Can You Learn to Control Your Mind?

Can You Learn to Control Your Mind?Shutterstock

Many people believe that it is not necessary to learn to control one’s own mind because they think they already have such control.  Others, based on casual introspection and analysis of forces constantly impinging upon our minds, believe that we will never have control of our own minds and that such control is simply an illusion, though it may well be an illusion with important adaptive consequences.  The view the question invites is somewhat more nuanced.  It asks whether we can learn to control our mind, and thus assumes that there is a gradient of control ranging from little to more, and that individuals may vary in where they fall along this continuum.  Further, it implies that control of one’s mind is a skill and as with other skills, it can be trained.

When we refer to controlling our mind what do we typically mean?  If you are reading this essay, you can say to yourself that I can decide to stop reading this at any moment and get up and get a drink of water.  This is a form of controlling one’s mind.  Does the control of one’s mind require that we control our overt action, as in this example?  What about the control of attention, or the control of emotion?  To varying degrees, each one of you can decide to direct your attention to your right foot and to notice the sensations that are present in this body location.  You might notice tingling or pressure or warmth and you can isolate these sensations to your right foot, with varying degrees of success.

Do we emerge at birth endowed with this ability?  Or does this ability develop over the course of maturation?  Is it associated with the development of specific circuits in the brain?  To what degree are individual differences in this ability present early in life and what environmental and genetic influences modulate this ability?  These are all important questions that bear on the larger issue of whether we can learn to control our mind.  To address these questions requires that we consult scientific findings in a diverse range of areas that indirectly bear on our central question.

Insights from Developmental Considerations

Can newborns control their minds?  Most scholars considering this question would say no.  The requisite neural machinery has not yet matured for infants to exert voluntary control.  Their attention, for example, is captured rather than directed.  Their emotions are stimulus-driven and not voluntarily modulated.  It seems reasonable to assume that voluntary control of one’s mind requires that a requisite competence be available and that such competence maybe an innate potential of human beings in the same way that language is an innate potential, but it is not present at birth and requires the maturation of particular neural systems likely involving the prefrontal cortex. This brain region undergoes slow development and is not fully anatomically mature until the mid 20’s.  Insofar as the prefrontal cortex is critical to our capacity to control our mind, this fact suggests that there will be developmental changes in our capacity to control our mind that will not reach adult levels for quite some time, likely post-adolescence.

Default Mode of Brain Function, Mind Wandering and Voluntary Control

Neuroscientists noticed that when participants are given challenging cognitive tasks and activation patterns in response to the tasks were compared with a resting (uninstructed) control condition, not only are certain brain regions activated, but there were reliable de-activations in another set of brain regions.  In such brain imaging studies, a contrast between two conditions was performed to isolate brain activations specific to the task. These de-activations during the task indicate that those de-activated regions were more active during the resting period.  This provided the first clue that the brain “at rest” showed a lawful pattern of activations and this pattern has been referred to as the default mode.  The presence of such activity suggests that it is misleading to think that the brain is quiescent until a specific task activates it.  Indeed, even a mere casual introspection would suggest that there is a lot of endogenous mental activity occurring within the mind that seems to be there when we are not doing very much and pay attention to our interior dialogue.  Recent findings indicate that this “mental chatter” is associated with the default mode (Christoff, Gordon, Smallwood, Smith, & Schooler, 2009) and that such mental chatter is often self-focused rumination about the past and the future.  A recent study using experience-sampling measures (Killingsworth & Gilbert, 2010) reported that the average American adult spends 47% of their waking life mind wandering, that is not attending to the task at hand.  Moreover, these periods of mind wandering were accompanied by reports of unhappiness.  Killingsworth and Gilbert conclude that “…a human mind is a wandering mind and a wandering mind is an unhappy mind.  The ability to think about what is not happening is a cognitive achievement that comes at an emotional cost.”  Is this an obligatory state of affairs?  Can we learn to mind wander less and control our minds?

These findings imply that we are not in control of our minds for a significant fraction of our waking lives since mind wandering is typically reported as a process that is involuntary.  Our minds wander.  We do not usually choose to engage in mind wandering.

Individual Differences

The research mentioned above on mind wandering suggests that people differ in how much their minds wander.  The flip side of mind wandering is mental control and these findings indicate that some people have more control than others (Heatherton, 2011).  In studies of the default mode of brain function, scientists have discovered that people who report mind wandering have greater activation in sectors of the default mode that are particularly implicated in narrative self-relevant processes.  The fact of such individual differences raises the possibility that some of these variations among people might have arisen, at least in part, as a consequence of learning.

Training the Mind Can Improve One’s Ability to Control the Mind

In his very famous chapter on attention in the Principles of Psychology, William James (1890) stated:

“And the faculty of voluntarily bringing back a wandering attention, over and over again, is the very root of judgment, character, and will. No one is compos sui if he have it not. An education which should improve this faculty would be the education par excellence. But it is easier to define this ideal than to give practical directions for bringing it about.”

Educating attention is a core feature of controlling one’s mind.  If we can effectively control our attention, many other aspects of mental control will follow.  We can view the control of attention as a core foundation upon which other aspects of mental control are based, such as the control of emotions.

What is the evidence that we can learn to control our attention?  Here the technologies provided by the meditative traditions which fundamentally concern the training of attention, are noteworthy.  Hard-nosed behavioral and neuroscientific research over the past 5 years has clearly established the possibility of training different aspects of attention through simple mindfulness meditation practices.  These practices generalize to standard tasks for assessing subcomponents of attention and they are associated with alterations in brain function.  One example from our own research concerns the learning of selective attention—the ability to focus on a chosen object and to ignore other distracting objects.  We (Lutz et al., 2009) tested participants before and after an intensive three-month retreat during which they practiced mindfulness meditation on a daily basis and compared them to a control group just learning these practices.  We found a significant improvement in the meditators ability to selectively attention to stimuli compared with the control group.  Moreover, these behavioral changes were predicted by specific changes in prefrontal brain function that was measured before and after the three-month retreat.

