The Situationist

Can Meditation Make Us More Compassionate?

Posted by Adam Benforado on February 1, 2011

Last Friday, Sindya Bhanoo had an interesting little post on one of the New York Times blogs concerning recent research on the impact of meditation on the brain.

As is often the case in these mainstream media reports, I was left wanting more about the studies and less about the personal interest hook (in this case, the story of Sindya’s husband’s experiences meditating), but that was remedied easily enough by utilizing the wonders of the internet.

To me, the most interesting referenced article was a 2008 study by Antoine Lutz, Julie Brefczynski-Lewis, Tom Johnstone, and Richard Davidson on the regulation of our emotional neural circuitry through compassion meditation.

Here is the abstract:

Recent brain imaging studies using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) have implicated insula and anterior cingulate cortices in the empathic response to another’s pain. However, virtually nothing is known about the impact of the voluntary generation of compassion on this network. To investigate these questions we assessed brain activity using fMRI while novice and expert meditation practitioners generated a loving-kindness-compassion meditation state. To probe affective reactivity, we presented emotional and neutral sounds during the meditation and comparison periods. Our main hypothesis was that the concern for others cultivated during this form of meditation enhances affective processing, in particular in response to sounds of distress, and that this response to emotional sounds is modulated by the degree of meditation training. The presentation of the emotional sounds was associated with increased pupil diameter and activation of limbic regions (insula and cingulate cortices) during meditation (versus rest). During meditation, activation in insula was greater during presentation of negative sounds than positive or neutral sounds in expert than it was in novice meditators. The strength of activation in insula was also associated with self-reported intensity of the meditation for both groups. These results support the role of the limbic circuitry in emotion sharing. The comparison between meditation vs. rest states between experts and novices also showed increased activation in amygdala, right temporo-parietal junction (TPJ), and right posterior superior temporal sulcus (pSTS) in response to all sounds, suggesting, greater detection of the emotional sounds, and enhanced mentation in response to emotional human vocalizations for experts than novices during meditation. Together these data indicate that the mental expertise to cultivate positive emotion alters the activation of circuitries previously linked to empathy and theory of mind in response to emotional stimuli.

To download a free copy of the entire article, click here.

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