New research finds what happens in our inner landscapes - our thoughts about and interpretations of our experiences - can have physical consequences in our brains and bodies. This was the subject of a talk University of Wisconsin-Madison Center for Healthy Minds founder and director Richard Davidson at the 2018 Annual Meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, titled: How the Mind Informs the Brain: Depression and Well-Being.
"How we experience the world affects us in more ways than we previously thought," says Davidson, William James and Vilas Professor of Psychology and Psychiatry at UW-Madison.
This framework stands in contrast to the tendency of neuroscientists to place more value on behavior in lieu of studying experience. In his talk, Davidson made the case for more fully integrating emerging scientific knowledge of the mind-body connection with neuroscience study design. Not only should individual experience be more fully accounted for and measured in neuroscience studies, Davidson argues, efforts to do so are revealing previously unknown neural networks that are implicated in well-being and mental health disorders.
Studies of mindfulness and meditation serve as examples of interventions that focus on experience. These forms of mental training hold the potential to influence how people notice sensations and form emotional responses to the events around them in ways that can affect their biology and actually drive behavior. Previous research related to emotional well-being and depression can act as helpful models, Davidson says, because there is evidence that psychological interventions that include mental training practices to increase positive qualities of mind such as attention, kindness and compassion can leave lasting effects on the brain and physiological aspects of health.
In theory, scientists can take this information and begin looking at other interventions that influence experience to see what kind of impact on the brain and body they may have. Davidson is excited for new study methods enabled by smartphones because they can gather critical data about a person's experience at specific intervals during the day - outside of the lab - in more natural, everyday environments. Called "experience sampling," the idea is to deliberately gather information about a person's mental state and experiences to create a larger picture of how his or her brain, behavior and experiences interact.