Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Richard Davidson's Choices Are Evidence That Thinking Good Thoughts Won’t Make You a Good Person

Think of a wonderful thought
Any merry little thought
Think of Christmas, think of snow
Think of sleigh bells-off you go!
Like reindeer in the sky
You can fly! You can fly! You can fly!

Below is text from a flier handed out at public presentation by Richard Davidson on Tuesday, January 27, 2008 at the First Unitarian Society of Madison:
Can we train ourselves to be compassionate? A new study suggests the answer is yes. Cultivating compassion and kindness through meditation affects brain regions that can make a person more empathetic to other peoples’ mental states, say researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
That is the opening paragraph in a 2008, University of Wisconsin press release calling attention to an aspect of Richie Davidson’s research.

A favorite quote of Davidson’s, one he might use in his talk this evening, is attributed to Albert Einstein: “Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circles of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.”

It seems reasonable to consider Dr. Davidson’s personal choices over time as a measure of the truth of his working assumption – as described in the UW press release: “[T]hrough training, people can develop skills that promote happiness and compassion.”

In the 1990s, working with colleagues Ned Kalin and Steve Shelton at UW Madison, Davidson discovered that some rhesus monkeys have what they termed “trait-like fear-related behaviors,” or “trait-like anxious temperament,” and that these monkeys could be identified using brain scans.

They say that threat-induced freezing in young rhesus monkeys is analogous to behavioral inhibition in human children. Children with a behaviorally inhibited temperament tend to be exceptionally fearful and withdrawn in situations that are novel or unfamiliar; and so do the monkeys identified by Davidson and his colleagues.

Once they were able to identify exceptionally fearful young monkeys, they began frightening them in various ways before and after destroying parts of their brains.

If sitting quietly and cultivating a feeling of compassion for all beings genuinely leads us to being more compassionate, then Davidson’s research methods should have become less invasive and less harmful and more compassionate over time. But they haven’t.

In fact, it could be argued that there has been no discernable change, or even that his experimental methods have become more brutal.

In the 1990s and early 2000s, Davidson, Kalin, and Shelton were drilling holes through the monkeys’ skulls and injecting acid into the emotion centers of their brains. They frightened these especially fearful young monkeys before and after this highly invasive and painful procedure.

As recently as 2007, they reported on a new method of damaging these monkeys’ brains. They wrote:
An experienced surgeon made an opening in the frontal bone posterior to the brow ridge to expose the frontal cortex. Both hemispheres were lesioned in a single procedure by lifting the brain to expose its ventral surface. Using microscopic guidance, electro-cautery and suction were applied to the targeted brain area.” From: Role of the primate orbitofrontal cortex in mediating anxious temperament. (Kalin N. H., Shelton S. E., Davidson R. J. Biological Psychiatry. 2007.)
Why does any of this matter?

It comes down to this: Through the use of scientific methods, careful observation, controlled experimentation, repeated demonstrations, and various manipulations, we have discovered that animals other than ourselves – the other primates – have complex minds with sophisticated mental capabilities like analogical reasoning (Fagot J, Wasserman EA, Young ME. 2001), numerical computation (Sulkowski GM, Hauser MD. 2001), a sense of fairness (de Waal, 2005), tool use (Ducoing AM, Thierry B. 2005), and that they possess unique and describable cultures (Sapolsky RM, Share LJ. 2004).

In other words, we have discovered another group of intelligent and emotional beings within our midst. This discovery should give us pause.

Davidson’s colleague Ned Kalin says:
Animals do a lot of things instinctively…. But people – and probably monkeys – have the ability to think 20 steps into the future: ‘In the end I'm going to feel great, because I worked hard to get there,’ or ‘I’m going to get a lot of credit for this.’ It’s the prefrontal cortex that brings those emotions into play and guides us in our behavior. If we didn’t have a sense of what would be wonderful or awful in the future, we would behave very haphazardly. (From: Wired For Sadness. Discover. April, 2000.)
We cannot rely on the scientists using these animals to make the right moral choices; they see the profound similarities between us as a reason to exploit these animals further, as a justification for hurting and killing them.

If just thinking that you are compassionate could make it so, then Davidson, after years of meditation and telling himself that he feels compassion for all beings, would no longer be frightening and hurting the most vulnerable young animals he can find. This seems transparently clear. It also refutes his working assumption.

The only way to become more compassionate and caring is to try and see the world through others’ eyes and to behave toward them in the way you would want them to behave toward you.

Just thinking good thoughts and hoping for the best is self-indulgent and delusional. Davidson’s behavior is an example of the failure of this philosophy. The history of his research methods is good evidence that it doesn’t work.


“You don't have to bother with the notes.”

Professor Harold Hill, in the 1957 Broadway musical, The Music Man, explaining “The Think Method” of learning to play a musical instrument.


What are the alternatives to using monkeys in these ways? First, if hurting and killing them is wrong, then we should simply stop. Second, very many researchers and medical doctors devote themselves to studying and trying to help inhibited children directly. They don’t rely on or even cite the monkey studies.