Compassion meditation is a practice that generates empathy and loving-kindness to others through objectless awareness. This form of meditation is traditionally practiced by Buddhist monks and yoga practitioners. Previous studies suggest that meditation can reduce stress, anxiety, depression and blood pressure. Now research reports that compassion mediation can change the limbic brain region associated with positive emotions. This is the first study to use fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) brain scans on participants practicing compassion meditation.
The study, published in PLoS One, examined limbic brain activity using fMRI while participants practiced compassion meditation. Researchers from the University of Wisconsin-Madison analyzed the limbic brain activity of 32 experienced meditation practitioners and nonmeditators (the controls) before, during, and after compassion meditation.
The experienced meditators were Tibetan monks with over 10,000 hours of compassion meditation experience. The nonmeditators were taught compassion meditation two weeks prior to the study. The participants were placed in the fMRI scanner and asked to practice or not practice compassion meditation. They were then exposed to emotional and neutral sounds.
The researchers found that the experienced meditators had significantly greater activation of their limbic brain when generating compassion and exposed to emotional sounds. Furthermore, the strength of the limbic brain activation was linked with the self-assessed intensity of the meditation by the participants.
The Main Point
“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,” the study authors conclude.
This study is important because it shows that compassion meditation can change the brain region linked with positive emotions. The researchers suggest that teaching compassion meditation to children may be a way to prevent bullying. Compassion meditation may also help prevent depression and promote cooperative relationships.
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Lutzi A et al. Regulation of the Neural Circuitry of Emmotion by Compassion Meditation: Effects of Meditative Expertise. PLoS One. 2008 Mar 26;3(3):e1897..
Gavalas, Elaine. The Yoga Minibook for Stress Relief. Simon & Schuster Fireside. http://elainegavalas.com .