Happiness: Cajole Your Brain to Lean to the Left
By DANIEL GOLEMAN
too many years ago, while I was still a psychology graduate student, I ran an
experiment to assess how well meditation might work as an antidote to stress.
My professors were skeptical, my measures were weak, and my subjects were mainly
college sophomores. Not surprisingly, my results were inconclusive.
today I feel vindicated.
be sure, over the years there have been scores of studies that have looked at
meditation, some suggesting its powers to alleviate the adverse effects of stress.
But only last month did what I see as a definitive study confirm my once-shaky
hypothesis, by revealing the brain mechanism that may account for meditation's
singular ability to soothe.
data has emerged as one of many experimental fruits of an unlikely research collaboration:
the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan religious and political leader in exile, and some
of top psychologists and neuroscientists from the United States. The scientists
met with the Dalai Lama for five days in Dharamsala, India, in March 2000, to
discuss how people might better control their destructive emotions.
of my personal heroes in this rapprochement between modern science and ancient
wisdom is Dr. Richard Davidson, director of the Laboratory for Affective Neuroscience
at the University of Wisconsin. Dr. Davidson, in recent research using functional
M.R.I. and advanced EEG analysis, has identified an index for the brain's set
point for moods.
functional M.R.I. images reveal that when people are emotionally distressed -
anxious, angry, depressed - the most active sites in the brain are circuitry converging
on the amygdala, part of the brain's emotional centers, and the right prefrontal
cortex, a brain region important for the hypervigilance typical of people under
contrast, when people are in positive moods - upbeat, enthusiastic and energized
- those sites are quiet, with the heightened activity in the left prefrontal cortex.
Dr. Davidson has discovered what he believes is a quick way to index a person's
typical mood range, by reading the baseline levels of activity in these right
and left prefrontal areas. That ratio predicts daily moods with surprising accuracy.
The more the ratio tilts to the right, the more unhappy or distressed a person
tends to be, while the more activity to the left, the more happy and enthusiastic.
taking readings on hundreds of people, Dr. Davidson has established a bell curve
distribution, with most people in the middle, having a mix of good and bad moods.
Those relatively few people who are farthest to the right are most likely to have
a clinical depression or anxiety disorder over the course of their lives. For
those lucky few farthest to the left, troubling moods are rare and recovery from
them is rapid.
may explain other kinds of data suggesting a biologically determined set point
for our emotional range. One finding, for instance, shows that both for people
lucky enough to win a lottery and those unlucky souls who become paraplegic from
an accident, by a year or so after the events their daily moods are about the
same as before the momentous occurrences, indicating that the emotional set point
changes little, if at all.
chance, Dr. Davidson had the opportunity to test the left-right ratio on a senior
Tibetan lama, who turned out to have the most extreme value to the left of the
175 people measured to that point.
Davidson reported that remarkable finding during the meeting between the Dalai
Lama and the scientists in India. But the finding, while intriguing, raised more
questions than it answered.
it just a quirk, or a trait common among those who become monks? Or was there
something about the training of lamas - the Tibetan Buddhist equivalent of a priest
or spiritual teacher - that might nudge a set point into the range for perpetual
happiness? And if so, the Dalai Lama wondered, can it be taken out of the religious
context to be shared for the benefit of all?
tentative answer to that last question has come from a study that Dr. Davidson
did in collaboration with Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn, founder of the Mindfulness-Based
Stress Reduction Clinic at the University of Massachusetts Medical School in Worcester.
clinic teaches mindfulness to patients with chronic diseases of all kinds, to
help them better handle their symptoms. In an article accepted for publication
in the peer-reviewed journal Psychosomatic Medicine, Drs. Davidson and Kabat-Zinn
report the effects of training in mindfulness meditation, a method extracted from
its Buddhist origins and now widely taught to patients in hospitals and clinics
throughout the United States and many other countries.
