Cultivate well-being and relieve suffering through a scientific understanding of the mind
A kinder, wiser, more compassionate world
What if our world were a kinder, wiser, more compassionate place? A place where we exercise our minds just like we exercise our bodies? A place where transforming your mind not only improves your own well-being, but cascades to the well-being of others in your community and around the globe?
We’re making this vision a reality at the Center for Healthy Minds at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. Faced with mental and physical health challenges at a global scale, we conduct rigorous scientific research to bring new insights and tools aimed at improving the well-being of people of all backgrounds and ages.
Our research, rooted in neuroscience, comes down to one basic question: What constitutes a healthy mind?
To begin to answer this, we’ve investigated the science of emotions, contemplative practices and qualities of mind we suspect affect well-being, including attention, resilience, equanimity, savoring positive emotions, kindness, compassion, gratitude and empathy. The Center, part of one of the world’s top research institutions, benefits from cross-disciplinary collaborations in the arts and humanities, the physical and natural sciences, and the social sciences. We take pride in being a global hub for innovations in affective and contemplative neuroscience in addition to well-being across the lifespan.
Conduct our work with rigor
We are dedicated to meeting our mission through high quality work, whether it’s research or other initiatives. We uphold these standards through continuous learning, respectfully challenging each other to improve, engaging in interdisciplinary collaborations, and intellectual humility.
Make an impact on the world
Impact is the grounding principle for all the research and work we do together. We pay attention to what our work means in the world, prioritize research and projects that have the greatest potential to promote well-being and relieve suffering, and strive to increase the reach of beneficial results of our work.
Cultivate a prosocial workplace
How we do our work together matters. We are committed to creating a workplace and community of collaborators that embodies our mission and vision. We practice this commitment by interacting with respect, kindness, compassion and gratitude toward each other and the resources we share.
Richard Davidson joins the faculty at the University of Wisconsin–Madison and establishes the university’s first lab focused on emotion and the brain, called the Laboratory for Affective Neuroscience. Early research in the lab focuses on mood and emotion in children and adults, concentrating on how variations in mood and emotion relate to well-being and mental health disorders. The lab expanded to the Waisman Center, also at UW-Madison, in 2001 to include a major brain imaging facility.
In Dharamsala, India, Richard Davidson meets the Dalai Lama.
"His Holiness challenged me and asked why we were not using the tools of modern neuroscience to study qualities such as kindness and compassion rather than negative qualities of mind such as depression and anxiety. I had no good answer, and on that day, I made a commitment to His Holiness and to myself that I would do everything within my power to help place these positive qualities on the scientific map.”
Along with colleague Steve Sutton, Richard Davidson publishes a review paper in the journal Current Opinion in Neurobiology calling on the scientific community to support and increase collaborations in the growing field of affective neuroscience, an area that examines how the neural structure and activity in the brain influences a person’s emotion and mood.
Richard Davidson’s lab and collaborators are the first to use fMRI technology to show activation of the amygdala – the part of the brain linked to fear and anger – in response to emotional pictures and cues in the lab. Davidson receives the prestigious MERIT Award from the National Institute of Mental Health, providing critical funding to continue work in the neuroscience of emotion, that same year.
With colleagues, scientists in the lab including Chris Larson begin studying “startle responses” by measuring a person’s reaction to a sudden stimulus. Researchers assess responses to such stimuli in order to probe other ongoing emotional processes. Research has demonstrated that during negative emotions, startle magnitude is larger. Since startle responses are very short-lived, we can introduce startle “probes” at different latencies in an ongoing stream of information processing and in this way, characterize the time course of emotion very precisely.
In a review paper published in Science, Richard Davidson and colleagues suggest that emotion regulation may be a prelude to impulsive aggression and violence. With this groundbreaking idea in mind, they urge others in the field to consider new avenues for interventions for more at-risk populations.
The lab welcomes Tibetan Buddhist monk and long-term meditator Matthieu Ricard and leads the first experiment in the world to use fMRI imaging and EEG techniques to look at meditation’s impact on the brain in long-term meditation practitioners.
With collaborator Jon Kabat-Zinn, Center scientists publish the first randomized controlled trial suggesting that an 8-week Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program can produce measurable effects on the brain and immune function when participants were challenged with the flu vaccine.
In the same year, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences elects Center Founder Richard Davidson to serve as a Fellow along with other accomplished practitioners and scholars worldwide.
In a groundbreaking paper published in the journal Science, Richard Davidson is part of a team to discover that placebos may alter the experience of pain in a person’s brain.
