Richard Davidson — founder and director of the Center for Healthy Minds and the William James and Vilas Professor of Psychology and Psychiatry — is best known for his groundbreaking work studying emotion and the brain. A friend of the Dalai Lama, Davidson is also a sought-after expert and speaker, leading conversations about well-being on international stages such as the World Economic Forum, where he serves on the Global Council on Mental Health.
Davidson’s research is broadly focused on the neural bases of emotion as well as methods to promote human flourishing, including meditation and related contemplative practices. He’s conducted studies with individuals who have emotional disorders such as autism and mood and anxiety disorders, as well as with expert meditation practitioners who have tens of thousands of hours of experience.
Davidson has been featured widely in the popular media, including the Today Show, ABC’s Nightline, National Public Radio, National Geographic Magazine, Newsweek, O: the Oprah Magazine, and the Harvard Business Review. TIME Magazine named him one of the 100 Most Influential People in the World in 2006.
My assigned reading this semester includes:
Matthieu Ricard’s book Altruism: The Power of Compassion to Change Yourself and the World. It’s a wonderful compendium of scientific and philosophic literature that makes the case for humans’ basic, innate goodness. We’re living in an era when there are challenges to civility and an increase in in-group/out-group conflicts. I think this book can help readers appreciate that we all share the same basic goodness and wish to be happy and free of suffering, and we all have the intrinsic potential within us to want to do good. There are a lot of challenges to this capacity for basic goodness, so reminding ourselves can be enormously helpful.
At the moment, I’m reading:
Enlightened Vagabond: The Life and Teachings of Patrul Rinpoche, which is focused on a highly venerated Tibetan teacher from the 19th century.
Periodicals and publications I enjoy include:
The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Atlantic. I also read the scientific journals Science and Nature weekly.
The one thing that everyone needs to read is:
This is a tough one. I would have to say Freedom and Exile, which is the Dalai Lama’s autobiography. I think he serves as a very important figure on the world stage, and this provides readers with a feel for the trajectory of his life and his deep contributions to humanity.
I keep meaning to get around to reading:
Some of Steven Pinker’s books. He’s a psychology professor at Harvard who writes about how the mind works and wrote The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined — a topic and trend I find very interesting as a researcher. I also want to read Stanford biology professor Robert Sapolsky’s most recent book, Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst.
I’d like to reread:
William James’s Principles of Psychology. It’s always wonderful to go back to that because it was published in 1890, and yet it has so many nuggets that are relevant to research today, including his chapter on attention and educating attention. This book was the first to really explore stream of consciousness and how it relates to our understanding of awareness and mind wandering.
Some favorite pieces I’ve been working on have been:
I recently published a book with my close friend Daniel Goleman called Altered Traits: Science Reveals How Meditation Changes Your Mind, Brain, and Body. This is a comprehensive review of where the science stands, and it explores fact versus fiction. At the moment there are many misconceptions about what meditation can actually do and what it can’t. I’m also working on a major scientific review focused on the application of mindfulness-based interventions for psychiatric disorders, as well as a review, alongside public-health experts, on the four constituents of well-being. I’m excited to begin writing a new book for the general public this year on why well-being is a skill that can be learned.