Meditating makes the brain more compassionate

Blogging on Peer-Reviewed ResearchScientific American‘s Mind & Brain website has a discussion of a recent study of meditation, Meditate on This: You Can Learn to Be More Compassionate. The original research article that this piece is discussing, ‘Regulation of the Neural Circuitry of Emotion by Compassion Meditation: Effects of Meditative Expertise’ by Antoine Lutz, Julie Brefczynski-Lewis, Tom Johnstone, and Richard J. Davidson, is available on-line at the Public Library of Science (here).

The research team investigated the activity of the insula and anterior cingulate cortices, areas implicated in empathetic reactions to others’ suffering, when people voluntarily sought to feel compassion. In other words, the research team looked at whether a set of brain areas which are active when people see other people suffering and feel empathy might be intentionally activated in situations where subjects imagined compassion; could will or conscious thought be used to summon up brain activity that looks like a reaction to suffering that is almost automatic in most people? (Lots of caveats here, but you get the gist.)

In particular, the team was looking at whether compassion meditation might make people more likely to have strong reactions to hearing the signals of another person’s distress; from the abstract, ‘Our main hypothesis was that the concern for others cultivated during this form of meditation enhances affective processing, in particular in response to sounds of distress, and that this response to emotional sounds is modulated by the degree of meditation training.’ Specifically, the research team compared novice meditators to ’16 long-term Buddhist meditators, whom we classified as experts’: ‘Experts had previously completed from 10,000 to 50,000 hours of meditative training in a variety of practices, including compassion meditation, in similar Tibetan traditions (Nyingmapa and Kagyupa).’

The training involved in this form of meditation is quite extensive, and researchers have a number of studies (many arising from the same collaboration) that suggest it can substantially shift the way that the brain behaves. From the abstract:

Techniques include concentration exercises that train attention, behavioral training such as the practice of generosity, cognitive strategies including reflection on the fleeting nature of the self and empathic strategies such as shifting perspectives from self-oriented to other-oriented, or the visualization of the suffering of others…. Traditionally such mental training comprises years of scholastic study and meditative practice. The long-term goal of meditators undergoing such training is to weaken egocentric traits so that altruistic behaviors might arise more frequently and spontaneously. The purpose of this study is to examine the brain circuitry engaged by the generation of a state of compassion (short for ‘‘compassion and loving-kindness meditation state’’) in long-term Buddhist meditators and novice meditators.

The Buddhist monks engage in a kind of ‘cross-training’ regime in compassion, but seem to focus most intensely on quietistic mental training (meditation).

This research is one of the products of the incredible fruitful collaboration between brain scientists and Tibetan Buddhist monks, built upon many years of discussion with the Dalai Lama. Sharon Begley’s book, Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain: How a New Science Reveals Our Extraordinary Potential to Transform Ourselves (Amazon listing here) discusses the history of this collaboration through the Mind and Life Institute. The Mind and Life Institute, and its conferences (there have been around 15), should be a model for neuroanthropological collaboration. Because of the respect shown to Buddhism and the monks, the brain scientists have had remarkable access to and collaboration from the monks. That cooperation was built upon the willingness that the members of the Institute had to present their research to their Tibetan collaborators, and to take seriously their input, rather than just the patience of the monks.

I’ve been meaning to write more about Begley’s book, which I think is excellent, for a while, but I’m going to focus this posting on the recent research article by Lutz’s team after I give just a bit of background on the research. I will say that the research does not really avoid what I think is the primary problem with Begley’s book, although it doesn’t dwell on the ‘how the mind can shape the brain‘ the way that she does.

That is, my one serious reservation about Begley’s book is that, rhetorically, she is quite taken with the mind/brain distinction, and how the ‘mind can change the brain.’ Admittedly, this might be a good way to put it to the general public, and Begley is a science writer reaching a broad audience (and doing it really well). But focusing on this particular dimension of neuroplasticity, in my opinion, distorts the breadth of possible changes (such as sensory-based changes or activity-based changes in stroke rehabilitation). I don’t think we can hammer on this mind-changes-brain theme without, in the process, encouraging people to think in unproductive ways that the ‘mind’ and the ‘brain’ are two separate things, strengthening Cartesian dualism while we ritually chant ‘down with Descartes!’ A lot of anti-Cartesianism in anthropology is like this to me; although it keeps talking about how mind and body can’t be separated, for example, it keeps using the terms ‘mind’ and ‘body’ over and over again, thereby exacerbating the problem. But this is a post of its own for another day…

Dr. Matthieu Ricard, who is thanked first in the authors’ acknowledgments in the Lutz piece in PLoS One, is a monk in Shechen Tennyi Dargyeling Monastery in Nepal, has a PhD in molecular genetics, and is a board member of the Mind and Life Institute. He’s been instrumental, along with the Dalai Lama, in encouraging some really remarkable collaboration between brain scientists and Buddhist monks to explore the effects of meditation on the brain. (More from Dr. Matthieu Ricard can be found on his own webpage, which also has material on [and by] the Dalai Lama and more lectures!) Robert Chalmers of The Independent did an article on Ricard, entitled Matthieu Ricard: Meet Mr Happy, back in January 2007, and it’s worth a read.

