| Love, Kindness And Compassion
Are Teachable Through Meditation
New research suggests that qualities the world desperately needs
more of -- love, kindness and compassion -- are indeed teachable.
Imaging technology shows that people who practice meditation
that focuses on kindness and compassion actually undergo changes
in areas of the brain that make them more in tune to what others
"Potentially one can train oneself to behave in a way which
is more benevolent and altruistic," said study co-author
Antoine Lutz, an associate scientist at the University
How far this idea can be extrapolated remains in question, though.
"I think there's no question that people can benefit
from these practices," said Dr. Louis Teichholz, medical
director of complementary medicine and chief of cardiology at
Medical Center in New
Jersey. "I think the question is how easy is it to
get trained enough so that it will make a clinical difference,
and I don't think this study answers that."
The findings were published in the March 26 issue of the Public
Library of Science One.
Recent brain-imaging studies have suggested that the insula and
the anterior cingulate cortices regions are involved in the empathic
response to other people's pain. But not much is known about
how cultivating compassion might affect brain circuitry.
And previous research has indicated that meditation may reduce
the brain's reaction to pain, and that it may actually improve
cardiovascular health by decreasing the risk of metabolic syndrome.
"The main research question was to see whether some positive
qualities such as loving-kindness and compassion or, in general,
pro-social altruistic behavior, can be understood as skills and
can be trained," Lutz explained.
In the same way that training in sports or chess or music produces
functional and structural changes in the brain, the Wisconsin
researchers wanted to see if cultivating compassion through the
practice of meditation also produced brain changes -- suggesting
that compassion could be viewed as a learned skill.
The study involved 32 people: 16 Tibetan monks and lay practitioners,
who had meditated for a minimum of 10,000 hours throughout their
lifetime (the "experts"); and 16 control subjects, who
had only recently been taught the basics of compassion meditation
The senior author of the paper, Richard Davidson, a professor
of psychiatry and psychology at the University
of Wisconsin-Madison and an expert on imaging the effects
of meditation, has been collaborating with the Dalai
Lama since 1992, studying the brains of Tibetan monks.
For the study, individuals in the control group were instructed
first to wish loved ones well-being and freedom from pain, then
to wish such benefits to humankind as a whole.
"We looked at whether there were any differences between
experts and novices in generating compassion with the idea that
a central practice in this tradition [of meditation] is to cultivate
these positive emotions," Lutz said. "We wanted to see
if there were any differences in the way the brain was reacting."
Each participant was hooked up to a functional MRI both while
meditating and not meditating. During each state, the participants
heard sounds designed to produce responses: the negative sound
of a distressed woman, the positive sound of a baby laughing,
and the neutral sound of background noise from a restaurant.
"We showed altered activation in brain circuitry that was
previously linked to empathy and perspective-taking or the capacity
to understand other's intentions and mental states and, more
precisely, the insula was more activated, particularly in response
to negative emotional sounds," Lutz said.
In the monks, especially, these areas of the brain were activated
even more when they hard the cries of the distressed woman, she
The study authors hope the findings might one day help with a
range of problems, including reducing the incidence of bullying
in schools or helping people with depression.
"The next step is to see if this works," Lutz said.
"If it works, then it can be applied to selective populations
-- for instance, depressed people or, more broadly, in education."