These findings suggest that we can indeed learn to control our attention and by extension, learn to control our mind.  Findings such as this lead us to the view that controlling the mind should best be regarded as a skill that can be enhanced through training.

Summary and Conclusions

The ability to control the mind differs across development and varies among individuals.  The developmental differences provide us with clues about the necessary neural machinery that is required to come “on-line” that is a prerequisite for controlling the mind.  Sectors of the prefrontal cortex appear critical to this process and are not fully mature until the mid 20’s.  Adult individuals also vary considerably in their ability to control the mind.  Such differences likely are due to a myriad of factors including genetic and experiential influences.  Mind wandering is the flip side of mind control and appears to occur involuntarily.  It is associated with the default mode of brain function and is frequently accompanied by reports of dysphoric affect, perhaps a consequence of not paying attention to the task at hand.

This state of affairs, while typical of the average adult in our society, is not obligatory and this essay invites the view that we all can indeed learn to control our minds.  Humans are endowed with the capacity to learn to control their minds and such learning should be accompanied by a decrease in mind wandering and by corresponding changes in brain function in the default mode.  The ability to attend to the present moment in the absence of distraction appears to be intrinsically rewarding and people report increases in positive affect when this occurs.  Many humans seem to have a propensity to place themselves in difficult and/or dangerous situations in order to fully capture their attention, which effectively, though transiently, eliminates mind wandering.  Often referred to as “flow”, people report that such experiences are highly positive.

An important implication of the perspective advanced in this essay is that we do not need to place ourselves in such difficult and dangerous situations to experience flow.  The quality of awareness characterized by being fully present in the moment is a skill that can be learned and does not require a specific context or challenge to be expressed.  In light of the known sensitive periods for neuroplasticity early in life, this perspective invites the suggestion of implementing training for mental control in the early years of life, as the prefrontal cortex is developing.  Such early training may take advantage of the increased neuroplasticity evident at this time and lead to more enduring changes in our ability to control our minds.  Research focused on this question is critically needed and if the outcome is as implied here, the findings would provide an important foundation for a call to include within the regular preschool and elementary school curriculum, methods to train the mind in such ways.  The modest investment in the mental capacity of our children will likely pay off in a multiplicative way later in life as a consequence of improved adult outcomes based upon this early life training.  The possibility of such an outcome demands that we marshal the resources to subject it to serious scientific test.

Questions for Discussion:

  1. At what age can children start learning to control their minds?
  2. Why do people mostly report unpleasant emotions when they are mind wandering?
  3. Are some people better able to learn to control their minds than others?
  4. What are the most effective strategies to teach people to learn to control their minds?
  5. How is neuroplasticity related to the ability to control our mind?

Discussion Summary

A deep expression of gratitude for the wonderful, provocative set of comments and questions received in response to this essay. I’m particularly gratified to see the number of people who report they have benefited from various methods of mind training to promote mindfulness and other positive qualities that clearly seem to support well-being. Here I will reflect on a few of the themes that emerged in the discussion.

Among the most important were comments concerned with languaging the message and with the notion of “control.” This inevitably raises questions about who is in control, about whether control implies suppression of some sort and just what is meant by control. As I noted in several responses, the topic and title of this essay were assigned to me. I would prefer to use different language that would frame the issue as one of familiarization—that is, becoming more familiar with one’s own mind. In modern Western culture in particular, we spend little time familiarizing ourselves with our own minds. Our focus of attention is largely external and very little time is spent in interior attention. The form of control I envision is not one that involves suppression but rather is one that provides guidance. A mind that is out of control is like a rudderless sailboat tossed about the sea blowing in one direction and then another depending upon the prevailing winds. A rudder provides guidance and steers the boat in a desired direction. A mind with a rudder is one that guides the mind in a particular direction and the invitation in the essay is that one can guide one’s mind toward more positive or virtuous qualities. This form of guidance does not require that we suppress our responses or that we block our thoughts or emotions. Rather it invites that possibility that by simply becoming more aware of what was previously not conscious, we can provide more effective guidance, a steadier rudder, for the mind.

A related question that emerged in the discussion concerns who is in control. According to modern neuroscience, no one is in control. There is not some privileged location of the self in the brain from which all commands and directives emanate. Rather the brain works as a distributed set of circuits that are massively interconnected and dynamically interact. Decisions emerge from the coordinated interacting networks of the brain.

Another important issue considered in the discussion concerns the notion of stickiness and its import for present centeredness and well-being. Stickiness in this context refers to the perseveration of emotion and thought in anticipation of, and in response to challenging events in our environment. Humans are endowed with the large mass of cortical real estate behind the forehead—the prefrontal cortex. This tissue enables us to anticipate the future and reflect on the past, capabilities that clearly confer many advantages. However, this very same endowment can get us into trouble by enabling us to worry about the future and ruminate about the past. This is precisely, to quote the famous book title on the subject by Stanford biologist Robert Sapolsky, “Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers.” They don’t have the same prefrontally mediated capabilities as humans. The prefrontal cortex enables us to control our minds in the senses in which I’ve used that phrase, but it also endows us with the possibility of dysregulation. Psychopathology is thus far more prevalent in humans than it is in any other species. By learning to remain more present–centered and by cultivating mindfulness and decreasing mind-wandering, we can learn to be less sticky while still responding appropriately and adaptively to challenges that occur.

Neuroplasticity is a fact of our brains that is exhibited throughout the lifespan. However, it is clear that neuroplasticity is far more pronounced at certain developmental periods than at others. These sensitive periods of development provide opportunities for optimal intervention that might take advantage of the heightened possibility of neuronal transformation. We believe it is important to investigate if it is possible to teach healthy habits of mind and skills to cultivate mindfulness and related qualities early in life. We have been investigating these questions with children at different ages and we’ve begun to work with preschool children ages 4 and 5 years to teach them simple practices designed to cultivate mindfulness and kindness. While these studies are still ongoing and no firm conclusions can be drawn at this time, we have found that children of this age can be taught these methods and they seem to enjoy them and utilize them spontaneously, particularly when challenges occur in the classroom. Whether they make a long-term difference in the development of the children is a question that awaits rigorous study.

