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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Researchers expand the Center’s scope of inquiry by studying well-being exercises in individuals in the workplace, military and at home. The Center continues to look into these areas to extend and refine early results.
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.
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.
We're an interdisciplinary team of researchers, scholars, staff, students and collaborators. Meet us.
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.