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Can Science Explain the Benefits of Meditation?

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Andre Engels/Wikipedia
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Among the films being featured at this year's Milwaukee Film Festival is a documentary called “Free the Mind."

The film, which plays on Monday, follows the work of Richard Davidson, whose research at the University of Wisconsin is at the leading edge of the science of emotions.

Davidson is the founder of the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds at the university’s Waisman Center.  His work was spurred by a 1992 challenge from the Dalai Lama to apply science in studying positive qualities of the mind. 

He says the science of meditation has evolved, but wasn't always so accepted.

"The scientific research on meditation was really an oxymoron," he says. "It was really like oil and water, but that has really changed a lot and we now have a conceptual framework in which to understand how these effects may arise."

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Credit University of Wisconsin
Professor Richard Davidson's work on the science of meditation is the focus on a documentary being shown Monday at the Milwaukee Film Festival.

Neuroscientific research has shown how the brain is affected by meditation thanks to its plasticity. Davidson says the brain changes in response to experiences and training.

"Modern research is teaching us that there functional as well as structural changes in the brain that arise as a consequence of different kinds of meditation practice," he says.

Essentially, the meditation techniques featured in the documentary can help people learn to calm their minds, which over time "fundamentally changes a person's relationship to their emotions and adversity."

"It's not that negative emotions don't occur, or worrisome thoughts don't occur, but rather they don't hijack a person," he says.

The film shows how Davidson's work has made the study of the science of emotions more acceptable in the scientific community. It also shows Davidson's work with helping children calm their minds through meditation.

"Kids naturally glommed on to this," he says. "Once they tasted in their own experience what this was like, there was a natural resonance. The children very much enjoy being calm and enjoy the benefit that comes along with it and they wanted more."

Davidson will also be on hand Monday night for the showing of the documentary.

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Dan Harmon was one of the original members of Lake Effect (formerly At Ten). He started at WUWM in November of 1998 and left December of 2015 after 17 years of production.