ScienceDaily (Mar. 27, 2008)
— Can we train ourselves to be compassionate? A new study suggests the
answer is yes. Cultivating compassion and kindness through meditation
affects brain regions that can make a person more empathetic to other
peoples’ mental states, say researchers at the University of
This study was the first to use functional magnetic resonance
imaging (fMRI) to indicate that positive emotions such as
loving-kindness and compassion can be learned in the same way as
playing a musical instrument or being proficient in a sport. The scans
revealed that brain circuits used to detect emotions and feelings were
dramatically changed in subjects who had extensive experience
practicing compassion meditation.
The research suggests that individuals – from children who may
engage in bullying to people prone to recurring depression – and
society in general could benefit from such meditative practices, says
study director Richard Davidson, professor of psychiatry and psychology
at UW-Madison and an expert on imaging the effects of meditation.
Davidson and UW-Madison associate scientist Antoine Lutz were
co-principal investigators on the project.
The study was part of the researchers’ ongoing investigations with a
group of Tibetan monks and lay practitioners who have practiced
meditation for a minimum of 10,000 hours. In this case, Lutz and
Davidson worked with 16 monks who have cultivated compassion meditation
practices. Sixteen age-matched controls with no previous training were
taught the fundamentals of compassion meditation two weeks before the
brain scanning took place.
"Many contemplative traditions speak of loving-kindness as the wish
for happiness for others and of compassion as the wish to relieve
others’ suffering. Loving-kindness and compassion are central to the
Dalai Lama’s philosophy and mission," says Davidson, who has worked
extensively with the Tibetan Buddhist leader. "We wanted to see how
this voluntary generation of compassion affects the brain systems
involved in empathy."
Various techniques are used in compassion meditation, and the
training can take years of practice. The controls in this study were
asked first to concentrate on loved ones, wishing them well-being and
freedom from suffering. After some training, they then were asked to
generate such feelings toward all beings without thinking specifically
Each of the 32 subjects was placed in the fMRI scanner at the
UW-Madison Waisman Center for Brain Imaging, which Davidson directs,
and was asked to either begin compassion meditation or refrain from it.
During each state, subjects were exposed to negative and positive human
vocalizations designed to evoke empathic responses as well as neutral
vocalizations: sounds of a distressed woman, a baby laughing and
background restaurant noise.
"We used audio instead of visual challenges so that meditators could
keep their eyes slightly open but not focused on any visual stimulus,
as is typical of this practice," explains Lutz.
The scans revealed significant activity in the insula – a region
near the frontal portion of the brain that plays a key role in bodily
representations of emotion – when the long-term meditators were
generating compassion and were exposed to emotional vocalizations. The
strength of insula activation was also associated with the intensity of
the meditation as assessed by the participants.
"The insula is extremely important in detecting emotions in general
and specifically in mapping bodily responses to emotion – such as heart
rate and blood pressure – and making that information available to
other parts of the brain," says Davidson, also co-director of the
HealthEmotions Research Institute.
Activity also increased in the temporal parietal juncture,
particularly the right hemisphere. Studies have implicated this area as
important in processing empathy, especially in perceiving the mental
and emotional state of others.
"Both of these areas have been linked to emotion sharing and
empathy," Davidson says. "The combination of these two effects, which
was much more noticeable in the expert meditators as opposed to the
novices, was very powerful."
The findings support Davidson and Lutz’s working assumption that
through training, people can develop skills that promote happiness and
compassion. "People are not just stuck at their respective set points,"
he says. "We can take advantage of our brain’s plasticity and train it
to enhance these qualities."
The capacity to cultivate compassion, which involves regulating
thoughts and emotions, may also be useful for preventing depression in
people who are susceptible to it, Lutz adds.
"Thinking about other people’s suffering and not just your own helps
to put everything in perspective," he says, adding that learning
compassion for oneself is a critical first step in compassion
The researchers are interested in teaching compassion meditation to
youngsters, particularly as they approach adolescence, as a way to
prevent bullying, aggression and violence. "I think this can be one of
the tools we use to teach emotional regulation to kids who are at an
age where they’re vulnerable to going seriously off track," Davidson
Compassion meditation can be beneficial in promoting more harmonious
relationships of all kinds, Davidson adds. "The world certainly could
use a little more kindness and compassion," he says. "Starting at a
local level, the consequences of changing in this way can be directly
Lutz and Davidson hope to conduct additional studies to evaluate
brain changes that may occur in individuals who cultivate positive
emotions through the practice of loving-kindness and compassion over
This research was published March 26 in the Public Library of Science One.
Adapted from materials provided by University of Wisconsin-Madison.
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