For most people, exercise includes breaking a sweat by lifting weights, going for a run or playing a game of pick-up basketball. However, researchers at UW-Madison’s Center for Healthy Minds focus on training the mind in order to seek better health.
UW-Madison neuroscientist Richard Davidson founded the unique research center in 2008 with the goal of studying what establishes a healthy mind.
In a time where research on mental health and well-being has become more prevalent, Davidson and his research teams look for scientific evidence to help people find balance and compassion in their daily lives.
“We’re one of the only facilities of our kind that has contemplative spaces such as meditation rooms as well as imaging equipment,” said Marianne Spoon, a spokesperson for the center. “We can do a lot of different things here. We can look behaviorally at what is going on while at the same time fine tune the biology of what’s actually going on.”
The center studies development throughout the lifespan with a focus on certain critical periods when human brain development is more malleable.
One example of the center’s focus on training the mind is its kindness curriculum, a mindfulness-based curriculum that examines how various practices and teachings can influence social behavior in a classroom.
In a recent study, researchers assessed the learning skills of four- and five-year-olds in the Madison Metropolitan School District. They tested how the kids’ attention to ideas such as compassion, kindness and gratitude from simple tasks like giving stickers to peers.
At the end of the curriculum’s trainings, researchers in the study said they found students were more likely to show compassionate behavior to people they previously struggled to get along with.
“We still need to replicate the study since it was the first of its kind, but we suspect the results are more promising,” Spoon said. “Like physical exercise, mental exercise must be maintained. We want to expand the scope of the curriculum to see if these effects can stay with kids as they grow up.”
The longevity of these results can be promising, especially as young adults enter the workforce, where they will spend most of their lives.
Though much of the center’s research focuses on the basic sciences, Spoon said applications of their research can help people practice mindfulness skills throughout their lives.
Despite the progress, a lack of federal funding for the National Institute of Mental Health has been felt locally. Between 2009 and 2012, the NIMH received an average of $1.47 billion annually. In the years since, the average funding for a year is nearly $10 million less.
“Even though funding has been pretty flat over the past few years, it hasn’t been just to mental health,” Greenberg said. “Funding for federal research has been greatly reduced across the board.”
The center receives about 53 percent of its funding through federal grants.
“Across the university we are feeling the scarcity and the competition for these federal research dollars,” Spoon said. “We’ve been very lucky in that we have been able to secure some large, multiple-year grants.”
Aside from federal research dollars, the center receives about 38 percent of its funding from non-governmental agencies, which Spoon said the center is lucky to have at a time of declining funding.
“These people are philanthropic and are people who want to invest in our science,” Spoon said. “We are benefitting and are very grateful for the support from outside the university and the governmental agencies.”
Despite stagnant funding in recent years, the field itself has expanded since the early 1990s, according to Associate Vice Chancellor for Social Studies Jan Greenberg.
“It’s definitely changed over time as national priorities change and new discoveries are made,” Greenberg said. “There’s a lot more research being done on campus around mental illness as a brain disorder and understanding how the brain really works.”
Greenberg and his office—the Office of the Vice Chancellor for Research and Graduate Education—work primarily to help faculty make their research interests a reality by connecting them to funding opportunities as well as other resources, such as adapting research to fit the needs of diverse populations.
“A big change is that a lot of research is being done to try to adapt research for a more diverse population,” Greenberg said. “We can then take treatments that have been used for majority culture and try to adapt them so that they are more appropriate for different groups of people.”
So much of mental health and well-being research is unknown, which Spoon said can sometimes slow down their process. However, she noted the science will eventually catch up.
“Science is slow, complex and there is also so much that we don’t know. We are skimming the surface on many fronts,” she said. “A lot of people are suffering and part of our mission is to alleviate suffering, and we are trying to get the impact of the science we study out there as best we can.”