A Neuroscientist on Love and Learning – Richard Davidson

Takeaways and Reflections: On Being with Krista Tippett podcast interview with Richard Davidson.

Love and kindness is not something we hear together in the context of education. Empathy, which Davison believes is the prerequisite for kindness and compassion, starts with embodying the emotions the other person is experiencing, and is part of self awareness. Davidson stated that 12 or 13 states have mandated social and emotional curriculum in public schools from k-12. There is increasing evidence to suggest socio-emotional education has cognitive effects such as training attention which in term affects learning. Quality of bringing back wandering attention intentionally is the key in learning.  Inattention comprises the ability to learn. Researchers are now starting to pay attention to attention and it can be trained, Everyone is suffering from attentional dysfunction. 

Brain circuits that interact with social and emotional learning interact with brain circuits that interact and learning. Thoughts and feelings are intermingled inside brain with cognition. Emotions play key roles in behavior and cognitive ability and can be interrupter or facilitator. We need to reconnect our bodies with our mind, mind is more than just the brain, it includes our body.

Neuroplasticity is neutral and can be used one way or another. Davison suggests that compassion is hardwired in humans just like language but nurturing needs to occur for the propensity to be expressed. In terms of neuroplasticity as it relates to trauma, Davidson does not know the extent of neuroplasticity at this time, change can occur but current neuroscience does not know the limits. His research found brains to be structurally different for orphans in the Middle East that are adopted by middle class families compared with controls. It is not clear what structural difference/s means.

In the classroom, teachers are important facilitators in changing students brains through interaction, just like it occurs in any sustained interpersonal interactions. Students are watching and not just listening to what is being said, implicit social learning. The same can be applied to parenting.

Kindness curriculum for learning. How kindness curriculum and mental exercises help children overcome anxiety via cultivating and regulating attention and emotion. The students can taste and feel what it means for their body to be quiet, making the connections between mental states to physical experiences.

The concept of mental hygiene just like physical hygiene for a healthy mind and body. Davidson talks about how we have the widest gap between onset of puberty and development of regulatory systems in the brain in the last 100 years in the western world. This means that teenagers are more in need of tools to help them bridge the gap before their regulatory systems become mature.

Resilience is the ability one recovers from adversity. The more quickly one can return to baseline from adversity, the better off one is physically and psychologically and that is the most important predictor of mortality. How can we aid our child? Begin by helping your child to pay attention to his/her body, use techniques to calm the body which then also impacts the brain and our mind. I recall that my son would hyper ventilate when he gets agitated. When he was in such a state, I could tell that he was unable to calm down even if he wanted to. After teaching him HOW to calm down by focusing on slowing his breathe, the physical act of changing his body helped his mind to be able to get back into a baseline state. Having the WILL to do something also requires knowing HOW to do it.

What are some educational practices Davidson provided in the podcast to encourage attention and self control? Davidson mentioned research studies that involve paying attention to body and breathe as the object of focus. Training to pay attention to something not interesting can also help to strengthen our attention. Such strategies can be used to pay attention to what is going on in their body in order to strengthen emotion and attention. Such activities need to be done repeatedly over time.  Best form of practice is whatever works for individuals. Keep in mind that individuals vary in what they find interesting.

Love as a public value.  Davidson believes love is the next frontier for science, that love can break boundaries, minimize or eliminate in-group and out-group boundaries. There is biased and unbiased love and the need to cultivate unbiased love. Love is embodied as physical connection with cognitive thinking in order for it to be genuine.  There are research on implicit bias showing body-brain disconnection. Tolerance is just cognitive, and does not sync with our bodily signals. He advocated for the need to study of love scientifically.

What is the mind? Davidson state that that science really does not know at this time. He has learnt to have an open mind at this point. The mind can’t just be the brain. Davidson discussed his research on studying dying people in India whereby they have “died” according to western criteria for death, yet something still seem to be going on after “death”.  There is a state that occurs among some people called “clear light state”, whereby after brain is dead, and body is not decomposing and there a residual awareness of maintenance in the body. Studies have shown that there are gene expression changing up to 48 hrs after death. This points to the call for humility that we don’t know what the mind is. Science needs to be honest about what we don’t know.

Wow, there was a-lot of topics and themes in this podcast interview. What I learnt from this interview is that our mind and body are interconnected. We need to connect our mind and body as an important tool for self awareness and to affect internal change. In addition, Interaction between environments, including people also changes our brain chemistry and affects our body. The way to connect our mind and body is through “kindness curriculum” which embodies social and emotional training exercises. Most importantly, to effect change, we need to keep repeating the practices and to keep practicing what works individually.

Insights I would like to share with readers:

a)learn to be more self aware via paying attention to mental hygiene

b) importance our environment plays in affecting us via changes in brain chemistry

c) the mind is much more complex and currently we do not know much about it so we should keep on open mind

d) keep practicing whatever works for us as individuals (nod to the value of neurodiversity) to strengthen our mind-body connection which will give us tools to regulate attention and emotions.

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