Kabat-Zinn taught mindfulness to workers in a high-pressure biotech business for
roughly three hours a week over two months. A comparison group of volunteers from
the company received the training later, though they, like the participants, were
tested before and after training by Dr. Davidson and his colleagues.
results bode well for beginners, who will never put in the training time routine
for lamas. Before the mindfulness training, the workers were on average tipped
toward the right in the ratio for the emotional set point. At the same time, they
complained of feeling highly stressed. After the training, however, on average
their emotions ratio shifted leftward, toward the positive zone. Simultaneously,
their moods improved; they reported feeling engaged again in their work, more
energized and less anxious.
short, the results suggest that the emotion set point can shift, given the proper
training. In mindfulness, people learn to monitor their moods and thoughts and
drop those that might spin them toward distress. Dr. Davidson hypothesizes that
it may strengthen an array of neurons in the left prefrontal cortex that inhibits
the messages from the amygdala that drive disturbing emotions.
benefit for the workers, Dr. Davidson reported, was that mindfulness seemed to
improve the robustness of their immune systems, as gauged by the amount of flu
antibodies in their blood after receiving a flu shot.
to Dr. Davidson, other studies suggest that if people in two experimental groups
are exposed to the flu virus, those who have learned the mindfulness technique
will experience less severe symptoms. The greater the leftward shift in the emotional
set point, the larger the increase in the immune measure.
mindfulness training focuses on learning to monitor the continuing sensations
and thoughts more closely, both in sitting meditation and in activities like yoga
with the Dalai Lama's blessing, a trickle of highly trained lamas have come to
be studied. All of them have spent at least three years in solitary meditative
retreat. That amount of practice puts them in a range found among masters of other
domains, like Olympic divers and concert violinists.
difference such intense mind training may make for human abilities has been suggested
by preliminary findings from other laboratories. Some of the more tantalizing
data come from the work of another scientist, Dr. Paul Ekman, director of the
Human Interaction Laboratory at the University of California at San Francisco,
which studies the facial expression of emotions. Dr. Ekman also participated in
the five days of dialogue with the Dalai Lama.
Ekman has developed a measure of how well a person can read another's moods as
telegraphed in rapid, slight changes in facial muscles.
Dr. Ekman describes in "Emotions Revealed," to be published by Times
Books in April, these microexpressions - ultrarapid facial actions, some lasting
as little as one-twentieth of a second - lay bare our most naked feelings. We
are not aware we are making them; they cross our faces spontaneously and involuntarily,
and so reveal for those who can read them our emotion of the moment, utterly uncensored.
luckily, there is a catch: almost no one can read these moments. Though Dr. Ekman's
book explains how people can learn to detect these expressions in just hours with
proper training, his testing shows that most people - including judges, the police
and psychotherapists - are ordinarily no better at reading microexpressions than
someone making random guesses.
when Dr. Ekman brought into the laboratory two Tibetan practitioners, one scored
perfectly on reading three of six emotions tested for, and the other scored perfectly
on four. And an American teacher of Buddhist meditation got a perfect score on
all six, considered quite rare. Normally, a random guess will produce one correct
answer in six.
findings, along with urgings from the Dalai Lama, inspired Dr. Ekman to design
a program called "Cultivating Emotional Balance," which combines methods
extracted from Buddhism, like mindfulness, with synergistic training from modern
psychology, like reading microexpressions, and seeks to help people better manage
their emotions and relationships.
pilot of the project began last month with elementary school teachers in the San
Francisco Bay area, under the direction of Dr. Margaret Kemeny, a professor of
behavioral medicine at the University of California at San Francisco. She hopes
to replicate Dr. Davidson's immune system findings on mindfulness, as well as
adding other measures of emotional and social skill, in a controlled trial with
120 nurses and teachers.
the scientific momentum of these initial forays has intrigued other investigators.
Under the auspices of the Mind and Life Institute, which organizes the series
of continuing meetings between the Dalai Lama and scientists, there will be a
round at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology on Sept. 13 and 14. This time
the Dalai Lama will meet with an expanded group of researchers to discuss further
open to the public, half the seats will be reserved for graduate students and
academic researchers. (More information is at www.InvestigatingTheMind.org.)
for me, I am taking all this to heart. An on-again, off-again meditator since
my college days, I have become decidedly on again. Next month, my wife and I are
heading to a warm spot for two or three weeks of meditation retreat. I may never
catch up with that sublime lama, but I will enjoy trying.