Depresion - Not Something one can beat with will power alone


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Big Wall climber
Apr 5, 2010 - 06:54pm PT
Circuits in your brain light up when you're happy. One groundbreaking researcher has discovered how to keep them lit.

There are no dark corners in Madison, Wisconsin, a university town that sparkles with endowment and research dollars—more than $900 million last year—as well as just plain Midwestern niceness. The grants are well earned: It was at the University of Wisconsin–Madison that the first bone marrow transplant was performed and the first synthetic gene was created. It was here that human stem cells were isolated and cultured in a lab for the first time. And for more than a decade, one of the campus's most productive hit makers has been the Laboratory for Affective Neuroscience, run by a 56-year-old neuroscientist and professor of psychology and psychiatry named Richard J. Davidson, PhD, who has been systematically uncovering the architecture of emotion.

Davidson, whose youthful appearance and wide-open smile give him more than a passing resemblance to Jerry Seinfeld, has been studying the brain structures behind not just anxiety, depression, and addiction but also happiness, resilience, and, most recently, compassion. Using brain imaging technologies, in particular a device called a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) machine, a sort of Hubble telescope for the brain, Davidson and his researchers have observed the areas associated with various emotions and how their function changes as an individual moves through them. His "brain maps" have revealed the neural terrain of so-called normal adults and children, as well as those suffering from mood disorders and autism. Davidson has also studied a now rather famous group of subjects: Tibetan monks with years of Buddhist meditation under their gleaming pates.

Probably his most well-known study mapped the brains of employees at a biotech company, more than half of whom completed about three hours of meditation once a week led by Jon Kabat-Zinn, PhD, founding director of the Stress Reduction Clinic at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. After four months, the meditating subjects noticed a boost in mood and decrease in anxiety, while their immune systems became measurably stronger. What made headlines, though ("The Science of Happiness" sang a January 2005 Time magazine cover), was that Davidson vividly showed that meditation produced a significant increase in activity in the part of the brain responsible for positive emotions and traits like optimism and resilience—the left prefrontal cortex. In meditating monks, he'd separately found, this area lit up like the lights in Times Square, showing activity beyond anything he and his team had ever seen—a neurological circuit board explaining their sunny serenity.

These and other findings of Davidson's have bolstered mounting research suggesting that the adult brain is changeable, or "plastic," as opposed to becoming fixed in adolescence. What this means is that although an individual may be born with a predisposition toward gloominess or anxiety, the emotional floor plan can be altered, the brain's furniture moved to a more felicitous arrangement; with a little training, you can coax a fretful mind toward a happier outlook. It's a new understanding of the brain that represents a paradigm shift of seismic importance, and one that's sent a steady stream of reporters out to Madison like pilgrims on the road to Santiago. Perhaps just as seismic is Davidson's "coming out of the closet" (his phrase) as a highly regarded, marquee-name brain researcher with a focus on contemplation, and a commitment to putting compassion and spirituality on the scientific map.

The letters on the license plate of Davidson's silvery green Subaru Outback spell out EMOTE, but the man himself does not ooze. Gentle and precise in his speech, he is the consummate scientist, curious, quietly passionate, and utterly on topic. And despite all the buzz about his work, he'll tell you simply that he has been chipping away at the same ideas about consciousness for more than three decades.

Raised in Brooklyn—his father was in the real estate business—Richie, as friends call him, is still married to his college sweetheart, Susan, a perinatologist and director of the perinatal program at St. Mary's Hospital and Dean Medical Center in Madison. They were born nine days and a few blocks apart; both graduated high school at 16 (she from Erasmus, he from Midwood), and both have graduate degrees in psychology from nearby universities: his from Harvard, hers from the University of Massachusetts. "You couldn't have arranged a better match," he says.

When they arrived in Cambridge in the early 1970s, every swami guru and his mother was selling his wares and giving lectures, says the Davidsons' old friend Jon Kabat-Zinn, who had recently completed his own PhD, in molecular biology at MIT: "You could get an alternate education just by going to all the talks." The first spiritual leader to touch Davidson was Richard Alpert, the Harvard professor who'd been fired for his liberal deployment of LSD among his students and was reborn, phoenixlike, as Ram Dass. Through him, Davidson learned "that there was a way to work on yourself to transform your way of being, to make you happier and more compassionate." And that way was meditation.

