Brain Can Learn Compassion via Meditation

Study Shows Meditation May Activate the Brain to Learn Empathy

Medically Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD on March 26, 2008
From the WebMD Archives

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.

"The insula is extremely important in detecting emotions in general and specifically in mapping bodily responses to emotion -- such as heart rate and blood pressure -- and making that information available to other parts of the brain," says researcher Richard Davidson, professor of psychiatry and psychology at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, in the news release.

Brain activity also increased in other brain areas believed to be important in processing empathy, such as perceiving the mental and emotional state of others.

"Both of these areas have been linked to emotion sharing and empathy," Davidson says. "The combination of these two effects, which was much more noticeable in the expert meditators as opposed to the novices, was very powerful."

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Lutz, A. Public Library of Science One, March 26, 2007; vol 3: p e1897.

News release, University of Wisconsin, Madison.

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