It is my fervent aspiration that this dialogue has been of some benefit to the readers and that the core message of our work—that the mind and brain can be transformed through practice and that well-being and related qualities are best viewed as skills that can enhanced through such training—will inspire readers to try out such methods and determine if they are of benefit for yourselves.

New Big Questions:

1. What is the relation between awareness of one’s mind and control of one’s mind?
2. Are psychiatric disorders more prevalent in humans than in other species?  And if so, why?

51 Responses

  1. peter.bork.7524 says:

    Professor Davidson mentions that mind-wandering seems to have a negative effect on our moment-to-moment emotional happiness, but there is also good reason to suspect that it has detrimental effects on our long-term well-being. The recent research wave of behavioural economics seems to support the hypothesis that people make mistakes because of attentional ‘blindness’ to relevant factors. Commercials is not the only example of a situation where people are ‘nudged’ to make a bad decision because they didn’t give a thorough thought to the small print. Sunstein and Thaler in their book Nudge suggest that people make horrible decisions on pension-savings because the present and near-term is much more salient than the long term. They have a long list of examples in their book, and Dan Ariely has also writtten som books on the subject, each filled with examples. (Hopefully my professor Paul Dolan will soon publish his book which is specifically on attention and well-being from the perspective of an economist)
    It would be very interesting to research if the mindfulness practices also improve decision-making in the economic field. 

    • Richard Davidson says:

      Thank you for this good comment.  I completely agree that the decision making field is ripe for investigation in this arena.  There are now just beginning to be some studies of the impact of mindfulness and other types of meditation on decision making and I expect we will see some publications in this area over the next year or two.

  2. heevans says:

    According to Buddhist traditions, people who have spent a lot of time in meditation in past lives, or whose karma has led them closer to enlightenment, can reach englightenment through meditation in much shorter periods of time than most people. There are stories, for example, of people who sit for a few days and become enlightened. Even my Burmese meditation teachers told us this.

    At least, that’s how they explain it. I would like to know what the scientific understanding is of people who are able to achieve high levels of meditative states with little to no previous practice. Has this phenomenon been studied? If not, do you have any theories based on current research and understanding of meditation?

    • Richard Davidson says:

      Wonderful question.  From a strictly scientific perspective, we would say that there are large individual differences in basic attentional and emotional skills or traits and that these individual differences will affect the degree to which different meditative practices affect the mind and brain.  The distal origin of these individual differences is not really known but scientists would assume that it includes both genetic and early experiential factors.  Empirical research clearly does suggest that different types of meditation practices have very different impacts on different types of people.  I’ve written a lot about this issue in my book (with Sharon Begley) The Emotional Life of Your Brain. 

      • heevans says:

        Thank you for the response. That is how I had interpreted the teachings, and of course nothing that you’ve said necessarily contradicts or negates the possibility of karma as taught by Buddhism. One facet of this I find interesting is the emphasis by exeprienced meditators (and I’m referring to the long-term meditators you study in your research) on the relationship between ethical or “skillfull” behavior in daily life and its positive correlation to meditative progress. This is an area that I would be fascinated to see flushed out. I studied meditation under the instruction of teachers from the Panditarama lineage in Seoul, South Korea for several years, and they were quite clear that the stories of spontaneous enlightenment only applied to people who had led virtuous lives, both in this life and in past lives.

        Of course, my interpretation is that the qualities which would predispose someone to ethical or virtuous behavior would also be qualities that somehow aided meditative development. Anyway, different sides of the same coin. Thanks for your time.

  3. Brian says:

    I’m interested in the evidence related to our ability to influence physiological processes with the mind. I work in a number of settings with people and have used breath control mechanisms to try to reduce anxiety. For some people the ‘wandering mind’ seems to act as a major barrier to engagement and the experience of anxiety acts as a mechanism to prevent focusing attention.

    Is there any major evidence that we can control, for example, our blood pressure, through cognitive processes and if so what techniques are proving to be effective.

    Thank you very much for taking the time to share your experience and knowledge

    • Richard Davidson says:

      Thank you for the question.  There is some evidence that we can exert some control over some physiological processes such as blood pressure through purely mental practices.  There is a bit of evidence that suggests that some forms of meditation may be useful in lowering blood pressure for those with hypertension, for example.  There are recent findings that we have published showing that inflammation can be regulated to some extent through mindfulness meditation (see our website:  In most of these reports the physiological changes were by-products of the meditation; that is, they were not explicit targets of the meditation practice.  This research area is still in its infancy and much more work is required to fully understand how these physiological changes are produced.

  4. EmEl says:

    I watched some kind of educational program on how are brains work where the TV audience was invited to participate in attention games, of a sort. To my vast surprise, while trying to pay attention to the challenge, I failed to see large people in penguin costumes, rabbits etc, crossing right in front of my eyes! This is kind of the flip side of mind control. Which is why motorcycle riders can be hit by drivers making a turn who are looking for cars, not motorcycles. Is there an ideal balance between assault from myriad stimuli, vs focus on relevance in our environment? do  you get what I mean? 

    • Richard Davidson says:

      Thank you for this comment.  There may well be an optimal balance for each person of how open versus focused his or her attentional field should be though I suspect that different attentional stances are optimal for different environments.  On this latter view, what would be most optimal is for an individual to be able to control the breadth of his attention so it was optimally suited to the particular environmental challenge at hand.  What might be best for driving in an area with lots of traffic and complicated traffic patterns may be very different from the kind of attention that would be best when one is relaxing on a chair and watching the sunset. 