Another big influence was fellow student Daniel Goleman, who went on to become a psychologist and the author of Emotional Intelligence, among other books. In 1973 he had already traveled to India, developed a contemplative practice, and published papers about it. At that time, Goleman remembers, "there was a strong sense of the new, a sense of something that had not been realized or executed before, and that it had some sort of importance for the culture."

Two visuals that distill the period for Davidson are the memory of Goleman's bright red VW van, its dashboard decorated with photographs of lamas and yogis—as enticing and otherworldly as Ken Kesey's psychedelic school bus—and a 1974 snapshot of him and Goleman wearing Harvard T-shirts and sarongs in Sri Lanka, where Goleman was then living, and where Susan and Richie visited before embarking on their first meditation retreat in India.

"My professors were firmly convinced I was going off the deep end," Davidson says. "But I knew I was going to come back. I was committed to a scientific career. Still, I needed to taste more intensive meditation in that setting." And it was the hardest work he's ever done—16-hour days, two weeks of them, in utter silence. "Anyone who says meditation is relaxation doesn't know what they're talking about. It's like trying to change the course of a river."

When he returned from India, he finished his PhD and started to craft a research career around emotions, at the time the backwater of psychology. It was extraordinarily difficult. "The measuring devices were too crude," he says. "You couldn't see, as we can now, what was happening in the brain." And neuroscience barely existed.

"Richie was always kind of eclectic—he wasn't bound by any discipline," says Susan, who became, as her husband likes to say, a "real doctor." His roving interests made him an odd fit, initially, for some universities. "Richie had finished his degree at Harvard, been published in all these journals, but he would go to job interviews and they would say, 'Oh, you're too clinical for our psychology department, or too this for our that,'" Susan says. "People found him interesting, but they didn't want to commit."

What changed the face of his career, according to Davidson, was a meeting in 1992 with Tenzin Gyatso, otherwise known as the 14th Dalai Lama, who urged him to home in on compassion as the object of serious and rigorous study. "If you look at the index of any scientific textbook, you won't find the word compassion," Davidson says. "But it is as worthy a topic of examination as all the negative emotions—fear, anxiety, sadness, anger, disgust—that have long occupied the scientific community."

When I visit Davidson in Madison, where he and Susan have lived since 1985 and raised their children, Amelie, now 26, and Seth, 20, he tells me about his latest research: Reminding me that the Dalai Lama's mandate is to effect change in the world through the power of compassion, Davidson says, "If this is truly possible, then we should be able to discover circuits in the brain that underlie compassion and that are strengthened when it is cultivated."

His new studies on the monks—"the Olympic athletes of meditation," as he calls them—are designed to measure what happens when they engage specifically in compassion practice. So far, he's found that their brains show dramatic changes in two telling areas: increased activity not only in the prefrontal cortex—which floods them with well-being—but also in the areas involved with motor planning. It seems the monks are not just "feeling" good; their brains have primed their bodies to spring up and "do" good. "They are poised to jump into action and do whatever they can to help relieve suffering," Davidson says. (As for his own practice, Judaism is Davidson's "birth religion," but he characterizes his spiritual path as being most similar to a Buddhist one, though he hesitates to describe himself as a card-carrying devotee. Certainly all who know him say that Davidson is a glass-half-full sort of guy—his mother even called him her Joy Boy, while Susan says, "Richie is consistently upbeat." And yes, he has mapped parts of his own brain, and admits it "showed moderately strong left prefrontal activation.")

Whether generosity of spirit rubs off on others is another question Davidson has begun to probe. "We've launched a study with a highly trained, long-term Buddhist practitioner, looking at the impact of his compassionate attitude on ordinary individuals. We bring them into the MRI scanner, we expose them to pictures of suffering—gory accidents and things like that. We do this under two conditions: one where they are in the presence of an experimenter, and one where they are in the presence of the monk." Davidson is curious to see whether the results will bear out anecdotal reports that in the presence of an extremely compassionate person, you feel more relaxed, secure, loved, and safe

His team is also putting ordinary individuals, first-timers, through a two-week intervention that includes 30 minutes a day of compassion meditation. Davidson predicts changes in the brain regions associated with emotion and empathy as well as the subjects making more altruistic decisions: "They will also have the opportunity to give away some of what they earn for their participation in the study," he says. "We expect that those undergoing compassion training will donate more money."

