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. 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.
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.
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.”
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. 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."
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. 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. Some of the petitioners were Chinese researchers, who may disagree politically with the Dalai Lama's stance on Tibet. The controversy subsided quickly after most scientists attending the talk found it appropriate.
Time magazine named Dr. Davidson one of the world's top 100 most influential people in a 2006 issue.
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."
Davidson, R. J.; Kabat-Zinn, J.; Schumacher, J.; Rosenkranz, M.; Muller, D.; Santorelli, S.; Urbanowski, F.; Harrington, A.; Bonus, K.; Sheridan, J. F. (2003). "Alterations in Brain and Immune Function Produced by Mindfulness Meditation". Psychosomatic Medicine. 65 (4): 564–570. doi:10.1097/01.PSY.0000077505.67574.E3. PMID12883106.
Davidson, Richard J.; Begley, Sharon (December 24, 2012). The Emotional Life of Your Brain : How its Unique Patterns Affect the Way You Think, Feel, and Live — and How You Can Change Them. London: Penguin Books. p. 304. ISBN978-0452298880.
^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."
^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. PMID15201323.