Maintaining a healthy mind can be just as powerful as pharmaceuticals when treating and preventing many diseases, according to Dr. Richard J. Davidson, neuroscientist and founder of the Center for Healthy Minds at the University of Wisconsin (UW). But what is a healthy mind? Davidson was joined by Dr. David Rakel, chair of the UW Department of Family Medicine and Community Health (DFMCH), to discuss this question and the mind-body connection as part of the Wisconsin Idea Spotlight. DFMCH Associate Professor Adrienne Hampton, an integrative health physician, moderated the lively chat.

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Davidson discussed the evolution of his career where he once focused more on adversity in his study of anxiety and depression. His focus shifted after meeting with the Dalai Lama who urged him to use the tools of modern neuroscience to study kindness and compassion.

“Compassion wasn’t part of the scientific lexicon in the 90s,” shared Davidson. “We used to look at people and try to figure out what was wrong. Now we look and try to figure out what is right.”

Rakel shared his own experiences with the power of listening and learning from patients. He also expressed an opportunity for health systems to enhance value by creating time and space for exploring the unique context of a human being.

“Everything I learned in leadership and medicine is from my patients,” said Rakel. “It is a privilege to sit across from another human being and find their unique path. Primary care is about building trusting relationships that provide insight into one’s innate healing potential.”

The Four Pillars

Davidson shared the four pillars—awareness, connection, insight, and purpose— that he believes contribute to a healthy mind while acknowledging there may be other key elements yet to be discovered.

We sometimes think treatments that are focused on the mind are different from pharmaceuticals, but they’re both operating on the brain,” added Davidson. “They’re just operating in different ways and the fact that mindfulness and other strategies are more active yields effects that are both more enduring and that can generalize to other contexts.”

The panel discussed studies on chronic pain and loneliness that showed more specific biological changes in the brain through meditation practice or other behavioral strategies than with any known pharmaceutical. Hampton added that a recent study shows even patients who discontinue meditation practice see lasting positive effects on things like pain and anxiety management.

“Once pain becomes chronic, it’s a different process,” explained Rakel. “We really need to go to the emotional parts of the brain and not just focus on the sensory part. We need to give voice to the suffering and then the body doesn’t need to sympathize as much.”

In closing, Davidson and Rakel urged the audience to find a reason that motivates and sustains healthy behaviors, whether it’s for family or in work that you enjoy. Both agreed that invoking an intention that goes beyond yourself is not only beneficial for you but also for those around you.

For more information about the UW Center for Healthy Minds visit

For more information about integrative health visit

Published: January 2023