The idea that compassion can be learned—and that the process can be measured scientifically—is what thrills Davidson. And he envisions compassion training in a variety of settings, from public schools to the corporate world. "Now we mostly have monks and other religious figures preaching about these ideas," he says. "It's quite another thing to have a hard-nosed neuroscientist like me suggest that such training may have beneficial consequences for how we act toward others as well as promoting health. Most people accept the idea that regular physical exercise is something they should do for the remainder of their lives. Imagine how different things might be if we accepted the notion that the regular practice of mental exercises to strengthen compassion is something to incorporate into everyday life."

To what extent can we really brighten our outlook? What is the best way to deflect stress? How can people become more resilient? Are there other ways aside from meditation to boost the brain? Many questions remain to be answered. It is a tantalizing prospect: that even a little more joy might be within everyone's reach. "I've been talking about happiness not as a trait but as a skill, like tennis," says Davidson. "If you want to be a good tennis player, you can't just pick up a racket—you have to practice."

Big Wall climber
Apr 5, 2010 - 07:02pm PT
Start by closing your eyes and thinking about someone you love.

Compassion meditation involves silently repeating certain phrases that express the intention to move from judgment to caring, from isolation to connection, from indifference or dislike to understanding. You don't have to force a particular feeling or get rid of unpleasant or undesirable reactions; the power of the practice is in the wholehearted gathering of attention and energy, and concentrating on each phrase. You can begin with a 20-minute session and increase the time gradually until you are meditating for half an hour at a time. If your mind wanders, don't be concerned. Notice whatever has captured your attention, let go of the thought or feeling, and simply return to the phrases. If you have to do that over and over again, it is fine.

•To begin, take a comfortable position. You may want to sit in a chair or on cushions on the floor (just make sure your back is erect without being strained or overarched). You can also lie down. Take a few deep, soft breaths to let your body settle.
•Closing your eyes or leaving them slightly open, start by thinking of someone you care about already—perhaps she's been good or inspiring to you. You can visualize this person or say her name to yourself, get a feeling for her presence, and silently offer phrases of compassion to her. The typical phrases are: "May you be free of pain and sorrow. May you be well and happy." But you can alter these, or use others that have personal significance.
•After a few minutes, shift your attention inward and offer the phrases of compassion to yourself: "May I be free of pain and sorrow. May I be well and happy."
•Then, after some time, move on to someone you find difficult. Get a feeling for the person's presence, and offer the phrases of compassion to her.
•Then turn to someone you've barely met—the supermarket checkout woman or UPS man. Even without knowing his or her name, you can get a sense of the person, perhaps an image, and offer the phrases of compassion.
•We close with the offering of compassion to people everywhere, to all forms of life, without limit, without exception: "May all beings be free of pain and sorrow. May all be well and happy."

Big Wall climber
Seattle, WA
Apr 5, 2010 - 07:07pm PT
That sounds like good stuff. Have you tried it? Does it work, or are you just scratching your back?
Lost Arrow

Trad climber
The North Ridge of the San Fernando
Topic Author's Reply - Apr 17, 2010 - 06:26am PT
I went and met my new physicist Fri afternoon. He told me I was being giving the wrong meds. He wants me back on a SSRI I have had so much help with in the past.

He wants to give me new meds to get my sleep under control.

Will maintain my Xanax until I can be weaned off it.

Whats to spend am hour a week doing cognitive therapy as I see a very distorted view of the world. I see a world of fear.

So I am feeling better.

Dingus Milktoast

Gym climber
Why'djya leave the ketchup on the table?
Apr 17, 2010 - 06:37am PT
You'll be a democrat again in no time buddy!

