MADISON, Wis. — They say money can’t buy happiness — but it can finance the research.
When Richard Davidson, then a psychology doctoral student in the 1970s, told his advisers at Harvard that he planned to study the power of meditation, the scholars winced.
“They patted me on the knee,” recalled Dr. Davidson, now a neuroscientist at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, “and said, ‘Richie, this is not a good way to start a scientific career.’ ”
Dr. Davidson would one day find a mentor with a different frame of mind: the Dalai Lama.
The Tibetan spiritual leader recently announced plans to donate $50,000 to the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds at Madison, a new research lab founded by Dr. Davidson, which is studying whether meditation can promote compassion and kindness.
The center has just started a project to teach meditation skills to fifth graders in Madison — focusing on charitable thoughts toward loved ones, strangers, even enemies. After the children enter middle school, researchers assess how their behavior compares with a control group, using a range of measures that will include reports from teachers.
“It’s about changing habits of the heart,” said Dr. Davidson, 58, a Brooklyn native with gray-flecked hair, a warm smile and, as might be expected, a kind manner that puts people at ease.
In the study on children, Dr. Davidson said he had chosen to measure the results in middle school largely because those years were when “a lot of bad stuff starts to happen,” like bullying and drug use.
Dr. Davidson, who has been training adults in “mindfulness” for about a decade, incorporates the study of brain imagery in his work on meditation. He said that research showed that meditation could change brain-wave patterns.
The center’s mission was inspired by a meeting between Dr. Davidson and the Dalai Lama in 1992 in the Himalayas. The Tibetan challenged Dr. Davidson to “use sophisticated tools” to “investigate things like kindness and compassion.”
Dr. Davidson promised the Dalai Lama that he would do everything he could “to put compassion on the scientific map.”
I'm going to go out on a limb here and say this would not be the kind of reform that Obama, Duncan, Bloomberg, Klein, Black, Rhee, Gates, Broad et al. would support in any way.
And yet, I bet that teaching meditation, mindfulness, and emotional awareness would go a long way toward closing the achievement gap and raising levels of literacy in both math and reading.
Teaching children to single task, to focus on one thing for an extended period of time - this would not be something that would appeal to the computer mogul and noted ADHD head Bill Gates.
Teaching children to become emotionally aware of themselves, to really know themselves in the Socratic way of knowing themselves - this would not be something the corporate people like Gates, Broad, Bloomberg would want taught.
After all, emotionally confused children grow up to be emotionally confused adults who seek solace for their emotional hurts with all kinds of consumer goods that enrich corporate people like Gates, Broad, Bloomberg, et al.
But I guarantee you education reform of this sort WILL make a difference in the brains, personalities and lives of children.