meditation play a role in that, if say you want to change something about your life? I mean is it possible to do that just by meditating or thinking it?
Dr. Davidson: Well, our brains are constantly being shaped wittingly or unwittingly, mostly unwittingly. We are continuously bombarded by stimuli in our environment, by the media, by our interaction with people that we surround ourselves with. We don’t ordinarily think that the environments in which we are immersed are actually shaping our brain. However, that is quite literally what those environments are doing. The role of meditation and practices like meditation provide an invitation for us to actually take more responsibility for the shaping of our own brain; so that we can actually shape the brain in a more positive and responsible kind of way. Meditation can be thought of as a family of mental techniques, in Western scientific terms to help a person to regulate her or his attention and also to regulate our emotions. There are many different forms of meditation practice and those different forms of meditation, in different ways, work on one or both of those kinds of mechanisms.
What kind of conditions or ailments can meditation really help people with? And if you sit there and think I want to quit smoking, or I don’t want to feel chronic pain anymore. It will go away, is it that simple?
Dr. Davidson: It’s not that simple. Meditation is not sitting there and thinking about things. That’s actually not what meditation is. Meditation is quieting the mind. It’s becoming more familiar with our own mind and being more familiar with the basic nature of awareness itself. Meditation in Sanskrit actually means familiarization. What meditation fundamentally is about is becoming more familiar with our own mind. Most of us don’t pause very much during the day and actually have very little idea of how our minds work. What the content and the processes that are occurring in our own mind are. We really spend so little time internally reflecting; most of our effort is directed externally. The invitation in meditation is to become more aware of those internal processes. Now you ask about what conditions or illnesses? Here is where the scientific research plays a very important role. The honest truth is that if we use the standards of very rigorous science, we have very little evidence at this point that meditation actually is good for particular conditions. It’s probably not bad for most conditions, but we really don’t have a lot of evidence at this point; so here is where the evidence does suggest that meditation may be quite helpful, where there’s very good scientific evidence. One is in the area of certain kinds of psychiatric disorders and particularly anxiety and depression. There is very good evidence to suggest that meditation-based interventions are particularly good in individuals who are depressed at helping to prevent depressive relapse. One of the signs of depression is that it is a recurrent illness, the best predictor of a depressive episode in an individual is a past depressive episode and if you introduce meditation or mindfulness-based treatments during that period where a person is remitted, the likelihood that they will relapse into depression is significantly decreased. The evidence for that is very strong at this point in time. Meditation has also found to be useful for certain kind of anxiety disorders. A range of anxiety disorders, including phobias, social anxiety, as well as post-traumatic stress disorder. With respect to physical illnesses there is pretty good evidence that meditation has important effects on inflammatory processes. Basic research indicates that the biological mechanisms that promote inflammation are directly affected by certain types of meditation practices. If meditation can help reduce inflammation, there is the prospect that it may be useful in disorders that involve inflammation as a central feature of the disorder. One of them, for example, is asthma. We know that asthma involves inflammation in the lungs; airway inflammation is understood to be one of the central causes of asthmatic symptoms. The evidence suggests that meditation may affect some of those basic inflammatory processes in a way that would ameliorate some of the symptoms of asthma. There are other conditions that involve inflammation and irritation of the skin, for example psoriasis. There is evidence to suggest that meditation can significantly speed the healing in psoriasis. Those are some of the conditions where the evidence is fairly robust, although again to underscore the paucity of research at this time, there really isn’t very much robust evidence. The evidence that we do have from the basic research though, clearly indicates that this is a very promising avenue to systematically explore the future. One other thing that you hinted at in your question is the idea, about the question of whether meditation should be considered a treatment in of itself or an adjunct. My own view is that it’s best considered as an adjunct. It shouldn’t be thought of as replacement for conventional treatment, but it may interact with conventional treatment in helping to facilitate it and also minimizing the extent to which we rely on medication. Some of which may have some deleterious side effects. So I think that meditation can usefully be considered as a complement to more traditional types of treatment.
Does it take a certain amount of meditation to see the changes or to help with the different anxiety depression inflammation? When does that change, neural plasticity, when does that take effect?
Dr. Davidson: Well, yes, those are important questions about the timing and dosage of meditation and again the answer to the question about dose is not definitively known. We do know based on our research and based on the research of a number of other scientific groups that many of the effects that we’ve observed in the laboratory with meditation do scale with a number of hours of practice. So, the more practice in general the stronger, at least for some. Now how much is enough to produce discernible change? The moment where you have an opportunity of practice, when you’re waiting in line at a cashier to check out at a grocery store; that’s an opportunity to practice. If you observe two people arguing in the street or a mother yelling at the child, that’s an opportunity to just to observe, to not let those kinds of experiences ensnare you and to take more responsibility for your own mind. Through systematic practice and bringing the practice into your everyday life it is possible to change your experience, to change your behavior, and in the course of doing that, to change your brain. It requires intention. It requires practice so that it becomes more spontaneous. When these situations arise, it occurs to you that this is the moment of practice. When you feel yourself getting stressed out at work, if your boss is telling you something that you don’t want to hear, and you feel yourself getting very agitated, that’s the moment to practice. Now it takes practice on the cushion to have those thoughts arise spontaneously in those difficult situations during our daily life, but it’s something that’s accessible to everyone. It’s actually pretty straightforward and there is nothing magical about it. Most people report that once they begin to taste it, it’s very reinforcing and then it becomes much easier to incorporate into their daily life.
Do you recommend people go to the class or try it out themselves?
Dr. Richard Davidson: My recommendation is that if they can find a class, they should take a class with a teacher. It’s always helpful to have guidance from an expert when you’re first learning any kind of new skill and this is no different. If viewers find they are unable to find a class in their local community there are a lot of material and resources available online that they can also find.
How about yourself personally? Is there a technique you use? What works best for you?
Dr. Davidson: Well I meditate every day and it’s a very important time for me. I feel like I can never do all the things I do if it weren’t for that practice. It helps me to juggle many things in my life and do it with at least a smidgen of equanimity. So I do a variety of different kinds of practices. I don’t do just one form of meditation. Most people who’ve been meditating for a while combine a number of different kinds of practice. I have over the years, found a combination that works for me.
How long do you meditate each day?
Dr. Davidson: I do a formal practice, on the cushion for between 30 and 45 minutes a day.
Wow, that’s great. I’m sure people have to work up to that level.
Dr. Davidson: Any amount helps, even really short amounts in my view. So, even two minutes I think is worth doing. That is what I tell people who say they just can’t do it, their minds are racing, or they say they’re too busy. They can’t possibly fit anything else in their life. Everyone can fit a few minutes.
END OF INTERVIEW
This information is intended for additional research purposes only. It is not to be used as a prescription or advice from Ivanhoe Broadcast News, Inc. or any medical professional interviewed. Ivanhoe Broadcast News, Inc. assumes no responsibility for the depth or accuracy of physician statements. Procedures or medicines apply to different people and medical factors; always consult your physician on medical matters.
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If you would like more information, please contact:
Center for Investigating Healthy Minds at the Waisman Center
University of Wisconsin-Madison
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