MADISON — Blank canvas can be the perfect place to begin a positive change.
Thousands of La Crosse area students are learning as much as they participate in the La Crosse Compassion Project, filling empty 6-by-6-inch canvases with artwork about their own interpretation of the altruistic emotion.
Hundreds of miles away, at the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds, researchers work with another, more cluttered canvas, as they study the connection between kindness and good mental health. Research by Center staff has shown that the mind can be molded by practicing compassion.
“Compassion is something that can be cultivated,” neuroscientist Richard Davidson said. “We do know that plasticity is great in children and it’s important to intervene early.”
Davidson met with a group of La Crosse educators and community leaders Wednesday to share the work that has made him famous across the globe. Davidson is scheduled to return the favor with a visit to La Crosse on June 2 to share his work after more than 7,000 canvases are on display in the city.
Bethany Nugent, who teaches K-7 art classes at Hamilton Early Learning Center and Lincoln Middle School, joined the trip to Madison because she wanted to know more of the science behind the project. She tells students that compassion is about doing something for someone else without wanting something in return.
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Davidson’s research shows her students do get a reward.
“This teaches them that body and mind-wise, they are getting something in return,” Nugent said.
Practicing mindfulness and meditation can help students, even those who are anti-social or struggle with cognitive disabilities, Davidson said. His center is working with Madison public schools to teach an 8- to 12-week curriculum to 4K students.
“It’s not like using a drug where there is potentially serious side effects,” Davidson said.
Davidson’s center has continued to expand, as has global attention to its research. Davidson presented to world business leaders two weeks ago at the 2014 World Economics Forum in Davos, Switzerland.
La Crosse area businesses and nonprofits continue to join a groundswell of community support for the community-wide art project. Aquinas High School officials announced last week the private school system would join the school district in asking students to get creative with compassion. That adds about 900 canvasses to the more-than 6,000 created by public school students.
“That’s the exciting thing about it — there’s not a common theme,” said Tim Riley, director of the La Crosse Public Education Foundation. “Children respond in different ways.”
The foundation announced the project in June. All of the works will be on display May 2 through June 28, though the influx of artwork can’t be contained in the main venue, the Pump House Regional Arts Center. Aquinas students will have their work on display at the La Crosse Public Library, Main Branch, and downtown eatery Wine Guyz has lent its space to the cause.
Riley came up with the idea after working on a similar project in Appleton, Wis., in 2011. Riley was director of an Appleton art museum when he heard Davidson present and was inspired by the UW-Madison professor’s research.
While business leaders and others have embraced the idea that kindness and mindfulness are good for the brain, educators have been more hesitant to adopt the tenets of his work, Davidson said. The center has an expansive room for meditation, and the curriculum it developed for Madison 4K students includes meditative techniques.
Davidson called non-cognitive curriculum the “next frontier in education.”
“We haven’t quite gotten there yet,” Davidson said.
He applauded the La Crosse group for their work on the Compassion Project.
“I think you guys have such an opportunity to use this as a spring board for something that actually is enduring,” Davidson said.
“I think you guys have such an opportunity to use this as a spring board for something that actually is enduring.” Richard Davidson, neuroscientist with the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds
"I think you guys have such an opportunity to use this as a spring board for something that actually is enduring."
Richard Davidson, neuroscientist with the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds