Usually it's the other way around. But 15 years ago, the Dalai Lama approached Richard Davidson, a University of Wisconsin scientist and professor, with a question.
The Dalai Lama asked Davidson, who at that point had been working on how the brain regulates emotion for 15 years, whether he would study the effect meditation had on the brain.
That was in 1991. Fifteen years later, after Davidson's research led to the groundbreaking discovery that activities like meditation could in fact "train" the mind to react to situations with positive emotions, TIME Magazine named the UW scientist one of the most influential people in the world.
In its annual issue honoring the "100 people who shape our world," TIME recognizes Davidson, who, along with being a UW professor, is the director of UW's Waisman Laboratory for Brain Imaging and Behavior, as a "pioneer in the exciting frontier of mind-body medicine."
"I feel pretty good about it. It's pretty unexpected," Davidson said in a phone interview Sunday, two weeks after learning he was going to be recognized by TIME. "It's a nice surprise."
Davidson said he, along with the other honorees, would be celebrated by TIME May 8 at a ceremony in New York City, where Paul Simon is scheduled to perform.
Specifically, Davidson's research discovered that during meditation, people experience increased brain activity in areas associated with attention and emotion, specifically in the left prefrontal cortex, a region associated with positive emotions.
"[Meditation] changes circulation in the brain that are critical for the development of emotion," Davidson explained. "Characteristics like happiness and compassion are skills that can be trained."
The discovery, hailed as scientific validation of the link between spiritual practices and mental and physical health, earned Davidson worldwide recognition.
Joseph Newman, chair of the UW psychology department, called Davidson a "brilliant" scientist, adding he brings "terrific energy" to the university.
"He's been on the cutting edge of his field throughout his career," Newman said, calling the interdisciplinary aspect of Davidson's research — the link between science and spirituality — "extraordinary."
"He's helped our department in the same way," Newman added.
Today, Davidson continues to work on a "deeper understanding of mind-body reaction."
Building on his research on the connection between meditation and mental health, Davidson said he is now studying how meditation and other spiritual practices relate to physical health.
"We've shown that those circuits [that can be affected by meditation] are also related to parts of the body that are important for physical health," Davidson said.
As for the Dalai Lama, Davidson said he continues to maintain a close relationship with him.
"It's wonderful," Davidson said of working with the Dalai Lama. "I highly recommend it."