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The Emotional Life of Your Brain

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I first heard of Dr. Richard Davidson's work in the field of neuroscience a couple of months ago in an unlikely setting: the annual conference of the National Art Education Association in New York. Regular readers might remember my mention of the Compassion Project in Appleton, Wis., which challenged teachers and students at all levels to give some thought to the nature of compassion, to some discussion, and then to join in a collaborative art project. The results, an amazing 10,000 tiny paintings, all about 4 inches square, were installed in an exhibition at the Trout Museum. As a result of Dr. Davidson's idea, an entire community became involved in a project intended to increase the understanding and practice of compassion among human beings. Brilliant, I thought.

Now this same Richard Davidson's book falls into my hands. Co-written with science writer and editor Sharon Begley, it's called The Emotional Life of Your Brain, and the first two-thirds of it are science. To be honest, my eyes tend to glaze as I attempt to grasp the meaning of it all; my own brain was not trained to follow the meticulous detail of scientific method. Still, I was more than willing to make the effort, because I have come to believe so passionately in the argument that Davidson presents: that we can literally "change our minds." In the course of life, from childhood on, we acquire certain attitudes, certain ways of thinking about ourselves and the world, certain mental and emotional patterns that can -- but need not -- entrap us and impoverish our lives. Davidson skillfully and persuasively applies the principles and super-advanced technological tools of scientific research to demonstrate these truths.

It is the last third of the book that is the easiest for me -- from the moment he brings in the monks (with the enthusiastic help of none other than the Dalai Lama) to test them for the effects on the brain of long-term meditation. I have argued often in the pages of The Buddha Diaries that meditation offers us the power to discipline the mind to do those things we want it to do, rather than follow its natural tendency to wander off and play, or engage in fruitless and distracting tasks that do nothing but support our old, often destructive habits. It is fascinating and immensely satisfying to see these ideas put to the scientific test and proven to be sound. Davidson's research demonstrates that meditation can affect not only the minds of long-term meditators like those Tibetan monks who spend long, solitary years in remote mountain caves; even short-term practice, he shows, can produce dramatic results in the rawest of novices.

The last chapter of the book offers practical, how-to steps that can lead to greater strength of mind -- and, indeed, to a more purposeful and satisfying life. With a consistent practice of the visualization and meditation techniques that he describes in detail, we can change the way our brains function and create "new channels in the stream bed of the mind." We can even change our personalities in significant, life-altering ways. For skeptics, as I myself remained for many years, Davidson's book presents a convincing scientific argument for the kind of Mind Work that I approach in a very different way (ahem, forgive me: I am not a "book critic"!) in my own recent book of that title.

Richard J. Davidson with Sharon Begley, The Emotional Life of your Brain, March 2012, $25.95, ISBN 978-1-9463-089-7.