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Brain Can Learn Compassion via Meditation

Study Shows Meditation May Activate the Brain to Learn Empathy
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WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

March 26, 2008 -- Practice may make perfect when it comes to kindness and compassion.

A new study shows practicing kindness and compassion through regular meditation actually activates the brain and makes people more empathetic to others.

It's the first study to use functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to analyze the effects of compassion meditation on brain activity. The results suggest that people can train themselves to be more compassionate just as they'd train themselves to play a musical instrument.

Researchers say the study also suggests that practicing compassion meditation may also be a useful tool in preventing bullying, violence, aggression, and depression by altering brain activity to make people more empathetic to other peoples' emotions.

"We can take advantage of our brain's plasticity and train it to enhance these qualities," says researcher Antione Lutz, associate scientist at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, in a news release. "Thinking about other people's suffering and not just your own helps to put everything in perspective."

(Are you a compassionate person? How do you feel it affects your life? Talk with others on WebMD's Stress Management: Melanie Eller, RN, MSN, message board.)

Teaching the Brain Empathy

Participating in the study were 16 Tibetan monks experienced in meditation and a comparison group of 16 people with no prior experience in meditation. People in the comparison group were taught the fundamentals of compassion meditation two weeks prior to the study.

During the study, researchers used fMRI to measure the response of the participants' brains to a variety of neutral or negative sounds, such as a distressed woman, a baby laughing, or background restaurant noise.

During the session, researchers took separate scans of the brain when the participants heard the sounds during a meditative and neutral state.

The scans showed significant increases in activity in the portion of the brain known as the insula, which plays a key role in emotion, in experienced meditators when they were exposed to negative emotional sounds. There was less increase in activity during exposure to neutral or positive sounds. The strength of brain activity was also related to the intensity of the meditation reported by the participants.

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