Psychologist explores techniques of happiness at Tanner lecture

Richard Davidson » Studies the effects of meditation on Buddhist monks
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Can we teach ourselves to harbor optimism, achieve resilience and find contentment?

Richard Davidson, a University of Wisconsin psychologist, addresses these questions tonight at the Tanner Lecture on Human Values at the University of Utah. Titled "Order and Disorder in the Emotional Brain," his lecture delves into "neuroplasticity," the notion that brain functions change in response to experience and training.

"Davidson is a scientist sensitive to issues at the very core of the humanities -- love, compassion and justice. His work offers a unique opportunity to understand how the physical and spiritual merge to create the essence of humanism," said Bob Goldberg, the professor of history who directs the U.'s Tanner Humanities Center which hosts the prestigious lecturer.

Davidson's ideas arise from his research into the meditative practices of Tibetan Buddhist monks, who enjoy high levels of activity in areas of the brain responsible for positive emotions.

"Happiness, well-being and emotional balance he contends, are skills no different than learning to play tennis or a musical instrument," the Tanner center states in a news release. "For Davidson, it is possible that human traits like compassion, love and forgiveness can be activated and enhanced through meditation-induced changes in our brains."

Academic scientists will gather for a panel discussion the following morning at the Irish Humanities Building to respond to Davidson's address and pose questions to him. One panelist is excited by the hopeful implications of Davidson's research.

"It's theoretically driven but he's extending the borders of this theory that we might be able to control emotional reactions in ways that are good for your emotional health," said Jason Watson, an assistant professor of psychology. "It means an individual could have an impact with this meditation training. It's an optimal combination of theoretica science and applied value. This research is moving in such a direction in ways that can have an impact on our everyday lives."

The Utah industrialist and Tanner center namesake O.C. Tanner launched the lectureship in 1978 as a venue for scholars in broadly defined fields of human values that transcend ethnic, national, religious and ideological distinctions. The U., among several prestigious universities to host the lectureship, will next host Chilean-born novelist Isabelle Allende as a Tanner speaker on Dec. 2.

Tanner Lecture on Human Values

"Order and Disorder in the Emotional Brain"

When » Today, 7 p.m.

Where » Utah Museum of Fine Arts, 410 Campus Center Drive, University of Utah. Free and open to the public.

Who » Richard Davidson, a psychologist at the University of Wisconsin


Thursday, 9 a.m.

A panel discussion responding to Davidson's ideas convenes at Irish Humanities Building, room 109. Moderating is Tom Parks, U. vice president of research, and panelists include Daniel Siegel of Mindsight Institute at the University of California, Los Angeles; Jason Watson, U. assistant professor of psychology; and psychiatrist Deborah Yurgelun-Todd of the U.'s Brain Institute.