  5. Diane Renz says:

    I completely appreciate Richie Davidson’s work and this article. When I consider sharing it with clients I hesitate because of the potential misapplication of the word control. The subtle self- aggression, (or not so subtle), which can ensue from the knowledge that repeated focal attention changes the structure and function of our brains, might lean us toward avoidance and manipulation of experience, which can lead back to the original unhealthy unintegrated states we wish to apply the training of mind to ameliorate. I guess here I am not disputing the article’s contents and truth, but more inquiring how best to language this opportunity we all have to create an inclusive relational attitude which informs the direction of attention, framed within a larger intention to cultivate what is essentially well and is just in need of environments, (as in education), to Re-Turn us to this awareness.

    • Richard Davidson says:

      Beautiful comment and a deep appreciation for the suggestion!  I completely agree with you.  The title is actually one that was given to me not one I chose myself.  Your suggestions for how to better language this are helpful and we all need to think hard about how best to describe what we all agree might be helpful.  I think the invitation here is to become more familiar with one’s mind, to befriend one’s mind, to be more intimate with one’s mind.  This kind of intimate familiarity I think captures the relational attitude to which you refer and is precisely the type of strategy that will lead to the benefits I’ve described.  Wonderful comment!

  6. Janet says:

    Although the science of mindfulness is new, the concept is old: the ability and exhortation to control our minds is implied in Jesus’ admonition to love the Lord with all our heart…and mind (Mt 22:37 & paralells) as well as Paul’s teaching to take every thought captive (2 Cor 10:5). And, although mindfulness is associated with Eastern religions, it is also present in Christian contemplative writings, such as Brother Lawrence’s classic, Practicing the Presence.

    • Richard Davidson says:

      Yes thank you for your comment.  I completely agree with you and each of us must find the tradition (or non-tradition) that feels most compatible with who we are.  There are contemplative traditions within each of the world’s major religious traditions and they contain similar messages and practices that can help to cultivate calmness and clarity of mind and warm heartedness. 

  7. Benson says:

    This question involves the regression paradox: It is the mind which is deciding to control itself.  Whatever it does is being done to itself by itself ….  If the mind sets out to control itself who or what is it that is making  that decision?

    • Richard Davidson says:

      Wonderful question.  There are many ways to address this but for this purpose, we can say there is no executive in control.  When we search for where in the brain the “self” is located, we come up empty-handed.  The self is instantiated in a distributed network that is both highly complex and self-organizing.  Neuroscientists would say that when activation in particular circuits reaches a certain threshold than certain actions or decisions occur.  On this view, there is really no one in control but the mind/brain is continuously re-organizing itself.  When we decide to move our arm, who is it that is deciding?  This is really fundamentally no different that learning to control our mind or, as I have responded to a previous questioner, becoming more intimate with our mind. 

  8. ianful says:

    I can best answer your questions from personal experience, as published material sometimes has the agenda of an investigator mixed in. I found that neuroplasticity and mind control are indeed related. After a nasty head injury, I experienced almost total mind wandering and mental chatter. I noticed that continuing to work my usual job did not help my rehabilitation, but formal course work in something new did. Giving my mind new and difficult tasks was the key. I completed an advanced diploma in architecture at a nearby institute of technology, and thereby repaired cognitive processes, increased attention and reduced mind wandering. So neuroplasticity enabled mind control. For me mind wandering and mind chatter were difficult to get rid of, as I was remembering episodes involving self-pity and self-importance, and re-experiencing associated emotional content. I practiced Vipassana meditation for about six years, but this encouraged mind wandering. I then undertook the spiritual training in Subud, and reached a threshold where self-pity and self-importance do not exist. It is a place of enhanced awareness and no judgement. The self and mind have become servants of my soul rather than its masters. Again neuroplasticity has assisted with mind control, and my well-being is great.

  9. nina says:

    I miss an important question, being ‘why’? The only (speculative) view I could find in your essay is this:

    If we can effectively control our attention, many other aspects of mental control will follow. We can view the control of attention as a core foundation upon which other aspects of mental control are based, such as the control of emotions.

    The next question I miss is: What do you want to achieve? Healthy minds or controlled minds?

    What do you mean by emotions? The Buddhistic meaning, being jealousy, pride, arrogance, ignorance etc, or do you mean feelings like frustration, fear, anger, shame? As to the last, they are healthy as they warn something is wrong/against doing wrong ourselves.

    As to the children, the safer and nurturing their environment, the less impulses of anger and fear they’ll get from being harmed; the easier it becomes to recognize the warning signals if they themselves (plan to) do something wrong. So, not harming them contributes greatly to a healthy conscience.

    As to neuroplasticity, that’s something that can achieved by fasting, cold exposure followed by sauna, physical exercise, SSRI’s, smiling and many things more.

    The mind is not the brain. The brain has a protective function for the mind, and it could very well be, that the more brainvolume, the stronger the patterns become, the more inflexible the mind. The only way to create healthy minds is to work on changing those patterns, not the brainvolume.

    • Richard Davidson says:

      Thank you for your thoughtful comment Nina.  As I noted in response to another comment, I did not choose the word “control” for the title of this essay.  It was my assigned topic.  I would have used a something differ term such as become familiar with our mind.  The idea I was trying to express was not one that calls for the suppression of emotion, but rather one that entails awareness of emotion and a lack of stickiness when it comes to emotion.  By stickiness I mean the propensity to have emotions “bleed over” into periods during which they may no longer be adaptive.  An adverse event might occur and it may be adaptive to experience sadness but if it lingers for a long period of time following the adverse event, it is not adaptive and can lead to emotional difficulties and even to frank psychopathology.  I discuss this at length in my book The Emotional Life of Your Brain. 

      Your comment about neuroplasticity is absolutely correct.  There are many activities or drugs that can induce neuroplasticity.  In and of itself, it is silent with with respect to its benefit or harm.  If we can enhance neuroplasticity in the presence of wholesome and prosocial activities and strategies, then we can effectively harness this remarkable feature of the human brain to produce benefit.  If, on the other hand, we accompany increases in neuroplasticity with exposure to toxic environments and activities, as you suggest, we can further strengthen destructive and unhealthy tendencies.  

