Richard Davidson
Born (1951-12-12) December 12, 1951 (age 70)
Alma materNew York University
Harvard University
Known forNeurological effects of meditation
Scientific career
FieldsNeuroscience, psychology
InstitutionsUniversity of Wisconsin–Madison
InfluencesWilliam James

Richard J. Davidson (born December 12, 1951) is professor of psychology and psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin–Madison as well as founder and chair of the Center for Healthy Minds and the affiliated non-profit Healthy Minds Innovations.

Early life and education

Born to a Jewish family[1] in Brooklyn,[2] Richard "Richie" Davidson attended Midwood High School. While there, between 1968–1971, he worked as a summer research assistant in the sleep laboratory at nearby Maimonides Medical Center[2] cleaning electrodes that had been affixed to subjects' bodies for sleep studies.[3]

Davidson went on to receive his B.A. in Psychology from NYU (Heights) in 1972.[2][4][5][6] He chose to study at Harvard University to work with Daniel Goleman and Gary Schwartz[3] and gained his Ph.D. in Personality, Psychopathology, and Psychophysiology there in 1976.[2][6] At Harvard, Davidson was mentored by David C. McClelland and was also influenced by Norman Geschwind and Walle J. H. Nauta.[3]


In 1976 Davidson took a teaching post at the State University of New York at Purchase where he subsequently held several posts including research consultancies at the Department of Pediatrics, Infant Laboratory, Roosevelt Hospital, New York and the Laboratory of Neurosciences, National Institute on Aging, NIH.[2]

In 1984 he joined the faculty of the University of Wisconsin at Madison[3] where he has since remained. He previously served as the director of the Laboratory for Affective Neuroscience and of the Waisman Laboratory for Brain Imaging and Behavior. He is founder and director of the Center for Healthy Minds.[6]


Davidson's research is broadly focused on the neural bases of emotion and emotional style as well as methods to promote human flourishing, including meditation and related contemplative practices. His studies have centered on people across the lifespan, from birth through old age. In addition, he has conducted studies with individuals with emotional disorders such as mood and anxiety disorders and autism, as well as expert meditation practitioners with tens of thousands of hours of experience. His research uses a wide range of methods including different varieties of MRI, positron emission tomography, electroencephalography and modern genetic and epigenetic methods.

Richard Davidson is popularizing the idea that based on what is known about the plasticity of the brain, neuroplasticity, that one can learn happiness and compassion as skills just as one learns to play a musical instrument, or train in golf or tennis.[7] Happiness, like any skill, requires practice and time but because one knows that the brain is built to change in response to mental training, it is possible to train a mind to be happy.[7]

Davidson argues for a diagnosis of clinical depression with the help of emotional style. He describes emotional style as a set of continuums where some people fall at one extreme of the continuum while others fall somewhere in the middle. Clinical depression manifests as extremes on the outlook and resilience dimensions, where those afflicted have a more negative outlook and are slower to recover from adversity.[8]

Richard Davidson and his collaborators have used rhesus monkeys as models of human neurophysiology and emotional response since 1992 when he and fellow UW–Madison researchers Ned H. Kalin and Steven E. Shelton published “Lateralized effects of diazepam on frontal brain electrical asymmetries in rhesus monkeys.”[9] In 2004 the same group published further results on the role of the central nucleus of the amygdala in mediating fear and anxiety in the primate.[10] In 2007, Drs Kalin, Shelton & Davidson reported that experimental lesions of adolescent rhesus monkeys' orbitofrontal cortex resulted in "significantly decreased threat-induced freezing and marginally decreased fearful responses to a snake."[11]

Dr. Davidson's work with human subjects has attracted the attention of both scientific and popular press, and has been covered by Scientific American[12] and The New York Times.[13]


Davidson's research on primates has led to controversy and criticism. UW-Madison bioethicist Rob Streiffer[14] who objected to Davidson's primate research said: “We’re killing baby monkeys. There are other things that have been done that are worse, but that's not a justification for saying that this isn't really really bad.”

In study published in 2004[15] in which Davidson was a lead author, 33 non-human primates were deliberately subjected to situations intended to cause fear and anxiety. The amygdalae of these rhesus macaques were damaged with acid after their skulls were cut open. The monkeys were eventually killed, their brains then removed from their skulls for further study.

A similar study was conducted in 2007 involving 12 monkeys.[16]

In 2014, Davidson attempted to attain approval for an even more controversial primate study. The discussions surrounding the ethics of this study spanned seven meetings; normally approvals are secured after one or two meetings.[17]

"It is the protocol that's received the most attention since I've been here," said Eric Sandgren, director of the university's Research Animal Resources Center. "The most intense I've been a part of."