The research team headed by Antoine Lutz specifically tested compassion meditation with human sounds because the technique ‘is said to enhance loving-kindness when the joy of others is perceived or compassion when the suffering of others is perceived, this effect was predicted to be stronger for the negative sounds (sounds of a distressed woman) and positive sounds (a baby laughing) than for neutral sounds (background noise in a restaurant).’ They didn’t have the subjects do any actions because of the likelihood that this would disrupt the meditative state. Subjects were also tested when concentrating (meditating) and when at rest.

Interestingly, all participants, trained meditators and novices alike, exhibited stronger responses when meditating than when at rest; in other words, our brains respond more vigorously in areas associated with empathy when we are focused on compassion than when we are not. Our empathy reaction varies depending on how we respond to our experience of others and to how we are prepared for perceiving their situations. The trained meditators, however, had much more brain activity when they heard the sounds of other people in the experiment. From the article:

the amplitude of the activity in several of these regions, in particular the insula cortex, was associated: with the degree to which participants perceived that they had successfully entered into the meditative state…; with expertise of compassion meditation…; and with the relevancy of the emotional sounds during the compassion meditation (stronger response to the voice of a distressed person than that of a laughing baby, or than to background noise from a crowd…)

Increased activity was not only in the anterior cingulate cortex, amygdalae, and insula, and but also in the somatosensory cortex, an area associated with perceiving others’ actions. (As a side note, the research also supports the perception-action model of empathy, see Preston and de Waal 2002. This model of empathy is linked to the mirror system discussion of motor resonance, a topic I’ve written about a number of times on this site.) Both groups had greater activity in those areas of the brain ‘commonly recruited during the reading of others’ mental states’ (temporo-parietal junction, posterior superior temporal sulcus , medial prefrontal cortex, posterior cingulate cortex/precuneus). I don’t think that this terribly surprising, but the experts also demonstrated greater emphasis on these areas in the right hemisphere of the brain.

From the Scientific American‘s website: ‘”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.”‘ The research article itself is careful to point out that longitudinal research will need to be used to confirm their findings, especially because meditation training wasn’t the only difference between the target subjects and the control group:

Because novices and experts differ in many respects other than simply the extent of meditative training (such as culture of origin and first language), longitudinal research that follows individuals over time in response to compassion training will be needed to further substantiate our findings. It will also be essential to assess the impact of such emotional training on behavioral tasks involving altruism, and, more generally, emotional reactivity and regulation. The long-term question is to evaluate whether repeated practice in such techniques could result in enduring changes in affective and social style…

Some of the effects of meditation are not all that surprising: the greater attention devoted to compassion has its own effects, for example, on brain activity related to attention. The fact that even novice meditators seem to respond to another’s emotional state more vigorously when meditating is pretty telling; one doesn’t have to be good at meditation for it to affect our perceptions. But I do think that the possible long-term effects of meditation showing up in how responsive the brain is to another’s experience is telling. I suspect that the Mind and Life Institute’s strong collaboration with Tibetan Buddhist monks is one of the few situations where the long-term, longitudinal research on meditators could even be attempted.

It would be interesting, though, to compare the effects of meditation training for compassion and practical training, such as people who devote a great deal of time to charity or service activities. Although Buddhist training for compassion includes compassionate practice (see above), the research design really homed in on meditative practice, and the discussion focuses primarily on meditation as the likely cause for the effects (which, of course, were observed during meditation, so fair enough). Maybe because I was raised a Catholic, I’d be very intrigued to see if active compassion was as effective in generating heightened reactivity to situations of empathy as the Buddhist meditation. Research on practical compassion training might also stand against the tendency I discussed earlier for some interpretations of this research to reinforce the mind-brain dichotomy even though, in my opinion, it should be undermining that very distinction itself. Even if they never get to these sorts of questions though, I look forward to many more good research projects coming out of the collaboration between brain scientists, the Dalai Lama, and the Tibetan Buddhist monks.

Can Thoughts and Action Change Our Brains? A discussion with author Sharon Begley on Talk of the Nation (NPR), February 2, 2007, downloadable as an audio file.
An excerpt from Sharon Begley’s book (Chapter One as a .pdf file) available through Science Friday.

Lutz, Antoine, Julie Brefczynski-Lewis, Tom Johnstone, and Richard J. Davidson. 2008. Regulation of the Neural Circuitry of Emotion by Compassion Meditation: Effects of Meditative Expertise. PLoS ONE 3(3): e1897. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0001897 (Abstract available here)

Preston, Stephanie D., and Frans B. M. de Waal. 2002. Empathy: Its ultimate and proximate bases. Behavioral and Brain Sciences 25: 1–20; discussion 20–71. (.pdf of article available here)

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Trained as a cultural anthropologist at the University of Chicago, I have gone on to do fieldwork in Brazil and the United States. I have written one book, Learning Capoeira: Lessons in Cunning from an Afro-Brazilian Art (Oxford, 2005). I have also co-authored and co-edited several, including, with Dr. Daniel Lende, The Encultured Brain: An Introduction to Neuroanthropology (MIT, 2012), and with Dr. Melissa Fisher, Frontiers of Capital: Ethnographic Reflections on the New Economy (Duke, 2006). My research interests include neuroanthropology, psychological anthropology, sport, dance, human rights, neuroscience, phenomenology, economic anthropology, and just about anything else that catches my attention.

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