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Meditation can lead to greater compassion: study


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Meditation can lead to greater compassion: study

Mar. 27 2008

CTV.ca News Staff

It seems that people can acquire the ability to feel emotions such as kindness and compassion, just as they learned skills like reading and writing, a new study says.

Researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison say that by monitoring subjects with a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) machine, they could see that the part of the brain that controls empathy is affected when a person is engaged in compassionate meditation.

Study director Richard Davidson, professor of psychiatry and psychology at UW-Madison, said in a statement: "Many contemplative traditions speak of loving-kindness as the wish for happiness for others and of compassion as the wish to relieve others' suffering.

"We wanted to see how this voluntary generation of compassion affects the brain systems involved in empathy."

The study, also co-authored by UW-Madison associate scientist Antoine Lutz, was published Wednesday in the journal Public Library of Science One.

For this research, Davidson and Lutz monitored 16 monks who had at least 10,000 hours of meditation practice, along with 16 other subjects who were given two weeks of training in basic elements of compassion meditation. The training included the ability to first think about loved ones and wish them happiness and well-being, and then to expand those thoughts to include others.

Subjects were attached to the fMRI machine and were told to alternate between practicing compassion meditation and refraining from it. While they were in both states, subjects were exposed to negative and positive sounds from people that were designed to evoke empathy in the listener.

When subjects were meditating, the fMRI scans showed activity in the part of the brain that plays a role in how emotions are manifested in the body.

Activity also increased in the part of the brain that helps process empathy and the ability to gauge the mental and emotional state of others.

The effects of meditation were noticeable in all study subjects, but more so in those with greater meditation experience.

The findings could have an impact on a wide range of people with behavioural or emotional problems. Everyone from children who are bullies in the schoolyard to those who suffer from depression may be able to learn how to feel happier and more compassionate.

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