[Science Solitaire] Meditation can spark compassion
Can we meditate our way to being compassionate? It seems like we could.
If we were to go by the latest study done by the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds, Laboratory for Brain Imaging and Behavior, University of Wisconsin–Madison, we may have basis to cultivate compassion through meditation.
The study is entitled “Compassion Training Alters Altruism and Neural Responses to Suffering” led by Helen Weng published in the journal “Psychological Science” last May 21, 2013.
The Center that did the study, founded by renowned neuroscientist Dr Richard J. Davidson in 2008, is, I think, one of the coolest brain labs ever.
The Center was inspired by the Dalai Lama in 1992, when he asked Dr Davidson to investigate the brains of people who deal with positive emotions so that we can have neuro-scientific basis for “living healthy, happier lives.”
I am always intrigued by how scientists design experiments to measure the so-called “intangibles” like love or compassion. Before we got to peering into our brains through sophisticated machinery, we can only observe human behaviors, and record them to see if patterns emerge.
Now with tools like MRIs (slices of cross-sections of the brain) and fMRIs where brains in motion as they respond to tests are seen, we can see what brain parts are activated when we exhibit certain behaviors.
Many brain parts are already known to be associated with certain functions and behavior. That is why when they test individuals for behavior hooked on to these machines and see what brain regions are activated, they can hint at what part of our mental make-up is being “moved” when we do or feel something — in this case, compassion.
The researchers wanted to see whether meditation can make people compassionate and if so, are these levels of compassion linked with activation patterns observed in the brain?
For two weeks, they trained participants to feel compassion towards toward a loved one and then toward themselves and then to a stranger and then toward a difficult person. They were shown pictures of victims like a crying child and then they were asked to repeat “compassionate” phrases at home.
During the meditation sessions, their brain responses were being monitored. The control group was not given a meditation session but instead was given another kind of technique where they were just made to feel less negative thoughts.
After two weeks, they were asked to participate in a “situational game” over the Internet where they had to intervene and show compassion to a stranger, measured by the amount of money that participants ended up giving to the stranger. The participants were told this was a separate study but in fact, was the part of the original study where the effect of the meditation on compassion was being tested.
The results showed that two weeks of meditative training on compassion made the participants become more compassionate than the control group. Also, the more changes that they saw in the brain regions that seem to activate when showing compassion, the more compassionate the response was.
The brain regions that were activated in those who had the meditative training were those regions that are associated with social cognition and emotion control, including the inferior parietal cortex and dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC), and in DLPFC connectivity with the nucleus accumbens.
This makes me wonder whether psychopaths whose brain scans in previous studies show no activation of these same brain parts that are associated with empathy, could be reached by meditation.
I once watched a documentary of neuroscientists studying the brains of criminals and there was one scientist who just looked at brain scans and he was able to identify 100% which of the scans were of convicted psychopaths. Another study recently discussed in the World Science Festival session on the role of neuroscience in the courtroom said that with brain scans, scientists can detect within 70-90% accuracy if one was lying.
I want to see how far meditative training on compassion could be cultivated. Maybe this could be applied to programs in prisons and other rehabilitation centers. If they are there to serve a limited sentence, it would do them, their families and society well that we reach their innermost wirings for compassion while serving their sentence and when finally released.
The wick of compassion seems to be really embedded in our brains, for most of us anyway. Meditation seems to be one key to lighting it up. – Rappler.com
Maria Isabel Garcia is a science writer. She has written two books, “Science Solitaire” and “Twenty One Grams of Spirit and Seven Ounces of Desire.” Her column appears every Friday and you can reach her at email@example.com