      The broader issue of relations between mind and brain is highly complex and deserves a separate treatment on its own.  There are no simple answers here and I would encourage both the laypublic and scientists alike to resist knee-jerk responses to this question and to tolerate the current ambiguity of not knowing.

      • nina says:

        Thank you Richard. Can you clarify more about what you see as ’emotions’? As you didn’t answer that question. Is it your opinion, attitudes like pride and greed and jealousy arise from ‘exposure to toxic environments and activities’ ? Does ‘mindfulness’ include cutting out ‘toxic people’ from ones life? I sure hope this is not your view; isn’t the whole thing about transformation, not about surgery? To admit pride and jealousy and ignorance, and to do something about it? As to the ‘bleeding over’ of feelings like sadness, there is another side of the coin. For example grief is a process, suppressing it can give serious problems and symptoms of post-traumatic stress. So I think you should be very careful here.

  10. nina says:

    I miss two important questions. The first is ‘why would we want to control our mind?’ and the other one is ‘what is the purpose, what do we want to achieve’? As an answer to the first, I could only find this (speculative) one in your essay:

    If we can effectively control our attention, many other aspects of mental control will follow. We can view the control of attention as a core foundation upon which other aspects of mental control are based, such as the control of emotions.

    As to the second one, I thought we would want to create healthy minds rather than controlled minds? Who says a controlled mind is a healthy mind?

    What do you mean by emotions? The Buddhistic like jealousy, pride, ignorance, or do you mean feelings like frustration, anger, fear, guilt, shame? Those last are healthy as they warn against something being wrong/doing something wrong.

    As to children, the more safe and nurtured they are, the less impulses of fear and anger coming from harm done to them they will receive, the better they’ll be able to feel the warning signals if they themselves (plan to) do something wrong. So not harming them helps greatly to build a healthy conscience.

    As to neuroplasticity, there are many other things that achieve enhanced brain volume, like fasting, cold exposure followed by sauna, physical exercise, etc. All things our anchestors had more of than we, the question is if it gave them healthy minds. The mind is not only in the brainvolume, it is also in the patterns in between. The only way to change the mind is to change the patterns, not the volume: It could very well be, an increase in volume without changing the patterns will make those patterns – and thus our ignorance, jealousy, pride, unhealthy attitudes and wrong associations etc. worse instead of better.

    I think you should start from fresh, and make a map of the mind first. Then define what ‘a mentally healthy adult’ is (or take an existing one, there are pretty good ones out there) and see how you can come from a to b. If you see mindfulness meditation (that is, the Western interpretation) as just some tool in the whole scala of mind enhancing products – and then please state more clearly the benefits and dangers -, then please use it for adults only and make sure the children have a chance to grow up in a safe and nurturing environment without corporal punishment first.

  11. idoyleolson says:

    Hi Richie & World,

    This was a great article and the fascinating developments on the research of neuroplasticity, attention, and voluntary “control” (if it really does exist – more on that below) speak volumes for anyone interested in meditation, self-awareness, mindfulness, and the like.

    But what if it’s the case that neuroplasticity is generally more detrimental to willful control than it is helpful? It certainly seems to be true that with practice of attention, and the associated biological/neurological/plastic changes that over time augment that feeling of control over one’s attention, we can “change our brains” – or they change us. Though if one’s brain is too plastic, too flexible, too malleable – is it not the case that one would be sent spiraling off into a mood disorder, or perhaps that their innate capacity for neuroplasticity would actually change their brain away from attentional capacities?

    I understand fine and well that those with plastic brains (all of us) who indulge their neural circuitry and observant minds with meditation practice will eventually experience certain effects. But might an “extra plastic” brain actually “waste away” more quickly in terms of the circuitry associated with increased control? Is there a very specific nature or “value” of plasticity that keeps this in balance?

  12. nina says:

    You state, ‘we don’t know’ when it’s about the mind. But we know a lot! Psychology is a valid branche of science. Hasn’t it been emperically proven, psychotherapy changes the mind? And shouldn’t we learn from psychology, interventions should be tailored to the specific situation of the person? So in that respect, what are the dangers of ‘mindfulness for everyone’, are there no contra indications or situations where one should be careful ?

  13. ianful says:

    I agree with Nina, that the brain and the mind are not the same. I found that the brain is not protective of the mind, but more the other way round. It is helpful to be in the brain injured mode to find out what the hierarchy of control is. The brain is an interpretative tool for processing information received from sensory receptors that is assessed against previous experience and available memory. It is our rational tool. After my brain injury I had enough cognition to know what was going on. My mind was fine but the brain did not work like it did before. In the early days, clogging with mental chatter and short attention span were problems, so was short term memory. Like most newly brain injured persons, the immediate problem was paranoia – like having others discovering how bad things were, and also being manipulated by professionals that really didn’t have a clue what was going on inside.

    Leaving mind-brain hierarchy aside, where does perception fit? This may be a matter outside the scope of this discussion, but it is involved in the mind-brain circuit. Our ability to perceive our world is generated by language – installed by parents and our education. If we do not get adequate language skills, then our ability to understand, learn, communicate with and relate to others (and the world) is diminished markedly. The first thing I fixed after being head injured was language – I had enough insight to know that this was the underlying problem, so I learned English from scratch again, and finished up better than before.

    Together with inadequate experience of being loved, the consequence of inadequate language skills leads to frustration in life and can lead to antisocial, destructive, and even criminal behaviour – check out prison inmates for this. The people with the ultimate in controlled minds – the Psychopaths could be included even though they supposedly have shallow emotions. Emotions are suppressed or controlled to aid their manipulative procedures, and they in fact have strong emotions that can appear if they do not get their way. Anger (and also the other side of the coin – depression) can be attributed to fear of not getting desired outcomes. I have found that the famous seven deadly sins can be traced back to fear in one way or another, and a lot of our societal values are in fact fear based, as is our ‘conscience’. It might be best to stick to ‘love our fellow man’ to live a happier and healthier life.

