Meditation for greater empathy ?

The Thinking Man sculpture at Musée Rodin in ParisImage via Wikipedia

I figure that anything that increases empathy (‘capacity to recognize or understand another’s state of mind or emotions’) in our world must be a good thing. Yesterday, I wrote about how new research indicates that meditation can alter gene expression of whole blood, and that as little as 8 weeks can have an effect.

The paper I will discuss today is also fairly recent (March 2008) authored by Lutz et. al., (freely available) from the University of Wisconsin.

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 world needs more compassion in my humble estimation.

Like the study I covered yesterday the researchers had expert meditators (10,000+ hours), but also novice meditators then tested them while in a meditative state and at rest. There is a big open ended question of what they didn’t have a control group that did not meditate, unless you can argue that the ‘rest’ state represents that control, but still it would have been nice for a control group that was just asked to think emphatically (with no fancy meditation).

The instruction for the novice meditators was:

One week before the actual fMRI scan session, novices were given written instructions on how to perform the meditative practices, written by Dr. Ricard, following which they practiced this compassion meditation and two other meditations for one hour a day for a week (20 minutes per meditation). As described in Dr. Ricard’s instructions for novices: ‘‘During the training session, the subject will think about someone he cares about, such as his parents, sibling or beloved, and will let his mind be invaded by a feeling of altruistic love (wishing well-being) or of compassion (wishing freedom from suffering) toward these persons. After some training the subject will generate such feeling toward all beings and without thinking specifically about someone. While in the scanner, the subject will try to generate this state of loving kindness and compassion.’’

They scanned the brains of the two groups during three different conditions: positive sound (baby laughing), negative (sound of a distressed woman), neutral (background noise in a restaurant).

The researchers predictions were:

We predicted that participants would feel more moved by the
emotional sounds during compassion meditation than when at
rest. Thus, the brain regions underlying emotions and feelings
(insula, anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), and possibly somatosensory
areas, for review see [12,13,14]) would be more activated in
response to emotional sounds during compassion meditation than
during the resting state. As this meditation 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).

What they found was that in both meditative groups (expert and novice) there was a greater activation of limbic regions of the brain (Insula and cingulate cortices), which had previously been related in other studies with an empathetic response, in the meditative state compared to the rest state.

In the meditative state there was greater activation of the insula for the negative sound compared to either the positive or neutral sounds. Additionally, the strength of insula activation correlated with the self-reported intensity of meditation in both groups. Now many of you, even you biologist, might not be too familiar with the insula (insular cortex). But I have read quite extensively about the surprising importance of the insula in decision making, which I will report about at another time.

No great surprise that the expert meditators had greater activation of the ’emphatic brain circuitry’ than the novice group.

The authors concluded:

Together these data indicate that the mental expertise to cultivate positive emotion alters the activation of circuitries previously linked to empathy and theory of mind in response to emotional stimuli.

I think there are several questions that need to be addressed in further research (a sign of good research): 1 – the need of a real control group; 2 – do you have to be in a meditative state to gain the benefits of the growth of empathetic feelings (you would hope it would translate into your ‘normal’ state): 3 – is there a difference between experts, novice, and a real control in the ‘rest’ state for negative and positive sounds for limbic (emphatic circuitry) activation (to me this is the most important test).

Far as I could tell there were no differences between the novice and expert meditators in the rest state for any of the three sounds.

I think this paper is a very good start, and I look forward to further research. They would also have to ask themselves if the people that choose to become expert mediators and even the ‘novice’ volunteers who are  “specifically recruited participants who had an interest in meditation, but who had had no prior meditative training” are a priori different than the average population? It is not unreasonable to suggest that these groups of people might have a different capacity for empathy than the general population. One could ask for 40 volunteers then put half of them into the meditative group and the other half to serve as the real control group.

The other question that comes to mind is what would happen if without meditation a person just sat down for 20 minutes per day and thought about other people, individuals and groups that are in many cases less fortunate than ourselves? What about just taking some time on a daily level to put ourselves in other peoples shoes – would this produce a change in our empathy (be it analyzed by brain scans or in our everyday lives)? The problem is we don’t take those precious moments on a near daily level to ‘train’ or remind ourselves (sounds just like the problem with physical exercise).

So maybe think of taking a few moments each day (be it specific meditation or just plain thinking) and think of others (exercise your insula), and not just yourself.

(ps I will explain how this might help you at many other levels other than developing your empathy in a future piece)

2 comments for “Meditation for greater empathy ?

  1. JB
    August 13, 2008 at 5:58 pm

    maybe you will be telling us in the future that thinking about others (which seems like a great idea) is not necessarily altruistic? that is we actually derive a direct personal benefit from it.