Lost Arrow

Trad climber
The North Ridge of the San Fernando
Topic Author's Reply - Apr 17, 2010 - 06:46am PT
Where you off to Dingus?
Dingus Milktoast

Gym climber
Why'djya leave the ketchup on the table?
Apr 17, 2010 - 07:15am PT
Not sure buddy. As you can see I don't sleep normal patterns either. In my case I generally go to bed quite early by human standards. I gave up, a long time ago, being upset with myself for getting up so early.

I've been sitting here trying to decide what to do LA. Gonna climb with Ang tomorrow, and the kid is otherwise busy today (Papa, I intend to SLEEP... Saturday... OK there kid, sleep on!).

Thinking about tossing the ole planks in the back of the jeep, head up to Carson Pass, see if I can avoid claustrophobic death on the white stuff. Maybe go do some bouldering down Woodsford way afterward.

Or maybe not, can't decide!

Say... you will like this LA. My f*#king Jeep just quit working this week. I parked it one evening and the next morning I turn the key, nothing.

Well not quite nothing, I got 'woltage' but the starter won't do sh#t.

So I troubleshoot over the course of a couple of days.... battery is good, can't really tell if the alternator is... f*#ker won't start!

I eventually concluded the solenoid wasn't firing. Last evening, as a test, I turned the key on and using a long piece of wire, with one end attached to the solennoid firing terminal, I touched the other end of that wire to the batter + terminal.



Kidding! Just Kidding!

Damn Jeep started right up!

Ah... something in the firing circuit. Soe googlosity reveals cheap assed Jeep construction - Jeeps have a notorious problem with the Transmission Neutral Safety Switch - the gizmo that tells the car computer the tranny is in park or neutral so as not to engage the starter when the engine is running.

That switch, or the computer down stream, was bad. A couple more minutes revealed a dark secret - the switch replacement is around $200!


A few more minutes research revealed the "Tennessee Fix."

Down at Kragen (Woulda gone to Radio Shack, cheaper and more choice, but farther away at 5 PM on a Friday, f*#k THAT) - I bought some wire, an inline fuse holder, some fuses, and a push button switch.

Poked wire through the firewall and mounted that switch on the plastic bezel beside the steering column. The other ends of those wires went to a 12v batter wire and the solenoid terminal, respectively. Fuse in there to keep things honest.

Bing bang boom - turn the key, push the button voila! Starts right up. Switch is unobtrusive so Jeep is now somewhat Jack Proof, though no one is going to steal it anyway.

So there you go - major Jeep outage, $20 repair. I was in an unfortunate mood all week cause of that Jeep... then a big UP last evening. Got so happy I took the family out to dinner!

Now I'm gonna brew another cup of Joe, fire some sacrifical herbs in a small religious brazier I keep in the garage for predawn road trip prayers to the gods... oh maybe I should get dressed and throw some sh#t in that sh#t Jeep of mine.... I'm outta here bro!

Cheers LA
(has we REALLY been kibitizing online for 17 years Wan? SEVENTEEN????


Social climber
Apr 17, 2010 - 08:01am PT

I suffer from similar patterns in sleep. Sometimes I have to go to bed as soon as I get home from work, sleep a few hours and awake until the wee hours, then fall asleep long enough to say I was asleep before the alarm goes off for work.

That is one pattern and is ok to live with. The other phase is when I sleep from about 11 p.m. until 1:00 a.m. and up until the next night at 11... this goes on for 6 or 7 days until I am so exhausted I sleep for 16 hours or so.

This is tough to deal with because I am wired while I am awake. I had a big rig hauling logs & mail for awhile and it was ok because driving a truck at night is much easier than daytime driving; besides less traffic it is always a quick unloading process and less personality to deal with. As a teacher this pattern is disastrous.

The other pattern is interrupted sleep but normal hours; every once in awhile 8 hours of uninterrupted sleep. When that happens I feel 15 years younger and usually have a great day.

I tried all the sleep meds and my own. I did a lot of reading and research about how to deal with it and discovered the best thing to do is just live with it. The myth that humans need and usually get 8 hours of interrupted sleep is baloney. The wonderful world of advertising has convinced us that we should sleep like babies and something is wrong if we don't. Agreeably it is wonderful to sleep like that; people that do are fortunate. Historically speaking it hasn't ever been part of life.


