Part three of our exploration of recent meditation research and scientific studies takes us to the popular Buddhist “loving kindness” or compassion meditation. In my opinion, the results shown from studying the effects of this particular practice on the brain are highly useful and applicable to the challenges of daily life, and show promising results in the positive effect they have on human emotion.
In loving kindness meditation, the practitioner systematically focuses on feelings of compassion
and their desire for the well-being and alleviation of suffering for others. It is often started with a phrase, or repetition of phrases, such as “May all sentient beings find peace. May all sentient beings be happy. May all sentient beings awaken, and find freedom from suffering.” It may also entail starting with feelings of compassion towards oneself, then moving on to feeling compassion for a loved one, then a total stranger, and then, even, and enemy or adversary.
It has been known for quite some time that meditating in this way develops and increases feelings of genuine compassion and good will towards others, but, through the research proposed here, we have now also been able to observe that this type of meditation also develops specific parts of the brain in measurable and predictable ways.
In our first experiment, performed in 2008, volunteers who had practiced this meditation for several thousand hours were observed while being subjected to audio recordings of human voices in distress. In comparison to the control group, the meditators’ brains were found to have increased activity in several different areas. Most notably, the secondary somatosensory and insular cortices (responsible for taking part in empathetic and other emotional responses) were more highly activated than in non-meditators. There was also increased activity in the temporoparietal junction, the medial pre-frontal cortex, and the superior temporal sulcus, all of which are know to be activated when a human being places themselves in the shoes of another.
It is postulated through this evidence, that the group of meditators had a greater ability to emphathize with these voices in distress, while also being less prone to “burn out” from taking on and experiencing the negative feelings of the voices they heard.
In a more recent study, this idea of burn out from deeply empathizing with others was examined in greater detail by Tania Singer and Olga Klimecki at the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Leipzig, Germany.
The area of study was in the difference between compassion and empathy, and the idea behind this study was that feelings of compassion, and altruistic love generally produced positive and beneficial emotions, that strengthened an individual and enhanced their life in a positive way. Empathy, on the other hand, had the potential to create burn out and produce negative emotions, as an individual took on and experienced great amounts of other’s pain.
This type of “empathy fatigue” was most notably found in nurses, doctors, and caregivers. In a survey of 600, it was found that 60% reported to have this type of overwhelm, and negative burnout from empathizing deeply with those who were suffering.
To fully pronounce the difference between compassion and empathy, a group of 60 volunteers was divided into two groups. One regularly meditated on love and compassion, and the other received specific training on how to cultivate feelings of empathy for others. After just a week of this training, both groups were subjected to video footage of people in various situations of pain and suffering. Though both groups showed increased responses in their ability to resonate deeply with the suffering they observed, the group of compassion meditators’ experience was followed with overall feelings of benevolence and well-being, where those who had studied empathy in particular found their experience of other people’s suffering produced negative emotion, distress, and occasionally the complete loss of emotional control.
Aware of the effects that this study had had on the group that did not practice loving kindness meditation, Singer and Klimecki then added it to their daily routine, testing them once again to find that these observed feelings of negativity and distress had greatly diminished, to be replaced by more positive and benevolent emotions instead.
Along with the reported feelings of these participants, notable changes in their brains were also observed. Most commonly changes were found in networks of the brain that were associated with compassionate responses, maternal love, and positive emotions, namely the orbitofrontal cortex, the ventral striatum, and the anterior cingulated cortex.
One of the most exciting pieces of data that came from this particular study is that many of these observable positive changes occurred in just 1-2 weeks of loving kindness meditation training.
I personally find it absolutely fascinating that we can actually see these physical changes in the brain occurring from meditative practice. Of the three different types of meditations that we have explored over the course of this article series, I believe that this one is most applicable to the ultimate goal of harmony that we wish to achieve on our planet as the human race.
In my opinion this study shows that feelings of deep compassion, the ability to be there for other people as they suffer, and the ability to deeply empathize with others are not just personality traits, but things that a human being can learn to grow and develop. These predilections are not set in stone. If there is one thing that we need more of in the world it is compassion, and it is great to know that we are all able to develop this trait through simple meditation.
This concludes the article series on scientific research on meditation. If this stuff resonates with you, I would highly encourage you to check out more information on brainwave entrainment, as this technology takes these physical, observable changes that occur in the brain from meditation, and puts the whole process on steroids! If you are excited by what these traditional meditations can do, you may be blown away to see what meditating with brainwave entrainment can do.
Until next time,