  14. ianful says:

    Rather than …. Our ability to perceive our world is generated by language – … 

    I should have written … Our ability to perceive the world is generated with the acquisition of language …

    For example, Eskimo and some North American tribes had quite different perceptual systems to those of the Indo-European people.

  15. kartik.subbarao says:

    Richie, have you considered testing whether long-term meditators have more conscious control over their experience of perceptual illusions than others? For example, how do they experience the McGurk effect? If you asked Matthieu Ricard, say, to meditate on audiovisual perception, would he, with his eyes open, be able to control whether he hears the “visually-augmented” form of the sound (such as when a speaker mouths “fa” but says “ba”, and the sound is heard as “fa”) or the “audio-only” form (“ba”)?

    • Richard Davidson says:

      Thank you for this comment and suggestion.  Indeed there are some studies that suggest that experienced meditators are able to regulate perceptual illusions more than unpracticed participants though the evidence is limited.  I expect that as reseach continues to flourish in this area, the types of questions you ask about audiovisual perception will be addressed.

  16. nina says:

    Ian, as to how the mind and the brain work together: Old philosofies see the mind as having seven capacities, or information channels, whatever, being: reason, experience, knowledge, compassion, imagination, inspiration and intuition. The common sense is the processing unit for those channels. The brain: Our primary instincts are known as the flight-fight-freeze response, a protection mechanism against danger. They give us feelings of fear, anger and powerlessness. If we act upon those feelings, we’ll feel shame, guilt and emptiness, even when the danger was real and we had no choice but to do anything else than to flee, to fight for our live, or to do nothing at all. Afterwards, the conscience and common sense will process and analyze all that has happened, and – with the help of others – the shame, guilt and emptiness will fade away and hopefully we’ll find our balance again. But our conscience and common sense, so our mind, can also activate our flight-fight-freeze response. This happens when we (plan to) do something that’s wrong in our own eyes. This is in my idea a very healthy mechanism; some sort of warning system just like we have pain in the body to warn there is something wrong.

    In the brains, it is not only volume in terms of neurons and other necessary elements, it is also the range of interactive patterns of associations between neurons and how they are correlated, and the flexibility of neurons to take another state (flip). A healthy mind is a mind recognizing healthy patterns and able to protect them; and recognizing wrong patterns and able to correct them; to know what ‘healthy’ and ‘wrong’ is, we need some definition of a ‘healthy adult’; I found a good one in Schema Therapy, you can look it up in the Wiki if you wish.

    As to perception, on the quantum level, it is clear perception is the combined reception of forces. Reaction takes the form of changed states which in turn influence or invoke forces to be received by other particles, so there is a whole conversation going on: communication. Then, complex perception would be the result of training of particles in a network, or system. Somehow, this complex perception has in human beings and some animals evolved into speech. It also implies, the words in our minds are the expression of the combined state of a group of particles in the mind, so all the sayings we have in different languages must somehow tell a truth on a very fundamental level. Like ‘ubuntu’ (I am because we are) expresses the essential interdependent nature (of humans), so has for example been proven a thing like ‘shared suffering’ exists on the level of the neurons in the brain.

  17. Tiggzz says:

    Good point about our fight or flight response.My experience has been that by paying attention to this response it makes it easier for me not to get swept away by it. So is this a response  in our primitive brain or is it a reaction to fear? So I guess tthis begs the question which is the cause of which?

    If Nina could reference the old philosophies ,I’d like to study these a bit.

    I personaly think flight or flight is just one of our basic instincts, though while we are in that state it seems to be the only one that matters.

    • Richard Davidson says:

      We are indeed biologically prepared to respond to threat with fight or flight responses.  Mindfulness brings the possibility of transforming this response, not so much by diminishing the response to an actual threat but by modulating the response in anticipation of a threat and/or in the recovery period.  Much suffering is caused by activating our threat machinery when threats are not actually present.  The strategies I consider in the essay are ones that can help a person learn to modulate these anticipatory and recovery processes so that they can still respond appropriately to an actual threat but can modulate responses when threats are not actually present. 

  18. nina says:

    Tiggz, as to the mind, it is just a model that works. Einstein also mentions those aspects somewhere (though I wouldn’t know exactly where I read that). Just think a little over it, those 7 are all aspects that the common sense works with: logic – or reason, that is the capacity to make meaningful associations; our individual experiences; facts we learn, our knowledge; the capacity to imagine the outcome of a certain scenario, or to put ourselves in the others position and look from that perspective, imagination; inspiration coming from others (or others expressions like music, books, art), and intuition which is a form of very quick unconscious reasoning. Last but not least, there is compassion in the middle of the mind, that would be the motivation/reason to use love in the decisionmaking process of the common sense, to say it a little technical. This is what explains for example, why people would jump to others rescue in an emergency, with risk for their own life.

    We use all those aspects when we construct an idea or make a decision with our common sense. None of those aspects is reliable in itself. We can have very coloured experiences – or traumas -, we can forget to use our imagination – or use it too much and make all kind of irrational assumptions, etc. But then we have the information from the other channels to balance the whole thing, a sort of a feedback loop between the common sense and those 7 aspects. For example, suppose last time you ate tomato soup, it made you sick. Now your friend offers you tomato soup. Your first reaction will probably be ‘Argh…no thanks’ (experience) Then knowledge and logic and imagination will come in telling you that once getting sick from tomato soup doesn’t mean it will make you sick again. And your friend might inspire you, telling you about all the healthy fresh ingredients. Or maybe you’ll just want to eat it because you love your friend. So now maybe your common sense will correct the first reaction and you’ll decide to eat the soup anyway. Or not, but then you probably will some next time. Communication with others is very important, it might help when we are a little too coloured by one of those aspects.

  19. Tiggzz says:

    My mind didn’t  self regulate all the nueronal chatter.