Center scientists Antoine Lutz and Richard Davidson are the first to discover that meditation can increase gamma oscillations in the brain, which are key markers of neuroplasticity. The study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, represents the first time the journal features an article on meditation, ushering in a new era and the beginning of the field of contemplative neuroscience.
Center Scientist Melissa Rosenkranz and team discover a relationship between activity in the brain and asthma, suggesting that inflammatory responses in the lungs may be shaped by psychological and emotional factors. The Center continues to investigate how this works and whether certain contemplative practices can serve as interventions.
Center experts and collaborators discover that individuals with autism experience less activation in the fusiform gyrus – a part of the brain related to facial recognition – and increased activation in the amygdala, an area of the brain related to emotions, especially fear. The findings, published in the journal Nature Neuroscience, are the first to examine how gaze fixation affects activity in the brain in individuals with autism.
Researchers at the Center map brain differences related to areas of attention and emotion between short-term and long-term meditators, suggesting the idea that these areas can change with intentional training.
The Center for Healthy Minds, first named the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds, is founded at the Waisman Center, UW–Madison. With the support of generous donors and community members, the Center expands the Lab of Affective Neuroscience’s scope to include applied research on well-being outside of the lab in classrooms and the workplace.
Center scientists make the case that emotion, pain and cognitive control are not separate functions in the dorsal cingulate – an area of the brain involved with emotion processing, learning and memory – but rather that emotion, pain and cognitive control are activated in an overlapping region called the anterior midcingulate cortex (aMCC). The review, published in Nature, challenges the influential notion that the processes are separate and argues to reexamine the connections and overlap in this region of the brain.
Center Scientist Cory Burghy and others publish findings in Nature Neuroscience suggesting that early life stress affects girls differently than boys. The study shows that early life stress in girls predicts levels of the stress hormone cortisol, which may lead to increased anxiety and depressive symptoms in adulthood.
Center scientist Stacey Schaefer and colleagues find that adults who reported higher levels of meaning and purpose show improved emotional recovery following exposure to negative pictures. A growing body of literature suggests that the degree to which a person feels he or she has purpose in life is predictive of better health and life longevity.
Former Center Graduate Student Helen Weng and collaborators discover that compassion training, performed for two weeks for 30 minutes per day in novice meditators, alters the brain in key areas and results in an increase in pro-social and altruistic behavior.
“Games To Do You Good,” an editorial published in the journal Nature by Daphne Bavelier and Richard Davidson, sparks conversation about how video games show promise in shaping the brain and behavior for the greater good. The Center begins research on how video games can teach kids pro-social skills such as empathy and generosity, and how such training influences different circuits of the brain.
Center scientists author a feature article in a special issue of Scientific American on the science of meditation, examining how ancient contemplative practices can influence the mind, body and well-being.
Healthy Minds Innovations, Inc. an external, affiliated non-profit dedicated to supporting the mission of the Center for Healthy Minds, was founded. The non-profit takes the discoveries and insights gleaned from Center research and transforms them into tools and services – as well as helps manage events and public speaking engagements for the Center.
Center Scientist Lisa Flook publishes the first study on the effectiveness of a mindfulness-based “Kindness Curriculum,” developed by childhood and mindfulness expert Laura Pinger. The findings, focusing on preschool students, suggest that positive qualities of mind can be taught at a young age and such training can yield increases in grades and pro-social behavior such as kindness and sharing.
Through forward-thinking investments by the Center’s community and longtime University of Wisconsin–Madison supporters John and Tashia Morgridge, the Center raises funds to recruit nine new endowed faculty members to launch an interdisciplinary approach to studying well-being through a variety of disciplines such as neuroscience, women’s health, education, contemplative studies and economics.
The Center for Healthy Minds welcomes new faculty Charles Raison, the Mary Sue and Mike Shannon Chair for Healthy Minds. Raison is internationally recognized for his studies examining novel mechanisms involved in the development and treatment of major depression and other stress-related emotional and physical conditions, as well as for his work examining the physical and behavioral effects of compassion training.
Larissa Duncan joins the Center for Healthy Minds as a new faculty member. Duncan studies the biological and psychological pathways through which secular, contemplative practices may support child and family well-being and improve health equity. A recent study from Duncan and her colleagues found that mindfulness training that addresses fear and pain during childbirth improves childbirth experiences and lessens depression symptoms both during pregnancy and the early postpartum period.
