The Secrets of the Healthy Mind

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A recent review suggests that scientists are still only beginning to probe the brain states associated with kindness and well-being.

The Doctor Will See You Now
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Nearly 20 years ago, the Dalai Lama asked a biologist why the tools of neuroscience couldn't be used to investigate kindness, compassion and well being.

The answer is that neurobiologists rarely choose to investigate these areas. Even though, then as now, they had tools capable of probing the connections.

Most everyday experiences change the brain, often for the better. And it's impossible to learn any new information without changes occurring in the brain.

The Dalai Lama's question made a deep impression on neuroscientist Richard Davidson, Ph.D., Professor of Psychology, University of Wisconsin-Madison, who went on to found the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds in 2008. He's also co-author of a recently published review article detailing the progress investigators worldwide have made in understanding the factors that help and harm the mind's development.

As Davidson points out, health research has undergone a major shift in the last few decades, focusing less on illness and more on wellness--staying healthy. We now know that people who sit less live longer. And four simple healthy behaviors - staying trim, exercising, eating a balanced diet and not smoking - can cut the risk of major disease by nearly 80 percent. These are some very practical benefits that have come from shifting the focus from sickness to wellness.

There's no reason brain researchers can't do the same. Most everyday experiences change the brain, often for the better. And it's impossible to learn any new information without changes occurring in the brain. The trick lies in measuring these changes scientifically.

Throughout the ages, many behaviors have been said to promote well being and lead to a happier life. These range from playing a musical instrument to community service to practicing yoga. But it's only recently that science has begun to test these claims.

Davidson's review, written with Bruce McEwen of Rockefeller University, points out that most of what has been learned comes from changes that harmed the brain, which was more or less the Dalai Lama's point. Brain researchers have observed the bad effects of repeated exposure to stress in early life, harm that's accompanied by an increase in the size of the amygdala and decreases in the size of the brain's prefrontal cortex, the area responsible for coordinating thoughts.

Scientists have learned about beneficial changes in the brain mostly from special situations. For example, patients with chronic fatigue syndrome who have been helped by cognitive behavioral therapy show an enlargement in their prefrontal cortex. And Zen meditators have an increased tolerance to pain, a change that's accompanied by the enlargement of several areas of the brain, particularly the anterior cingulate region of the cortex.

These findings may seem esoteric, but they're the first steps in charting the physical changes that occur in a healthy brain.

It's possible that the human mind is too complex for us to learn its secrets by studying gross anatomical changes. But maybe, many years from now, after checking your blood sugar to make sure that you're not diabetic, your doctor will be able to look at your brain scan and ask: "Hmm. Your basal ganglia have shrunk a bit. Have you been acting more self-centered lately?"

We'll never know, unless more researchers start asking the right questions.

The review article appears in the May issue of Nature Neuroscience.


This article originally appeared on TheDoctorWillSeeYouNow.com, an Atlantic partner site.

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