Neuroscience and Compassion Training Predict a Better World

mindfulness and neuroscienceIn 2000, Dr. Richie Davidson brought over a number of monks, who practiced a form of compassion meditation, to his lab in Madison, Wisconsin for at least 10,000 hours to find out what was happening in their brains.

He hooked them up to brain imaging machines and found that when exposed to a sound of human pain, their brains weren’t disturbed, but areas of the brain involved with empathy and compassion lit up. That obviously has implications for how we can train our minds to develop compassion and regulate in the face of difficulty, but who is going to practice for 10,000 hours?

The natural question arose, what difference will compassion meditation make for the rest of us?

Here is one thing Richie and his colleagues found:

In a 2009 study, Richie Davidson and Helen Weng did another study that took meditation naïve individuals and split them up into two groups. One group was taught a common compassion practice, the loving-kindness practice, and the other was taught a cognitive reappraisal method meant to help people reframe difficulty in a more positive light.

Both methods were delivered online for 30 minutes a day and they measured participants’ brains prior to the mediation, at two weeks and then again at four weeks.

The researchers then gave participants a series of tests around fairness and giving money away to a charity. The results showed that those who did compassion practice were fairer than those who did not, but that two to four weeks wasn’t enough to make a difference in how much they donated their money earned from the study to a charity. In other words, fairness was affected, but not altruism.

However, the brain imagining piece found that participants in the compassion group showed more activity in a particular area of the brain called the nucleus accumbens, and the brain imaging studies found that the higher the activation in this area of the brain, the more money was donated. So there is some neuroscientific connection between compassion and altruism.

What does all this mean to you and me?

Compassion has been linked to activating areas of the brain that are involved with positive emotion, self-regulation and resiliency. There is a link between compassion and altruism, and altruism has been linked to feeling good in life. But maybe two to four weeks of training in compassion isn’t enough time.

Just think, wouldn’t our lives and the world be enhanced if there was a bit more compassion and altruism?

Why not start practicing today? Do your own experiment; just because it doesn’t show up in a brain imaging machine doesn’t mean it’s not so. At the end of the day let your experience be your teacher.

Here is my gift to you. A five minute meditation version of the meditation they used in the study from The Now Effect to get started.

As always, please share your thoughts, stories and questions below. Your interaction creates a living wisdom for us all to benefit from.

Monk photo available from Shutterstock

Reposted from Elisha Goldstein’s Mindfulness Blog on

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