Compassion Meditation Changes the Brain

Compassion meditation produces physical effects in the brain, “proving” in terms of Western science that an Eastern spiritual practice “works”. Are compassion and empathy skills which can be developed through meditation, or is this missing the point of a spiritual experience?

Once again, Western science has got hold of an Eastern spiritual practice and “proved” that it works: compassion meditation changes the brain.

The study, by researchers at the University of Wisconsin, uses functional magnetic resonance imaging to show how “brain circuits used to detect emotions and feelings were dramatically changed in subjects who had extensive experience practicing compassion meditation”.

The study is part of extensive investigations involving a group of Tibetan monks and lay practitioners who have practiced meditation for a minimum of 10,000 hours, using controls with no previous training, who were taught the basics two weeks before the brain scanning. The aim was to see “how the voluntary generation of compassion actually affects the brain systems involved in empathy”.

The subjects were exposed to various human vocalisations — someone in distress, a crying baby, and background noise, while in a state of compassion, and while in “normal” mode. The scans showed that when empathy was activated and the person was generating compassion, there was significant activity in the insula brain area, which is involved in bodily responses to emotion, and another area important in processing empathy. The long term meditators had much more activity in these areas than the novices.

From these results conclusions were drawn by the researchers that meditation training could be a way in which to develop people’s empathic skills. This is a nice retort to those who consider all forms of meditation as selfish forms of navel gazing! They suggest the value of “emotional regulation” for those susceptible to depression, and suggest programmes for adolescents to prevent them going off the rails.

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The emphasis in the article on “training” and the learning of specialist skills seems to me not quite to fit the practice of meditation. With all due respect to those who devote their lives to Buddhist studies and practices, is it really a question of acquiring techniques, or is it more a question of simply “doing it”? Is the extra “proficiency” shown by long term meditators less to do with something different which they know how to do, and more to do with the fact that they have created a habit of being which deepens over time? Or is it that what they are doing is essentially a little different because it is a part of a spiritual practice rather than just exercising their compassion muscle as a musician might practise scales?

Maybe, while performing exactly the same technique, the Buddhist monks are experiencing a different level of insight into the nature of the mind, the illusory nature of the individual, separate self, the transience of all things, the Buddha nature we all share which is essentially compassion? Maybe conscious awareness of all this “produces” more compassion, more empathy? Or maybe Buddhists just have a framework for understanding the experience which the non-Buddhist “novices” do not?

Buddhism can certainly be seen as a “practice” rather than a religion, but is the reduction of meditation to its physical effects on the brain, and the subsequent use of it as a means to an end, not just the start of a slippery slope toward the appropriation and commoditisation of what could be, maybe should be, an experience of liberation and transcendence? Does this not entirely miss the point of the Buddhist’s insights into the nature of the mind? Maybe the pragmatic answer to my questions is that Buddhism is essentially a means to an end — the end to suffering for all beings, and that anything which helps others to directly experience compassion has to be a good thing. I do want to hold onto the questions, though.

In my experience, metta, or loving kindness meditation, which seems to be the compassion meditation whose effects were studied, is a simple technique, whose effectiveness depends on your motivation and ability to put yourself in a sense “on one side” in order to “just do it”.

First you become full of feelings of good will and compassion first toward a loved person, then toward a neutral person, then to an enemy, finally extending those wishes that others should be free of suffering outwards and outwards until they cover every living being. The final step is not as hard as it sounds once you are already bathed in a feeling which is fairly easy to generate for those who are the closest to us. This sensation of being “bathed in a feeling” is nicely reinforced by knowledge that the brain activity pinpointed by the study relates specifically to the bodily experiencing of emotion (via heart rate, blood pressure, etc.).

In the final analysis, yes, let’s introduce the practice of loving kindness meditation to everyone in every setting we can. Not as the latest skill we need to get ahead, not because it is good for our blood pressure and not as an anti-depressant, but as a bold step toward liberating all beings from suffering.

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