Being compassionate is no longer a feeling that is imbibed within you as your attribute, because according to a new research, such feelings can be cultivated in the brain courtesy meditation, which can make a person more empathetic to other peoples' mental states.
Researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison said that cultivating compassion and kindness through meditation affects brain regions that can make a person more empathetic to other peoples' mental states.
The study was the first to use functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to indicate that positive emotions such as loving-kindness and compassion can be learned in the same way as playing a musical instrument or being proficient in a sport.
The scans revealed that brain circuits used to detect emotions and feelings were dramatically changed in subjects who had extensive experience practicing compassion meditation.
The research suggests that individuals - from children who may engage in bullying to people prone to recurring depression - and society in general could benefit from such meditative practices, said study director Richard Davidson, professor of psychiatry and psychology at UW-Madison and an expert on imaging the effects of meditation.
Davidson and UW-Madison associate scientist Antoine Lutz were co-principal investigators on the project.
The study was part of the researchers' ongoing investigations with a group of Tibetan monks and lay practitioners who have practiced meditation for a minimum of 10,000 hours.
In this case, Lutz and Davidson worked with 16 monks who have cultivated compassion meditation practices. Sixteen age-matched controls with no previous training were taught the fundamentals of compassion meditation two weeks before the brain scanning took place.
"Many contemplative traditions speak of loving-kindness as the wish for happiness for others and of compassion as the wish to relieve others' suffering. Loving-kindness and compassion are central to the Dalai Lama's philosophy and mission," said Davidson.
"We wanted to see how this voluntary generation of compassion affects the brain systems involved in empathy," he added.
In the study, the controls were asked first to concentrate on loved ones, wishing them well-being and freedom from suffering. After some training, they then were asked to generate such feelings toward all beings without thinking specifically about anyone.
Each of the 32 subjects was placed in the fMRI scanner, and was asked to either begin compassion meditation or refrain from it. During each state, subjects were exposed to negative and positive human vocalizations designed to evoke empathic responses as well as neutral vocalizations: sounds of a distressed woman, a baby laughing and background restaurant noise.
"We used audio instead of visual challenges so that meditators could keep their eyes slightly open but not focused on any visual stimulus, as is typical of this practice," said Lutz.
The scans revealed significant activity in the insula - a region near the frontal portion of the brain that plays a key role in bodily representations of emotion - when the long-term meditators were generating compassion and were exposed to emotional vocalizations. The strength of insula activation was also associated with the intensity of the meditation as assessed by the participants.
Activity also increased in the temporal parietal juncture, particularly the right hemisphere. Studies have implicated this area as important in processing empathy, especially in perceiving the mental and emotional state of others.
"Both of these areas have been linked to emotion sharing and empathy. The combination of these two effects, which was much more noticeable in the expert meditators as opposed to the novices, was very powerful," said Davidson.
The study is published in the Public Library of Science One.