    I’ll explain a bit. I’ve been physically, emotionaly, and sexually abused as a child. On top of that i’ve been shot , kidnapped, stabbed , the list could go on ad nauseum. Needless to say I’ve had some issues to work on i.e. Deppression. dissociative disorder etc.

    I have recieved therapy from a PTSD specialist and now practice a variety of meditaiton techiques. This has brought me the ability to manage(control) the ruminating thoughts and the ability to deal with emotions in a positive manner.

    It would appear to me that western cognitive behaviour therapy anf eastern meditation modalities are drawing closer and closer in their methods.

    Call it what you will, for the sake of not getting tied up in symantics, I firmly believe you can control your mind with training. I’ve been living it.

  20. Boamagani says:

    To comment on the big question, Is it possible to learn to control your mind. We all do it to some degree or another or go insane. But to bring that control to a level that is beneficial to society would be the real issue. And who decides whether a certain discipline is beneficial.

    It was easier with smaller social groups. For thousands of years tribal elders would initiate the young adults of the tribe into thei mystery of life and interconnectedness of human actions on the local fauna and flora. And perhaps thru trial and error it was found that during the mid to late teens were the time to share these secrets. Often at the ceremonies psychotropic herbs-seeds-flowers-fungi- were consumed in aiding this message to be driven home, and hopefully to encourage thinking that led to the preservation of that way of life. Sad to think that once sacred rites have been reduced to frat parties and birthday shots. 

    All ancient and modern cultures should know that the mind can be trained. I would say Madison Ave. is doing a fine job of training the 2nd if not 3rd generation of consumers. That is the type of training that can spark Orwellian fear.

    In closing I would say that depending on your place on the wheel, the age at which you are introduced to the “calm mind” and the lifestyle and oppurtunities available in each culture are determining factors in how difficult or easy it is to learn the practices needed to train your mind. 

    • Richard Davidson says:

      Thank you Boamagani for your comment.  You note in closing that the age at which you are introduced to the “calm mind” may be a determining factor in how difficult or easy it is to learn the practices needed to train your mind.  I very much agree and this conjecture is the foundation for our work with very young children.  We are currently teaching mindfulness and kindness practices to pre-school children (ages 4 and 5 years) to determine if we can guide children to adopt simple mind training practices at a very early age that then serve as building blocks for flourishing and well-being as they develop.  This will be a long-term project as our work in this area is just beginning.  Initial findings are very promising and it is our aspiration that such methods be widely incorporating into school curricula from early on. 


      • Boamagani says:

        So similar are the practices and benefits of prayer and meditation that introducing meditation at an early age in public schools may encounter some of the same objections. It could also make for some strange bedfellows.

  21. dmazarakis says:

    Professor Davidson: Thank you for all your contributions to society — you have certainly delivered on that promise you made to the Dalai Lama in 1992 and you have a great impact on me, personally. I read your book and this essay and had a clarification question. Is what you speak about in this essay directly related to the “Attention” dimension of emotional style? And, if so, don’t you want to be on the high end of this dimension? I recall you not taking a stand on where is optimal to lie on any one dimension and I’m wondering if you should. I welcome your answer. Many thanks, Daphne.

    • Richard Davidson says:

      Daphne thank you for your kind words and good question.  The attributes and qualities I refer to in the essay certainly include those in the Attention style in my book The Emotional Life of Your Brain but they are not restricted to just this one style.  For example, the Resilience style refers to the rapidity with which you recover from adversity and this style is certainly relevant here as well and is part of the skill set that can learned with practices that foster better regulation of emotion. 

      With regard to the Attention style, being hyper-focused may cause a person to neglect aspects of their environment that contain important cues to which they should attend so being extreme is not necessarily the healthiest position on this continuum.

  22. nina says:

    We can learn to correct wrong patterns and associations. Individual conditions and circumstances are determining for which methods and techniques will help; but no matter what, they have to be aimed at correcting those patterns and associations, not at simply suppressing, or cutting out. It is not a matter of denial, or surgery. It is about transformation.

    Western interpretation of mindfulness meditation is not helpful to treat PTSD; but maybe after having received effective treatment like EMDR and CBT/exposure therapy it might have some benefit, as a way to relax.

    Seeing this kind of mindfulness meditation as the solution to improve young children’s education is strange: Isn’t it projecting our own problems onto them? Kids are perfect; they just need safety, nurturing, encouragement and some guidance, good and many social relationships. They don’t need sitting alone meditating, to be spanked afterwards. The ignorance in the USA about how harmful corporal punishment for children is, is heartbreaking. Every 5 hours a child dies from child abuse, this is the highest rate in western countries…To be honest, I don’t get it.

    • Boamagani says:

      Nina, kids may be perfect;  until they come in contact with adults.

      Then they need to have their behavior modified. It begins with speech and toilet training, and continues from there. Have you been to an elementary school lately? Half the kids are on prescriptions of Ritalin or the designated treatment that is fashionable at the time. The other half are bouncing off the wall being kids. To think that 15 to 20 minutes in the morning preparing the mind to absorb the material being presented would not be beneficial, is absurd. We were introduced to breath exercises when were 15 in English class of all places. It still serves me well to this day. I am sure you would agree that meditation should be tried before medication.

    • Tiggzz says:

      The forms of meditation I utilize strive to cultivate a sense of interconnectedness and compassion for all living beings. In my pinion our society as a whole would greatly benefit learning compassion and feeling more connected to each other. In case any one wonders I’m a Pagan/Taoist.

  23. nina says:

    Boagamani, I was talking about young kids. Not 15 year old. And the world is bigger than the USA; not everywhere the kids are on Ritalin. The USA doesn’t have a proper mental health care system, nor do they have the view, that when there is a problem, you can’t point to one individual – in this case the kid – and treat only this one individual. Besides, you completely deny what I said about current circumstances in school. Do you really think it is a good idea to have an 8 year old meditate to be spanked the next half hour? Now that will make them ripe for Ritalin.

