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Bringing compassion and science together

The first ‘Science & The Flavour of Aarhus’ event at AIAS with world-renowned neuroscientist, Professor Richard J. Davidson opened our senses to the science behind our brain’s plasticity, and how we can practice our mental well-being, like learning to play the violin.

Professor Richard Davidson (University of Wisconsin–Madison) at the Aarhus Institute of Advanced Studies (AIAS), Denmark. Credit: Lise Balsby.
Photo credit: Lise Balsby.
Photo credit: Lise Balsby.
Photo credit: Lise Balsby.

On 25 April at 18:00, Professor neuroscientist Richard J. Davidson opened the scene for the first ‘Science & the Flavour of Aarhus’ talk on the topic of ‘Well-being is a Skill’ to a fully booked AIAS auditorium, moderated by Anna Klawonn, DANDRITE group leader and AIAS-DANDRITE Fellow.

In his talk, Davidson took us into the machine room of a recognized neuroscientist but also on a journey that has led him to label himself an ‘activist scientist’ in his moral commitment to act and help change our current practice of well-being.

Starting his talk with a question driving his research for decades is understanding the mechanisms behind vulnerability and resilience:

“Why is it that some people are more vulnerable to adverse events and some more resilient?”

Brain scanning ‘athletes of attention’

As a scientist practicing meditation, it was Davidson’s meeting with the Dalai Lama in 1992 that changed his research trajectory when he promised to put compassion and kindness on the agenda in science. Brain studies of the ‘athletes of attention’, the long-term meditation practitioners such as monks, showed Davidson and his colleagues that attention, or the brain gamma oscillations, are active in the brain all the time, even when people were not meditating.

These first brain studies of meditation practitioners made Davidson realise the ‘plasticity’ of the brain and that by practicing compassion, attention and our connections to others, we can all master our brain’s attention and hereby improving our well-being. Later studies have since confirmed that we are less happy when not paying attention to what we do: ‘a wandering mind, is an unhappy mind.’

Our well-being is in decline

In his talk, Davidson drew our attention to the current decline in our well-being – in Denmark and the US alike. In the US the surgeon general has recently announced ‘an epidemic of loneliness and social isolation’ which are key risk factors for early morbidity. Davidson pointed to the rise of social media use and its attention economy that place people, especially teenagers, at risk of developing serious psychological disorders. Recent studies show that 6 hours of daily use of social media increases the risk.

This is the bad news for our mental health that Davidson enlisted in his talk, while he also reinforced that we need to act and seize the good news. By even only practicing 5 minutes of compassion and attention training daily, we can increase our well-being by taking control of our minds. This is confirmed in brain scans, showing that we can change the biology in the brain with behavioural interventions such as compassion training.

Rethink mental health – well-being is a skill we can all master

Now Davidson’s mantra and mission is ‘Let’s rethink mental health as a procedural skill to be practiced’ based on a project unfolding over more than 30 years of research at the intersection of neuroscience and contemplation. Taking his insights from science and bringing these out into the world, he has founded a non-profit organization, the ‘Healthy Minds Program’. Concretely this program offers a platform available with knowledge and tools to help people and professionals get started with practicing and teaching the skill of well-being.

The talk closed with questions from the audience. One drew attention to the dilemma of upscaling Davidson’s individual practice and hereby placing responsibility for our well-being on the individual in a biased and unjust system. For Davidson, labeling himself an ‘activist scientist’:

It is not a question of either or. We need both a systemic change and healthy change makers.

More about the ‘Science & the Flavour of Aarhus’ talk with Prof. Richard Davidson

The ‘Science & the Flavour of Aarhus’ talk was organized by Aarhus Institute of Advanced Studies (AIAS) in collaboration with DANDRITE group leader Anna Klawonn from DANDRITE (The Danish Research Institute of Translational Neuroscience) at Aarhus University, and with the generous support from the Lundbeck Foundation and the Brain Prize and the non-profit organization ‘Science and Cocktails’.

The programme of the first ‘Science & the Flavour of Aarhus’ talk with Professor Richard Davidson can be accessed here: https://aias.au.dk/events/science-and-the-flavour-of-aarhus-richard-davidson

About Professor Richard J. Davidson

Professor Richard J. Davidson is founder and director of the Center for Healthy Minds at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, and founder and chief visionary for Healthy Minds Innovations, a non-profit organization which translates science into tools to cultivate and measure well-being.

Davidson’s research is broadly focused on the neural bases of emotion and emotional style and methods to promote human flourishing including meditation and related contemplative practices. He has published over 573 articles, numerous chapters and reviews and edited 14 books. He is the author (with Sharon Begley) of 'The Emotional Life of Your Brain' published in 2012 and co-author with Daniel Goleman of 'Altered Traits' published in 2017.


Andreas Roepstorff, AIAS director
E-mail: andreas.roepstorff@aias.au.dk
Aarhus Institute of Advanced Studies, AIAS
Høegh-Guldbergs Gade 6B
DK-8000 Aarhus C