"Richie was always kind of eclectic—he wasn't bound by any discipline," says Susan, who became, as her husband likes to say, a "real doctor." His roving interests made him an odd fit, initially, for some universities. "Richie had finished his degree at Harvard, been published in all these journals, but he would go to job interviews and they would say, 'Oh, you're too clinical for our psychology department, or too this for our that,'" Susan says. "People found him interesting, but they didn't want to commit."
What changed the face of his career, according to Davidson, was a meeting in 1992 with Tenzin Gyatso, otherwise known as the 14th Dalai Lama, who urged him to home in on compassion as the object of serious and rigorous study. "If you look at the index of any scientific textbook, you won't find the word compassion," Davidson says. "But it is as worthy a topic of examination as all the negative emotions—fear, anxiety, sadness, anger, disgust—that have long occupied the scientific community."
When I visit Davidson in Madison, where he and Susan have lived since 1985 and raised their children, Amelie, now 26, and Seth, 20, he tells me about his latest research: Reminding me that the Dalai Lama's mandate is to effect change in the world through the power of compassion, Davidson says, "If this is truly possible, then we should be able to discover circuits in the brain that underlie compassion and that are strengthened when it is cultivated."
His new studies on the monks—"the Olympic athletes of meditation," as he calls them—are designed to measure what happens when they engage specifically in compassion practice. So far, he's found that their brains show dramatic changes in two telling areas: increased activity not only in the prefrontal cortex—which floods them with well-being—but also in the areas involved with motor planning. It seems the monks are not just "feeling" good; their brains have primed their bodies to spring up and "do" good. "They are poised to jump into action and do whatever they can to help relieve suffering," Davidson says. (As for his own practice, Judaism is Davidson's "birth religion," but he characterizes his spiritual path as being most similar to a Buddhist one, though he hesitates to describe himself as a card-carrying devotee. Certainly all who know him say that Davidson is a glass-half-full sort of guy—his mother even called him her Joy Boy, while Susan says, "Richie is consistently upbeat." And yes, he has mapped parts of his own brain, and admits it "showed moderately strong left prefrontal activation.")
Whether generosity of spirit rubs off on others is another question Davidson has begun to probe. "We've launched a study with a highly trained, long-term Buddhist practitioner, looking at the impact of his compassionate attitude on ordinary individuals. We bring them into the MRI scanner, we expose them to pictures of suffering—gory accidents and things like that. We do this under two conditions: one where they are in the presence of an experimenter, and one where they are in the presence of the monk." Davidson is curious to see whether the results will bear out anecdotal reports that in the presence of an extremely compassionate person, you feel more relaxed, secure, loved, and safe.
We Hear You!