“This is an anomaly. This doesn’t happen,” animal advocate Rick Bogle says. “These discussions that they had about this study don’t occur with any frequency at all. In fact, I don't know of seeing them occur ever before.” [18]

According to the research protocol,[19] on the day they are born, 20 rhesus macaques will be taken away from their sedated or manually restrained mothers. Standard practice in maternal-deprivation studies is to physically restrain or anesthetize the mothers, who would otherwise fight the removal.

For the first three to five weeks of their lives, the monkeys will be singly housed in a large shoebox-sized incubator with only a stuffed animal to cling to for contact comfort.[20]

The babies will be housed individually for 21 to 42 days, then either individually or in pairs for the following year, without maternal care. During that year they will be intermittently exposed to situations designed to provoke anxiety and fear. For example, they will be exposed to a live snake. [21]

After a year the monkeys will be killed, and their brains will be dissected. A control group of 20 other young monkeys who will be allowed to remain with their mothers for that year will also be killed and dissected at that time.

This study cost $525,540, paid for by US taxpayers and obtained by a grant to Davidson from the National Institutes of Health.[22]

This experiment builds on the controversial studies of UW primate researcher Harry Harlow. Harlow spent decades studying the need for maternal affection and social interaction by denying it to monkeys, often with gruesome results.[23]

Many of Harlow's experimental monkeys were completely isolated at birth in a sensory deprivation device that Harlow called the "pit of despair."

Females were put in a restraint device Harlow called the “rape rack” and forced to bear offspring. One of these mothers bit off her baby’s fingers and feet. Another crushed her baby’s head in her own mouth. When introduced to peers as adults, isolated monkeys showed signs of permanent psychological damage.[24]

Animal research labs at University of Wisconsin have been fined repeatedly for violations to the Animal Welfare Act (AWA). In 2014 the university agreed to pay over $35,000 in fines issued by the USDA, which found a string of violations[25] of animal research treatment standards at the school

Most recently, in 2020, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) cited the University of Wisconsin for serial Animal Welfare Act (AWA) violations, including improper handling resulting in at least 20 incidents of nonhuman primates requiring amputation of body parts such as hands, feet, digits, and tongues, and resulting in a $74,000 fine to the university.[26]

Some psychologists suggest that primate research such as Davidson's should never be able to trump the rights and dignity of sentient beings, and that academics should be on the front lines of condemning such research as it represents a betrayal of the basic notions of dignity and decency that should be upheld- especially in the cases of vulnerable populations such as helpless animals.[27]

On February 10, 2021, the Animal Legal Defense Fund filed a lawsuit on behalf of Madeline Krasno, a former employee of the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s controversial primate research labs, who has been prevented from posting truthful comments on the university’s otherwise public Instagram and Facebook posts because they are critical of the university’s storied history of animal testing.  Because UW-Madison is a public university, the complaint alleges the ban violates Krasno’s constitutional right to engage in protected speech.

As an animal lover, Krasno was inspired to study zoology at UW-Madison, with a goal of working in the field of primate conservation. Seeking hands-on experience with primates, she worked as a student caretaker for primates at the university for approximately two years — an experience that exposed her to the harsh realities of animal testing.

While working with primates at the facility Krasno viewed firsthand a monkey who’d been subjected to an invasive cranial procedure that left an opening in his skull that was covered with a so-called “headcap,” who shook his cage bars and reached out his hands to grab in vain at passing humans.

She witnessed a mother monkey and her newborn who screamed as they were separated so the newborn could be branded, an infant monkey who died in Krasno’s hands during a seizure, and a mother monkey who clutched her dead newborn for more than a full day until Krasno and a coworker were directed to separate her from the baby–a distressing experience that ended with the mother pressing her lips to the baby’s head before retreating alone into a transport cage. Her reactions to the experiences she had at the facility led Krasno to later struggle with extreme anxiety[28] and post-traumatic stress disorder.[29]

Krasno feels compelled to share her firsthand experiences in order to advance the public discourse about animal testing and provide truthful information about what happens to primates in research labs. However, UW-Madison — a public university that receives significant federal and state government funding — has improperly restricted her ability to engage on its social media channels.[30]

Research with the Dalai Lama

Davidson has been a longtime friend of the 14th Dalai Lama, and some of his work involves research on the brain as it relates to meditation.[7] Davidson has long maintained his own daily meditation practice, and continues to communicate regularly with the Dalai Lama.

