Simple meditation techniques, backed up with modern scientific knowledge of the brain, are helping kids hard-wire themselves to be able to better pay attention and become kinder, says neuroscientist Richard Davidson.
Davidson — who will speak Friday at the University of British Columbia on his new co-authored book, The Emotional Life of Your Brain — has put his research into practice at elementary schools in Madison, Wis.
About 200 students at four elementary schools have used breathing techniques to hard-wire their brains to improve their ability to focus on their work.
“It’s so widely popular and successful, the district wants us to scale it up the entire (Madison) school system,” Davidson said Wednesday in an interview.
Davidson, who was inspired by a meeting with the Dalai Lama in 1992 to research areas like kindness and compassion, heads up several laboratories at the University of Wisconsin including the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds.
In 2006, Davidson was named one of TIME magazine’s 100 most influential people.
Davidson said research has shown why the brain’s circuitry is important in governing a person’s resilience to stress.
Research has also shown the brain is elastic, that it can be shaped by experience and behaviour.
Research, including brain imaging studies, also shows it is possible to cultivate the mind to change brain function and structure in ways that will promote higher levels of well-being and increased resilience, said Davidson. His research is outlined in dozens of articles in scientific journals.
The techniques used with elementary schoolchildren are quite simple. To improve a child’s ability to pay attention — and also improve their studying abilities — a stone is put on a child’s belly, and they learn to focus on their breathing as the stone goes up and down.
The technique can be taught to children as young as four, said Davidson.
“A simple anchor like one’s breath is a centuries-old meditation technique, but it turns out to have some very beneficial qualities in terms of changes in both the brain and behaviour,” he said.
To foster kindness in teenagers, students are asked to visualize a loved one suffering followed by a thought that they be relieved of that suffering.
This is extended to difficult people as well, said Davidson.
This exercise has also been shown to produce meaningful changes in the brain and behaviour, he said.
Elementary schools in Vancouver have also embraced these meditation techniques as part of a program called MindUp that teaches children that it is hard to concentrate when the brain is stressed.
More than 1,000 teachers have trained in the program at the Vancouver school board, and the district has received requests from other school districts, including in Yukon, to teach the program.