Trad climber
Aug 2, 2010 - 05:13pm PT
From Jeff in April (in the original post of this thread):

For the last month I have been trying to beat my depression with will power alone. This is not working, I cannot sleep, I grow more fatigued each day and start thinking dark thoughs.

I have family mememeber telling me to just snap out of it. I wish it was that easy.

Its like getting up a climb without the necessary strenght to do the moves.

I had to call in sick to work as I sleept 1 hour.

Whats the next step I need to take. New Doctor. Hospital.

I am starting to give up hope.

A little compassion and suggestions would be very nice.


Trad climber
Mill Valley, CA
Aug 2, 2010 - 05:34pm PT
Aug 2, 2010 - 02:31pm PT
There's so many resources needed to support a suicidal person. Please make a note of this toll free 24 hour number for someone you know who may be struggling. They might not use it but giving it will let them know you care that they live

1(800)273-8255 (TALK)

The user formerly known as stzzo

Social climber
Aug 11, 2010 - 10:52pm PT
It's a shock to my system to see this thread resurrected... Not that it's bad, just disturbing.

RIP, Juan.

Aug 11, 2010 - 11:03pm PT
Jeff's post on April 17th was telling. Something didn't work out by the time May 25th rolled around. So terribly sad that he felt compelled to end his life.

"I went and met my new physicist Fri afternoon. He told me I was being giving the wrong meds. He wants me back on a SSRI I have had so much help with in the past.

He wants to give me new meds to get my sleep under control.

Will maintain my Xanax until I can be weaned off it.

Whats to spend am hour a week doing cognitive therapy as I see a very distorted view of the world. I see a world of fear.

So I am feeling better." Juan

Trad climber
san diego
Aug 13, 2010 - 05:00am PT
Daphne- "Please make a note of this *TOLL FREE 24 HOUR NUMBER* for someone you know who may be struggling."


Thanks, Daphne!!

Jun 3, 2011 - 03:52pm PT

Been riding high on Wellbutrin for the last 2 1/2 weeks. The crash came hard last night. There is no free lunch.

Just trying to make it through today (and no, alcohol feels good but does not help...

More later.

Gym climber
Berkeley, CA
Jun 3, 2011 - 04:20pm PT
Sometimes it's darkest before you see the light.

What means the most to you in this life?

hanging from an ice pick and missing my mama.
Jun 3, 2011 - 04:55pm PT
Very depressing to see how the cycle formed before he took his own life. He really was a great guy...

It's ridicules to tear apart others as if people are indestructible. We are not. Words can kill and... They can save. Be careful what you say.

We need each other, we need to be there because it does count in a million ways.

Gym climber
Berkeley, CA
Jun 3, 2011 - 06:01pm PT
toadgas, I suspect depression is at least as common in the broader public as it is within the climbing community. One difference we might note is that people feel more comfortable sharing with "strangers" in this forum more readily than walking down the street or with someone you met 5 minutes ago climbing. So we actually become aware of the issue here, where we normally walk past it in our tangible life. How many people meet your eyes when you walk down the street? Mostly people are too busy or too afraid to see or be seen.

I think there is something therapeutic in these forums, something that makes it easier for some people to connect in a personally meaningful way more frequently than they are able to do in tangible life (either because of personal inhibitions, or work schedules, geographic isolation, or whatever). I think this is true for me at least.

+1 for what Anastasia said.

Social climber
Jun 3, 2011 - 08:31pm PT

You hit the nail on the head. The days I feel "good" are the ones that at the days end I am completely exhausted from activities out of doors. It isn't always aerobic or fast paced activities like running. Mainly tasks like splitting wood, moving dirt or any other energy depleting activity. Activities that are more aligned with work than pleasure. Leisure activities per se seem less fulfilling than stacking stones.

I don't get the endorphin rush as I do with something like a long run; more of a satisfied mind because I have earned my salt or something like that.


May your kindness seep through all the posts on this forum.

Sport climber
Boulder, Colorado!
Jun 3, 2011 - 08:34pm PT
Isn't it about the one year anniversary of Juan's death? Still think about him often.

Trad climber
Jun 3, 2011 - 08:37pm PT
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