In Conversation: Dr Richard Davidson & Gesine Borcherdt
Gesine Borcherdt, art critic and curator speaks with Dr Richard Davidson, neuroscientist and meditation expert about art, mindfulness meditation and neuroscience
LAS is a young non-profit foundation rooted in Berlin with a global vision and big dreams. With a mission to bridge art, emerging technologies and science to break down these categories, and embrace the intricate intersections across fields and the richness that comes from knowledge cross-pollination. A nomadic institution with no permanent space, LAS takes to the freedom of opening up the white cube by staging exhibitions in various locations, unfolding artistic experiences within the city’s urban fabric.
This conversation is framed within the context of Robert Irwin’s exhibition at Kraftwerk Berlin, in which the American artist has conceived a large-scale site-specific installation that invites the audience to look very closely. Seeing and perception are at the core of Irwin's practice, alongside the engagement of the audience who perceive themselves perceiving. Irwin’s work is about understanding the processes of perception, and the connection of seeing and perceiving to the whole body, where seeing is not just visual but rather happens with all senses, and perceiving his work aids in appreciating everything around us. Irwin’s holistic understanding of what art is and what it can do culminates in a practice that is about direct experience and entering into a relationship with the work of art and its environments, beyond institutional space, and in dialogue with both the architectural surroundings and the people.
Following the motive of dialogue, LAS invited Gesine Borcherdt to speak to Dr. Richard Davidson about art, mindfulness meditation and neuroplasticity.
‘In our culture, we tend to privilege words as the central mode of expression. [...] I see art in general as a vehicle to help us go beyond this narrow modality of expression that is privileged in our culture, which is a language based on a conceptual mode of expression. In meditation, we learn the skills to go beyond a conceptual appreciation or understanding of the world.‘
– Richard Davidson
Gesine Borcherdt: Art and meditation seem to have some things in common. Obviously, they are both all about perception. Meditation sharpens our mental and physical senses, and art at its best does too. Both can make us pause and see, feel and think more clearly, getting more aware of our bodies and the space around us and even of the world we live in. They both open our perspectives and both have spiritual backgrounds. Actually, mindfulness meditation derives from Buddhism and art was originally developed in a religious context. Just think of coloured glass windows in medieval churches, of religious paintings or of the Japanese tea ceremony, which might be the most obvious expression of combining both disciplines. In the 60s, when Minimal art came up – interestingly at the same time that Buddhist meditation started being perceived in the West – the parameters of space, body and perception became important. Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s book Phenomenology of Perception (1945) was a big influence back then. Now Robert Irwin’s work deals with this parallel between art and meditation. Irwin, in fact, was very interested in meditation, practising and experimenting with it. Dr Davidson, how would you see this overlap between art and meditation? You were the first one to combine meditation and neuroscience, which back in the 90s was a very new approach. Do you think you can bring art in as well?
Richard Davidson: Over the course of my career, I have collaborated with many artists in different ways. Visual artists, musicians, dancers, a variety of different kinds of artists. There are certainly really important areas of convergence that I think are extremely important and interesting. I also think there are some important areas of difference. This is very much ripe for exploration. One of the things that I so appreciate about the arts in general is that they provide a mode of expression that is something other than words. In our culture, we tend to privilege words as the central mode of expression. Words necessitate that we form concepts, and concepts are clearly advantageous for our ability to navigate in the world. But they also imprison us because our reality is literally defined by these concepts. I see art in general as a vehicle to help us go beyond this narrow modality of expression that is privileged in our culture, which is a language based on a conceptual mode of expression. In meditation, we learn the skills to go beyond a conceptual appreciation or understanding of the world. One of the things that meditation invites us to do is to be able to actually investigate, to experientially glimpse the concepts that we hold – concepts that define a reality, and in that way, eliminate our reality. I think that the arts provide this alternative mode of expression, which is complementary to what we experience in meditation. It can be really valuable, to use a colloquial expression, in ‘getting us out of our heads’ – because our concepts and our language so heavily define our experience of the world.
Gesine Borcherdt: It seems like we can benefit from meditation, and also from art by leaving concepts behind. How does this benefit look in the context of neuroplasticity? How does ‘getting us out of our heads’ affect our brain?
Richard Davidson: One of the things that is important to recognise about neuroplasticity is that it happens willingly or unwillingly. It's going on all the time. Our brains are constantly being shaped by the forces around us, and most of the time we are only dimly aware of the forces that are shaping our brain. We typically have very little control over those forces. One of the invitations in meditation is that we can actually take more responsibility for our own neuroplasticity. We can shape our brains more intentionally rather than leaving the shaping of our brains to forces over which we have control. We can intentionally shape our brain – scientific research shows that when we cultivate healthy habits of mind, when we cultivate virtuous qualities in our mind, our brains change. Those changes in the brain, we believe, based on a growing corpus of scientific evidence, support the more enduring changes that can result from these practices. This is something very important. The most recent book that I wrote with Dan Goldman is called Altered Traits (2017). Altered traits are our choice because the ultimate goal of meditation is not some pleasant experience while we are sitting on the cushion, but rather it is the transformation of our life, its enduring transformation. We call a trait something that endures over time. This is really harnessing the power and potential of neuroplasticity.