    Tiggz, I agree with you it is essential we work on building better connections between people through cultivating compassion. It is a big problem how lonely people – and children – are. What everybodys personal daily routine is – prayer, meditation, exercise, diet – is up to oneself. I protest, when techniques with no clear definition and not researched properly as to their benefits and dangers, are being forced upon people in education and therapy.

    • Boamagani says:


      I apologize for any confusion. I was introduced to group meditation at the age of 15. It is my belief / opinion that children and society as a whole would benefit from training both mind & body as soon as possible for all humans. All would learn at their own pace, and would see different strengths according to the individual or group. And no spanking or shaming. 

      On a practical matter, perhaps 10-15 minutes at the beginning of the day and a couple minutes at the beginning and ending of each class, and 10-15 minutes at the end of the day.

      I am against behavioral medication for children, other than the most extreme circumstances and then as a last resort.

  24. Boamagani says:

    Training the body is just as important as training the mind, neither should be neglected for the other.

    One place you will find groups of young people meditating together and working with a calm mind is in martial arts classes across that country. Most sessions begin and end with the dojo precepts followed by a short meditatation.

    This is also important when considering Flight or Fight mode. When you are aware of what your body can do when working together, you have more options and can make a more informed decision than just acting instinctively. That can help avoid the animal guilt as well.

    Dance studios, Pilates, Yoga, Tai Chi, all can provide similar benefits. Allowing the mind to be aware of what the body is doing, and vice versa.

  25. jmo123 says:

    Dear Dr. Davidson:

    What affect do you think this early life training will have on anxiety disorders? Do you think a meditation practice from an early age can help reduce the number of people suffering from said disorders considerably? On the other hand, if someone develops panic disorder, or another anxiety disorder, later in life, what type of effort will they have to put forth versus someone who starts training at a young age? I know you’ve studied Mingyur Rinpoche, who suffered from panic attacks at an early age, and he was able to eliminate them after intense meditation and acceptance. You mention that mind wandering is detremental to attention, yet it seems that people who suffer from anxiety seem to put too much attention on the anxiety.  Also, can a meditation practice help reduce the vasovagal response in people who get it due to anxiety? Your work to put compassion on the scientific map is very commendable, and those of us who suffer from anxiety disorders greatly appreciate your work to help reduce suffering so that more compassion can take place. Thank you for your time.

    Warm wishes,


    • Richard Davidson says:

      Thank you for your good questions and comments Jeff.  I do believe that early training of the type I was describing–mindfulness and kindness training–may indeed be of benefit in reducing the number of people who suffer from anxiety and related disorders later in life.  Of course, this conjecture still requires extensive scientific scrutiny but it is worthy of study and I believe holds considerable promise.  I think if someone begins these practices early in life, it would be easier for them to utilize similar practices later in life if specific problems or obstacles arise, such as the occurrence of panic disorder or other related disorders. 

      With regard to your question about vasovagal responses and anxiety, we do not know how meditation might affect such responses in individuals with anxiety disorders.  This is a nascent area and despite the increasing attention and flurry of activity, we are still very much in the infancy with this research. 

  26. wondering14 says:

    The essay question may be taken in a way other than the perhaps intended inquiry into the control of what is already inside of one’s head.


    If we query, “Can Alice control mind of Bruce?” and if the answer is yes, then necessarily, Bruce is not in control of his own mind. Alice may be a psychological experiment, an advertisement, a threat, a political speech, a person.

    If Alice replaces Bruce’s potential item of interest with hers, then Bruce may focus his mind, but Alice controls the subject, which is most important. I ask, “How can Bruce control his mind from focusing on external controls?”

  27. Boamagani says:

    This will be my last post. I would like to thank Processor Davidson for hosting such a lively debate and all the contributors for there insightful observations. 

    Training the mind and body, just takes some practice and diligence to get the basics down and then you can decide how far you want to go.

    Sort of like walking or riding a bike, or playing a musical instrument, once we have learned the basics we always will know how. However not all of us are track stars, or orchestral musicians. Nor do we all need to be.

    To each their own, many gifts have been given, and only through communication and holding the truth high can a better life for all be achieved.

  28. HappyPatrick says:

    I can only speak from my experience, and yes you can learn to “control” your mind.  I am a 52yo male who stared meditating and using mindfulness to help with stress and anxiety just over one year ago.  I took an MBSR (Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction) course, found and joined a local meditation group, and through word-of-mouth heard about Dr. Davidson’s book The Emotional Life of Your Brain and read it.   This has made big changes in my life.  I quit smoking after 37 years, am less anxious and in better control of not only my emotions, feelings and my “mind”, but also my body and more importantly my life.   After struggling with anxiety and depression all my life, what I have learned this past year (and am continuing to learn) is that yes you can change how your mind works.  For me it involved learning some basic information about how my brain works (the book) and learning some basic mindfulness meditation techniques, and practicing them.  I have woven mindfulness into my daily routine and it has become part of my conscious as I navigate life.  People around me have noticed changes in me and comment on how much happier calmer and brighter I am.  Some of these people have started down the path of mindfulness too, and I can see the changes in their lives.


    I don’t know how much “control” I have over how my emotions and thoughts form and arise, but what I do know is that I am aware of so much of the process now that I have more control of what happens after they arise.  And from a novices perspective I do believe that there are changes in how my thoughts and emotions actually arise and manifest themselves.


    Thinking about how hard it was struggling through school with ADHD in the 60’s, and how tough it is to be a kid these days, the idea of teaching basic mindfulness and kindness to children at an early age just plain makes sense to me. Giving children basic tools to understand a bit more about the human condition can only have positive results.   I am thrilled that my 20 year old son even comes to meditation group and is bringing his friends….. He did this on his own…..  I guess he saw saw some changes in dad he liked.

  29. EmEl says:

    I hope others can see the humor in this regular citizen meditator now knowing this forum is out of my ken. I can guess at what it means to ‘language an opportunity’ and I can also guess at ‘relational attitude’, but I’d rather re-read my copy of Meditation in Plain English. This is not a criticism! just an appreciation of audience composition.