The world of psychology wasn't always interested in Richard Davidson's emphasis on the neuroscience of emotions--far from it.
As he and others describe it, the profession was dominated by behaviorism and its emphasis on observable behaviors in rats and people when Davidson was a graduate student at Harvard in the early 1970s. There was little attention paid to people's feelings. Davidson was not only indifferent to that form of psychology, he was attracted to some decidedly unconventional ways of thinking for a budding psychologist. He was, for instance, a student of meditation and was deeply interested in the emotional life.
"We were renegades," said Daniel Goleman, author of the bestselling book "Emotional Intelligence" and a Harvard colleague of Davidson, who is now director of the Laboratory for Affective Neuroscience at the University of Wisconsin. "We were interested in emotions and the self-regulation of meditation, and both were considered pretty fringe back then."
The two spent time together in Sri Lanka studying meditation, and Davidson attended intensive meditation retreats in India. He and Goleman later wrote a paper on meditation, and both remain involved with the subject decades later. "In a way, my book was a manifesto for the kind of research [Davidson] was doing," Goleman said.
It is reflection of how much things have changed that Davidson today not only runs serious research into the effects of meditation, but some of the work is funded by the National Institutes of Health. One of the studies funded by the five-year, $10.9 million NIH grant to his university that was announced last month involves training women suffering from rheumatoid arthritis to meditate and then scanning their brains to see if the training produces biological changes in the brain that make it easier for them to cope with stress.
Davidson has also gotten approval from the Dalai Lama--who the researcher describes as the most emotionally balanced man he has met--to study the brain activity of meditating Tibetan monks. And he has worked with well-known meditation expert Jon Kabat-Zinn researching the effects of meditation on biotechnology executives in Madison.
The results from that experiment are still preliminary. But according to Davidson, they generally confirm the lab's hypothesis that meditation can change brain circuitry and increase the body's immune activity. Davidson is now working on related research to see if certain forms of psychotherapy can similarly change basic brain circuitry.
The originality and rigor of Davidson's research has earned him wide respect in the field. He is one of three people selected to receive the American Psychological Association's most prestigious award next year, the Distinguished Scientific Contribution Award.
In explaining Davidson's selection, an APA prize committee member said the award recognized the consistently well-grounded yet innovative work he has done to make the neuroscience of emotions such a compelling field in psychology.
Davidson's interest in emotions, and especially in the brain circuitry of positive feelings, come as no surprise to some who have known him over the years. "Richie may be the most left-frontally-activiated person I have ever met," said his friend Goleman. "Maybe his work is an attempt to share his good fortune with the rest of us."
CAPTION: Richard Davidson believes researchers have much to learn from studying human emotions and meditation, which haven't received much scientific scrutiny until recently.