Gesine Borcherdt: Transformation is an important term for artists, because all they do is transform – not just materials, they can transform our way of thinking, which is similar to what meditation can do, as you just described. With your important experiments that you have done with Tibetan monks, you have proven for the first time how meditation can really change the brain as an organ, as organic material, from a sculptor’s point of view – and that the brain can change during our entire life. Could you speak about these groundbreaking experiments?
Richard Davidson: Yes, certainly. Early on in this research we had some conversations with His Holiness the Dalai Lama. The Dalai Lama encouraged us to investigate the practices that were common in his tradition, through which people train their mind through systematic meditation. We reasoned that this would be a very good place to start – because if we studied these very long-term practitioners who have spent decades training their mind, we would expect to see something different in their brains. And if we didn't see that in these very long-term practitioners, the likelihood of seeing changes in more novice practitioners would be very low.
So, we began the study in 2001. Over the next few years, we brought a group of very long-term practitioners into the laboratory to study what might be different about their brains. Remarkably, we saw some profound differences. The very first scientific paper that we published on these long-term practitioners came out in 2004. This article has been cited hundreds of times and was really instrumental in launching this whole area of research. We saw that these practitioners exhibited a kind of oscillation in their brain electrical recordings, which is seen in anyone, but in most of us, the gamma oscillations are typically very short: less than one second. And they typically only occur occasionally. But in these practitioners, they were present for the entire duration that they were meditating. They were also present in their baseline state and they were even present when they were sleeping! This was a really important discovery. It convinced us and the scientific community that there was really something there. There was a there there, if you will. This suggested that all of this training really did dramatically affect their brain, which was therefore worthy of serious scientific exploration.
‘Meditation was developed to produce awakening, to enable us to flourish to the fullest extent possible for a human to flourish.‘
– Richard Davidson
Gesine Borcherdt: From the knowledge that you gained there: do you think that meditation and mindfulness practices make our brains more open, more curious, more creative?
Richard Davidson: Well, one of the important insights in our work concerns what meditation is really evolved to do. Meditation did not evolve for us to become more curious. It really evolved for us to awaken, to realise the full extent of what it means to be a human being. That is the historical context. That is why meditation was developed. It was not developed to help us focus our attention better. It was not developed to cure illnesses. It was not developed to decrease our anxiety. It was developed to produce awakening, to enable us to flourish to the fullest extent possible for a human to flourish.
What does that mean? We have been led to develop a framework that is jointly informed by contemplative traditions and by scientific research to define what the elements of flourishing are. We have specified four important elements, and they are the following: the first pillar is awareness. Awareness includes what you describe as openness, the ability to really panoramically, fully appreciate all that exists in one's environment, both externally and internally, in the body and the mind. The second pillar we call connection. Connection is about the qualities that are important for healthy social relationships: qualities like kindness, appreciation, compassion – those qualities that enable the maximal potential that we can exhibit in social interaction. The third pillar is well-being, or flourishing. It is what we call insight and insight is about self-knowledge. Here we think of it as a curiosity-driven self-knowledge to really understand the nature of this thing that we call the self.
What is the self and how does it shape our experience of reality? When we come to a deep, experiential understanding of that, we can loosen the grip that it has on us, because this narrative that everyone carries about themself is a set of cognitive blinders. It limits our experience of the world. When we can deeply understand that, it is liberating!
So, the invitation here is not so much to change the narrative, but to change our relationship to the narrative to see the narrative for what it is, which is really a constellation of thoughts.
Finally, the last pillar of flourishing is purpose. Purpose here is about identifying where our life is headed – connecting our values to our sense of purpose and connecting more of our everyday behaviour so that more and more of what we do on a routine basis every day is deeply connected to our sense of purpose. Can you envision a time when washing the dishes in your home is deeply connected to your sense of purpose, taking out the garbage deeply connected to your sense of purpose? There is no separation. There is no such thing as doing something more purposeful because everything that you do is imbued with the same sense of purpose. Those are the elements, the core elements of human flourishing. Meditation in its authentic form is really designed to activate all of those pillars. Through that, we can realise our potential as human beings.
Gesine Borcherdt: Which basically means that meditation is not only a contemplative practice that we do on a cushion, but also an active practice that we do in real life.
Richard Davidson: Yes, the doing it on the cushion is a practice for doing it in the real world. The reason we put our butts on the cushion is that it helps these qualities – awareness, connection, well-being and purpose – spontaneously to arise in our everyday life. Most people would say that this is important to them, but in the thick of things, so to speak, they forget. We all know things that are good for ourselves, but we don't do them because we forget to do them well. The reason we put our butts on the cushion is that we actually can remember more easily.
Gesine Borcherdt: Sitting down on a cushion is a reminder, a ritual that we need in order to remember to pause. Today in our Western world we do not have many rituals, maybe because there is a spiritual quality to them. Art used to be very connected with rituals, and somehow it still is. You need a regular practice, and in creating art, even rhythm often matters, which brings artists into a meditative state. Can art also be a reminder to pause?