This connection has caused controversy, with some scientists criticizing Davidson for being too close to someone with an interest in the outcome of his research and others claiming that it represents an inappropriate mix of faith and science. When he invited the Dalai Lama to participate in the "Neuroscience and Society" program of the Society for Neuroscience meeting in 2005, over 500 researchers signed a petition in protest.[31][32] Some of the petitioners were Chinese researchers, who may disagree politically with the Dalai Lama's stance on Tibet.[31] The controversy subsided quickly after most scientists attending the talk found it appropriate.[33]

Awards and honors

In 2000, Davidson received the Distinguished Scientific Contribution Award, for lifetime achievement from the American Psychological Association.[3]

Time magazine named Dr. Davidson one of the world's top 100 most influential people in a 2006 issue.[34]

Personal meditation practice

Davidson's practice has changed considerably over the years. In recent years he practices in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, including prostration to the teachings, and meditating "not primarily for my benefit, but for the benefit of others."[35]


Davidson has published many papers, chapter articles and edited 13 books.[5] In 2001 he was the founding co-editor, with Klaus Scherer, of the American Psychological Association journal Emotion.[36]

Davidson is currently on the Editorial Board of Greater Good Magazine, published by the Greater Good Science Center of the University of California, Berkeley.[37] Dr. Davidson's contributions include the interpretation of scientific research into the roots of compassion, altruism, and peaceful human relationships.[7]

His most recent book, Altered Traits: Science Reveals How Meditation Changes Your Mind, Brain, and Body, was co-authored with friend and colleague Daniel Goleman and released in September 2017.

He has written a New York Times bestseller (with Sharon Begley) titled The Emotional Life of Your Brain, published by Penguin in March 2012.

A documentary film about the work of Davidson called "Free The Mind", directed by Phie Ambo, was released in 2012.

