New approaches in neuroscience show it's not all in your head

February 16, 2018 by Kelly Tyrrell, University of Wisconsin-Madison
Credit: CC0 Public Domain

Our own unique experiences shape how we view the world and respond to the events in our lives. But experience is highly subjective. What's distressing or joyful to one person may be very different to another.

These differences can matter, especially as a growing body of research shows that what happens in our inner landscapes - our thoughts about and interpretations of our - can have physical consequences in our brains and bodies.

This was the subject of a talk given Feb. 16 by 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. "We're finding that emotions and thoughts can alter neural pathways in the in relatively short amounts of time and even affect processes like gene expression and aging."

Davidson says tapping into the role experience plays in could help scientists and clinicians design better interventions to treat disorders such as anxiety and depression.

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 disorders.

The problem, he says, is that experience has long been thought of as synonymous with behavior, when in fact the two are separate and can influence each other.

Davidson and other scientists in the field have used imaging tools like imaging (fMRI) and electroencephalography (EEG) to measure activity and structures in the brain while observing relationships between specific neural networks and behaviors.

"What's exciting about these findings is that when we take experience into account, certain neural mechanisms are implicated that would not otherwise be identified," he says. "The findings underscore the importance of taking both experience and behavior into account when building neural accounts of emotion, well-being and psychopathology.

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 to create a larger picture of how his or her , behavior and interact.

Explore further: Changing brains for the better; article documents benefits of multiple practices

Related Stories

Changing brains for the better; article documents benefits of multiple practices

April 18, 2012
(Medical Xpress) -- Practices like physical exercise, certain forms of psychological counseling and meditation can all change brains for the better, and these changes can be measured with the tools of modern neuroscience, ...

Scientists urge game designers and brain scientists to work together

February 27, 2013
Neuroscientists should help to develop compelling digital games that boost brain function and improve well-being, say two professors specializing in the field in a commentary article published in the science journal Nature.

Investigating emotional spillover in the brain

June 16, 2017
Life is full of emotional highs and lows, ranging from enjoying an activity with a loved one and savoring a delicious meal to feeling hurt by a negative interaction with a co-worker or that recent scuffle with a family member. ...

In new book, leading neuroscientist describes your brain on emotion

March 6, 2012
Building on more than 30 years of cutting-edge brain research, a new book by UW-Madison psychology and psychiatry professor Richard J. Davidson offers an inside look into how emotions are coded in our brains and our power ...

Recommended for you

People can handle the truth (more than you think)

September 19, 2018
Most people value the moral principle of honesty. At the same time, they frequently avoid being honest with people in their everyday lives. Who hasn't told a fib or half-truth to get through an awkward social situation or ...

Mindfulness meditation: 10 minutes a day improves cognitive function

September 19, 2018
Practising mindfulness meditation for 10 minutes a day improves concentration and the ability to keep information active in one's mind, a function known as "working memory". The brain achieves this by becoming more efficient, ...

Study reveals cannabinoid drugs make pain feel 'less unpleasant, more tolerable'

September 19, 2018
Researchers in the College of Arts and Sciences have determined that cannabinoid drugs do not appear to reduce the intensity of experimental pain, but, instead, may make pain feel less unpleasant and more tolerable.

Close intercultural romantic relationships and friendships can boost creativity

September 19, 2018
You've worked abroad. You've lived abroad. But have you had a close friendship or romantic relationship with a person from a culture drastically different from your own?

The 'real you' is a myth – we constantly create false memories to achieve the identity we want

September 19, 2018
We all want other people to "get us" and appreciate us for who we really are. In striving to achieve such relationships, we typically assume that there is a "real me". But how do we actually know who we are? It may seem simple ...

New research helps to instill persistence in children

September 19, 2018
Encouraging children "to help," rather than asking them to "be helpers," can instill persistence as they work to fulfill daily tasks that are difficult to complete, finds a new psychology study.

2 comments

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

BENRAS
not rated yet Feb 17, 2018
Exclusion of subjectivity has driven scientific inquiry, but perhaps this can be reevaluated as having been in error.
kdn
not rated yet Feb 17, 2018
This is great! There is SO MUCH evidence that it is the MIND-STATES that change the brain, and this phenomenon is what holds promise for targeting various mental health issues. Although 'brain plasticity' is often listed as one of the biggest discoveries in neuroscience, it is entirely forgotten about when it comes to mental health issues - instead, the current focus is on the profit-driven pharmaceutical venture of continuously 'discovering' a pill for everything.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.