Richard Davidson: You have really good intuition about the possible uses of art as a reminder. In fact, in the classical definition of mindfulness, there is a critical element of remembering: remembering to bring a certain view or perspective to every interaction, every nook and cranny in our everyday life, to the extent that art can help us to remind ourselves of this. It could be enormously valuable.
Gesine Borcherdt: Meditation can obviously make us better people, nicer characters. Art, in a way and with its humanistic approach, wants that too. Just like meditation, it can trigger certain characteristics such as tolerance and connection.
Richard Davidson: Well, meditation is embedded within an ethical context, even in a secular framework. I think that is really important. The ethical context is around non-harm and kindness. I don't think it is possible to effectively teach meditation outside that context, this would undermine some of the core intention of the practice. Is art always framed in an ethical context? I don't know. And if you look at the personal characteristics of artists, at their life, do they exemplify the qualities of kindness and compassion that we might identify in a great spiritual teacher? I don't know. I think that these are important questions to ask. I have lots of artist friends and I enjoy asking them these questions. It is really when you probe in this way, I think you can recognise that the arts and meditation are not the same thing. They could be complementary and help to reinforce each other. I think they are both important and valuable and one is not a substitute for the other.
‘I firmly believe that the arts represent a different mode of expression of communication, there are certain insights from the meditative practices that may be more directly communicated through an artistic medium than they can be through words. This could be a very effective way to reach people.‘
– Richard Davidson
Gesine Borcherdt: In fact, there is a lot of theory about aesthetics and ethics, and they are really quite opposed to one another. It is interesting that they meet half-way, speaking to our bodies and minds in similar ways – even if art can be very disruptive and overloaded with information, and meditation is overtly peaceful and can be entirely free from any information. Still, they both make us more aware of ourselves and the world around us. You mentioned that you were working with artists. How did you do that?
Richard Davidson: I have been approached by lots of artists. We have had them in our centre (Center for Healthy Minds at the University of Wisconsin – Madison), which is really a science-based centre. We have occasionally had artists in residence just come hang out with us, which has been great. I firmly believe that, as we spoke earlier, because the arts represent a different mode of expression of communication, there are certain insights from the meditative practices that may be more directly communicated through an artistic medium than they can be through words. This could be a very effective way to reach people.
A jazz musician friend of mine and I have collaborated on a number of live events where I have talked about awareness, this first pillar of well-being, and how it is exemplified in jazz. Miles Davis, the famous jazz musician, once said that it is all about how you recover from your mistakes. That is a very deep insight! That has parallels in meditation because one of the consequences of meditation practice is the cultivation of resilience – resilience is about recovering from your mistakes and from adversity in general. This is also really interesting in collaboration with dancers. We have done some multimedia presentations together with images of the brain, helping to illustrate the embodied quality of some of these states, showing that they are not simply subjective mental states, but they are cinematically embodied. The body is really important in meditation practice and it is important in the arts. Recognising the embodied nature and being able to express it through a medium like dance could be particularly powerful in helping to appreciate this true mind-body interaction.
Gesine Borcherdt: This is the point that interests Robert Irwin: the mind-body perception. As we spoke before, art started looking at this in the 60s, at the same time as meditation became more popular in the West. Artists like Irwin were working with space, light and geometric shapes – they wanted to take the narrative out of the artwork and bring the body in. And the pause was also really important. John Cage talked about silence as a part of music, Carl Andre spoke about the void as part of a sculpture. The physical experience of the body in space became key and really changed the arts.
Richard Davidson: John Cage's work has a beautiful parallel in meditation. We often invite people to notice the pause, if you will, or the space between two thoughts. Notice that gap! When you begin to inspect your own mind, you will see lots of thoughts. And when you are fully awake, there will be moments between thoughts, that are moments of no thought. That is a glimpse of what a non-conceptual apprehension of reality might be.
Gesine Borcherdt: And that pause means freedom. Freedom from thoughts, freedom to choose how to continue.
Richard Davidson: Absolutely. Freedom. Yes.
Gesine Borcherdt: Dr. Davidson, thank you very much for this conversation.
Gesine Borcherdt invited Dr. Richard Davidson to this conversation, recorded on 21 December 2021. The series of conversations, initiated by Ruth Kißling, curator of the exhibition of Robert Irwin at Kraftwerk Berlin, refer back to the experiments that Robert Irwin, James Turrell and experimental psychologist Dr Edward Wortz undertook in an anechoic chamber at the Garrett Corporation, Los Angeles in 1969, in the framework of the Art & Technology Program by LACMA. The aim of these experiments, which included many references to awareness practices, was to get a practical understanding of perceptual mechanisms and to understand how much the perception of art is formed building on the experience of the viewer.
Dr Richard Davidson is one of the most acclaimed neuroscientists of our time. He is best known for his groundbreaking work studying emotion, meditation and the brain. He is a friend and confidante of the Dalai Lama, and he is the founder and director of the Center for Healthy Minds at the University of Wisconsin – Madison.
Gesine Borcherdt is an art critic and curator. One of her current areas of focus is art and perception with a special interest in the cross-pollination of art and meditation and its effect on our brain.