Like athletes or musicians, people who practice meditation can enhance their ability to concentrate—or even lower their blood pressure. They can also cultivate compassion, according to a new study. Specifically, concentrating on the loving kindness one feels toward one's family (and expanding that to include strangers) physically affects brain regions that play a role in empathy.
"There is such a thing as expertise when it comes to complex emotions or emotional skills, such as the one of cultivating benevolence," says Antoine Lutz, a neuroscientist at the University of Wisconsin–Madison who led the study. "That raises the possibility that you can train someone to cultivate this positive emotion."
Lutz and his colleagues, including neuroscientist Richard Davidson, director of the university's Waisman Center for Brain Imaging where the study was conducted, took fMRI scans of the brains of 16 veteran meditators as well as 16 others who had started with no meditation experience but received cursory training before they carried out a series of tests. During these tests, the researchers measured the flow of blood in the brains of both the veterans (some of them Tibetan monks) and the American novices as the subjects did or did not meditate on compassionate feelings while being subjected to various sounds with positive and negative connotations.
When engaged in compassionate meditation, the brain region known as the insula burst into action when the expert meditators heard the sound of a woman in distress. (The insula—a part of the limbic system—has been associated with the visceral feeling of emotion, a key part of empathizing with another's emotional state.)
And when these experts heard the female screams or the sound of a baby laughing, their brains showed more activity than the novices in areas like the right temporal-parietal juncture, which plays a role in understanding another's emotion.
"The way you are going to understand the emotion of someone else is by somehow simulating, experiencing the emotion. It makes sense that we found some activation of the brain region which is critical for the experience of an emotion," Lutz says. Similarly, "sometimes you can understand someone but not necessarily experience the emotion … it makes sense that you get activation in a brain region that is more contemplative."
Although the research does not prove that compassion can be learned, it does suggest that possibility—and that could have implications for treating a range of issues. "Can this type of training be used for depression?" Lutz asks. "Another question is whether this form of mental training and empathy can have an impact for education. We don't know yet."
The researchers have already begun a long-term study to see if and how the brain can be trained as well as to compare how different forms of meditation, such as simple concentration versus focusing on compassion, affect the brain differently. In the meantime, compassionate meditation is as simple as visualizing someone you care about, holding that feeling of loving kindness in your mind, and then extending it to others—even people you don't like.
"It primes the mind for some form of readiness to act with compassion or loving kindness," Lutz adds. "You can build on this very basic, natural feeling that you have for close relatives and extend that to a stranger."