Selected publications




  1. ^ Barbara Bradley Hagerty, Fingerprints of God: The Search for the Science of Spirituality, New York: Riverhead Books, 2009, Ch. 8, § "The Dalai Lama Meets the Neurologist."
  2. ^ a b c d e "Richard J Davidson" (PDF). April 2011. Archived from the original (PDF) on 16 July 2011. Retrieved 25 April 2011.
  3. ^ a b c d e "Biography from Current Biography (2004)" (PDF). Retrieved 25 April 2011.
  4. ^ Video on YouTube
  5. ^ a b "RJD CV January 11" (PDF). January 2011. Archived from the original (PDF) on 11 May 2011. Retrieved 25 April 2011.
  6. ^ a b c "Richard J. Davidson, Ph.D., Lab Director". Archived from the original on 14 June 2011. Retrieved 25 April 2011.
  7. ^ a b c d Begley, Sharon (January 2, 2007). "Transforming the Emotional Mind". Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain: How a New Science Reveals Our Extraordinary Potential to Transform Ourselves. Ballantine Books. pp. 229–242. ISBN 978-1-4000-6390-1.
  8. ^ Davidson, Richard (2013). The Emotional Life of Your Brain. New York, New York: Penguin Group. ISBN 978-0-452-29888-0.
  9. ^ Davidson, Richard J.; Kalin, Ned H.; Shelton, Steven E. (1 September 1992). "Lateralized effects of diazepam on frontal brain electrical asymmetries in rhesus monkeys" (PDF). Biological Psychiatry. 32 (5): 438–451. doi:10.1016/0006-3223(92)90131-i. PMID 1486149. S2CID 10746950. Archived from the original (PDF) on 20 July 2011.
  10. ^ Kalin, N. H.; Shelton, S.; Davidson, R. (2004). "The Role of the Central Nucleus of the Amygdala in Mediating Fear and Anxiety in the Primate". Journal of Neuroscience. 24 (24): 5506–5515. doi:10.1523/JNEUROSCI.0292-04.2004. PMC 6729317. PMID 15201323.
  11. ^ Kalin, Ned H.; Shelton, Steven E.; Davidson, Richard J. (2007). "Role of the Primate Orbitofrontal Cortex in Mediating Anxious Temperament". Biological Psychiatry. 62 (10): 1134–9. doi:10.1016/j.biopsych.2007.04.004. PMC 4523234. PMID 17643397.
  12. ^ Reiner, Peter B. (May 26, 2009). "Meditation on Demand : New research reveals how meditation changes the brain". Scientific American. doi:10.1038/scientificamericanmind1109-64.
  13. ^ Fountain, Henry (April 1, 2005). "Study of Social Interactions Starts With a Test of Trust". The New York Times. Archived from the original on June 21, 2006.
  14. ^ Phillips, Noah. "UW to reprise controversial monkey studies". The Reporter. Retrieved 2022-10-14.
  15. ^ Kalin, Ned H.; Shelton, Steven E.; Davidson, Richard J. (2004-06-16). "The Role of the Central Nucleus of the Amygdala in Mediating Fear and Anxiety in the Primate". The Journal of Neuroscience. 24 (24): 5506–5515. doi:10.1523/JNEUROSCI.0292-04.2004. ISSN 0270-6474. PMC 6729317. PMID 15201323.
  16. ^ Kalin, Ned H.; Shelton, Steven E.; Davidson, Richard J. (2007-11-15). "Role of the Primate Orbitofrontal Cortex in Mediating Anxious Temperament". Biological Psychiatry. 62 (10): 1134–1139. doi:10.1016/j.biopsych.2007.04.004. ISSN 0006-3223.
  17. ^ Phillips, Noah. "UW-Madison to reprise controversial monkey studies". Wausau Daily Herald. Retrieved 2022-10-14.
  18. ^ Phillips, Noah. "UW-Madison to reprise controversial monkey studies". Wausau Daily Herald. Retrieved 2022-10-14.
  19. ^ Journalism, Noah Phillips-For Isthmus and the Wisconsin Center for Investigative. "University of Wisconsin renews controversial maternal deprivation research on monkeys". The Cap Times. Retrieved 2022-10-14.
  20. ^ "Hurting Baby Monkeys Again: Harry Harlow Redux". The Dodo. Retrieved 2022-10-14.
  21. ^ "Hurting Baby Monkeys Again: Harry Harlow Redux". The Dodo. Retrieved 2022-10-14.
  22. ^ Journalism, Noah Phillips-For Isthmus and the Wisconsin Center for Investigative. "University of Wisconsin renews controversial maternal deprivation research on monkeys". The Cap Times. Retrieved 2022-10-14.
  23. ^ "The "Pit Of Despair" Was One Of The Most Unethical Experiments Of Modern Science". IFLScience. Retrieved 2022-10-14.
  24. ^ Golden, Kate (2014-07-31). "University of Wisconsin to reprise controversial monkey studies". Retrieved 2022-10-14.
  25. ^ "University Of Wisconsin Fined $35,000 For Animal Welfare Violations". The Dodo. Retrieved 2022-10-14.
  26. ^ "Evidence Shows University of Wisconsin-Madison Illegally Censors Critics of Animal Testing". Animal Legal Defense Fund. Retrieved 2022-10-14.
  27. ^ "Revisiting Harry Harlow's Legacy: Cruelty Towards Monkeys | Psychology Today". Retrieved 2022-10-14.
  28. ^ Walker, Jackson (2021-04-05). "UW Madison sued over alleged social media censorship". Retrieved 2022-10-14.
  29. ^ Pollack ’21, Kevin. "University of Wisconsin-Madison sued after censoring alumna's critical social media comments on animal abuse". The Free Speech Project. Retrieved 2022-10-14.
  30. ^ Kehoe, William (2021). "Social Media Censorship of Political Speech". SSRN Electronic Journal. doi:10.2139/ssrn.3811974. ISSN 1556-5068.
  31. ^ a b Foley, Ryan J. (May 15, 2010). "Scientist, Dalai Lama share research effort". AP.
  32. ^ Gierland, John (February 2006). "Wired 14.02: Buddha on the Brain". Wired. Vol. 14, no. 2.
  33. ^ Bhattacharjee, Yudhijit (November 18, 2005). "Neuroscientists Welcome Dalai Lama With Mostly Open Arms". Science. 310 (5751): 1104. doi:10.1126/science.310.5751.1104. PMID 16293731. S2CID 39429727.
  34. ^ Weil, Andrew (April 30, 2006). "Richard Davidson". Time. Archived from the original on June 18, 2006.
  35. ^ "Neuroscientist Richie Davidson Says Dalai Lama Gave Him 'a Total Wake-Up Call' that Changed His Research Forever". ABC News.
  36. ^ Davidson, R. J.; Scherer, K. R. (2001). "Editorial". Emotion. 1: 3–4. doi:10.1037/1528-3542.1.1.3.
  37. ^ "People". Greater Good. University of California, Berkeley. Retrieved 25 April 2011.