AIC Speaker Spotlight: Richard Davidson, PhD, on “The Plasticity of Well-Being: A Framework for Cultivation of Human Flourishing”

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Are the human emotions of happiness and compassion flexible and modifiable within the brain? Can we transform the way our bodies balance emotion and thus improve our levels of resilience? Richard J. Davidson, PhD, director of the Center for Healthy Minds at the University of Wisconsin and a pioneer in the scientific study of meditation, will discuss these topics and others in a thought-provoking plenary presentation at the 2021 Annual International Conference (AIC) entitled, “The Plasticity of Well-Being: A Framework for Cultivation of Human Flourishing.

Dr. Davidson’s research is broadly focused on the neural bases of emotion and emotional style, as well as methods to promote human flourishing including meditation and related contemplative practices. During the presentation, Dr. Davidson will provide an overview of neuroscientifically validated constituents of well-being and will illustrate how each of these is rooted in specific brain circuits that exhibit plasticity and thus can be modified through training.

While the scientific understanding of meditation is still in its early stages, research suggests that mindfulness practice is a powerful modulator of structural and functional brain plasticity.1-3 Two common types of meditation include focused attention (FA), including Himalayan yoga, mantra, and metta, and open-monitoring (OM) meditation, including zen, Isha yoga, shoonya yoga, and vipassana. Both types have been shown to enhance attention control, emotion regulation, and self-awareness, as well as improve cognitive control of conflict.2 There is some evidence that FA, OM, and transcendental meditation (TM) may result in both long-term and short-term changes in the brain, including increases in the cortical thickness of regions like the prefrontal cortex and insula. All forms of meditation result in significant changes in cortical and subcortical activity; however, different forms elicit activation in different regions of the brain.2,4

Richard Davidson
Richard J. Davidson, PhD

Dr. Davidson believes that mindfulness is just one component of stress reduction and well-being; in order to promote resilience, we need four components:

  • Awareness: Where mindfulness should be
  • Connection: Including qualities that are associated with healthy social relationships like kindness and appreciation, empathy, and compassion
  • Insight: Self-knowledge
  • Purpose: Aligning our everyday behavior with a sense of purpose5

“Insight is about self-knowledge. It’s insight into the narrative that we all carry around about ourselves,” Dr. Davidson said in a January 2021 interview with the National Institutes of Health.5 “At the extreme end, there are some people that have a very negative self-narrative. They have negative self-beliefs, and they actually hold those beliefs to be a true description of who they are. And of course, that’s a prescription for depression. Part of well-being, and essential to cultivating resilience, is, not so much changing the narrative, but changing our relationship to the narrative—understanding the narrative for what it is, which is really a bunch of thoughts.”5

Dr. Davidson’s studies have included individuals of all ages, expert meditation practitioners, and individuals with disorders of emotion, such as mood and anxiety disorders and autism. His research uses a wide range of methods, including different varieties of MRI, positron emission tomography, electroencephalography, and modern genetic and epigenetic methods.

Don’t miss Dr. Davidson’s plenary presentation, “Advancements in Clinical Research and Innovative Practices in Functional Medicine,” part of IFM’s 2021 AIC, June 3-5. Mental, emotional, and spiritual balance are at the center of the Functional Medicine Matrix, in recognition of their influence on all the other biological systems. Mindfulness practices have the potential to greatly influence this balance, which is why they have been used for thousands of years in various cultures to promote healing and wellness on all of these levels. Learn more about AIC and Dr. Davidson’s presentation by following this link:


  1. Tang YY, Posner MI. Tools of the trade: theory and method in mindfulness neuroscience. Soc Cogn Affect Neurosci. 2013;8(1):118-120. doi:1093/scan/nss112
  2. Lee DJ, Kulubya E, Goldin P, Goodarzi A, Girgis F. Review of the neural oscillations underlying meditation. Front Neurosci. 2018;12:178. doi:3389/fnins.2018.00178
  3. Tang YY, Hölzel BK, Posner MI. The neuroscience of mindfulness meditation. Nat Rev Neurosci. 2015;16(4):213-225. doi:1038/nrn3916
  4. Klimes-Dougan B, Chong LS, Samikoglu A, et al. Transcendental meditation and hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis functioning: a pilot, randomized controlled trial with young adults. Stress. Published online August 16, 2019. doi:1080/10253890.2019.1656714
  5. NIH News in Health. Dr. Richard Davidson on Reducing Stress. Published January 2021. Accessed April 15, 2021.

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