Julie Poehlmann-Tynan joins the Center for Healthy Minds and brings new expertise in early childhood resilience and parent-child relationships. Poehlmann-Tynan is known for her work with children of incarcerated parents, and developing interventions to buffer stress and promote resilience in children. She served as an advisor to Sesame Street for 4 years on their Emmy-nominated initiative, Little Children, Big Challenges: Incarceration, which helped bring a new Muppet to life named Alex, who has an incarcerated father.
John Dunne joins the Center as the Distinguished Chair in Contemplative Humanities. Dunne's work focuses on Buddhist philosophy and contemplative practice, especially in dialog with cognitive science. A prolific author, he publishes on a range topics, from technical works on Buddhist epistemology to broader works on the nature of Buddhist contemplative practices such as mindfulness.
With the support and generosity of UW–Madison, the Center expanded to become an administrative center under the College of Letters & Science and moved to its new home on West Washington Avenue. The move follows a number of gifts from donors to support the Center's growing scientific faculty and staff.
The space also houses the Center's newly-founded non-profit Healthy Minds Innovations, dedicated to cultivating well-being and relieving suffering through a scientific understanding of the mind.
The Center for Healthy Minds releases the Kindness Curriculum for free to the public. More than 25,000 people have signed up to receive it globally. Educators and parents can access a free copy in Spanish or in English.
Center for Healthy Minds experts publish a collaborative paper that builds a better understanding of how meditation-based stress reduction affects the epigenomes – chemical tags that sit on top of DNA. This study is the first to show that long-term meditation practice can induce a change in the regulation of our genes that influence the biological mechanisms of aging.
In collaboration with Richard Davidson and other scientists around the country, the American Heart Association releases a first-ever statement on meditation, saying that “studies of meditation suggest a possible benefit on cardiovascular risk, although the the overall quality and in some cases quantity of study data is modest.”
The statement is significant because it represents the first time that a professional medical society issued a consensus statement recommending meditation as a treatment option for a medical illness.
Following a pilot study with the Madison Police Department, Center experts launch a study funded by the National Institute of Justice to understand the effects of mindfulness-based training on police officer well-being.
Center collaborator Helen Weng publishes a study in the journal Frontiers in Psychology suggesting that as little as two weeks of compassion meditation training – intentionally cultivating positive wishes to understand and relieve the suffering of others – may reduce the distress a person feels when witness another’s suffering.
In 2018, Healthy Minds Innovations pilots Healthy Minds @Work, a well-being program for the mind, based on science and designed for life at work. The training program teaches simple, always-accessible skills to develop personal well-being that permeates all aspects of life, creating a more focused, compassionate culture at work and beyond.
The Center for Healthy Minds welcomes Sarah Short to the faculty. Short focuses on childhood well-being and the prevention of neurodevelopmental disorders and psychiatric illness. She has focused on prenatal influences on brain and behavioral development as well as the role brain structure and function play in relation to emerging cognitive abilities in typically developing and high-risk children.
Her current research focuses on the the impact of poverty on the brain and training programs to improve outcomes for kids.
Simon Goldberg joins the Center for Healthy Minds as an assistant professor in the Department of Counseling Psychology. Goldberg uses tools drawn from psychotherapy research to better understand the therapeutic processes and outcomes of mindfulness and meditation-based interventions. He has collaborated on several randomized trials of contemplative interventions with Center staff and has conducted systematic reviews and meta-analyses of mindfulness-based interventions. Goldberg is also interested in therapist characteristics that relate to patient outcomes in psychotherapy, including interpersonal skills and empathy.
Findings from the Center for Healthy Minds suggest that expectant mothers' mental health may influence the white matter development in the brain of her child.
Melissa Rosenkranz joins the Center for Healthy Minds faculty as a Distinguished Chair in Contemplative Neuroscience and Assistant Professor of Psychiatry. Rosenkranz is interested in the neural-immune and biochemical mechanisms by which individual differences in response to emotion alter resilience to and the progression of disease. Rosenkranz is also interested in the impact of meditation practice on emotion response and, subsequently, on the neural-immune and biochemical mechanisms underlying resilience or vulnerability to disease.
The Loka Initiative, a new interdisciplinary collaboration among UW–Madison programs and is housed in the Center for Healthy Minds, launches with a two-day symposium. The mission of the Loka Initiative is to support faith-led environmental and climate efforts locally and around the world by helping build capacity of faith leaders and culture keepers of indigenous traditions, and by creating new opportunities for projects, partnerships, and public outreach.
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The Center relies on support from competitive federal grants and the generosity of donors and funders to study well-being and relieve suffering in the world.