Learning to be compassionate

Browsing through the Sunday Times today, I came across an article with the headline “Everyone can learn to be compassionate – study”.

Research done in the US at the University of Wisconsin-Madison using functional magnetic resonance imaging of the brain seems to suggest that compassion can be learned, rather like acquiring a skill.

Dr Antoine Lutz and Professor Richard Davidson studied long-term Buddhist meditators who had done at least 10,000 hours of compassion or ‘loving-kindness’ meditation, and they found the following:

  • “Enhanced activation in the brain circuitry, which is important for empathy and understanding;
  • That the circuitry reacted most strongly to negative sounds (for example, a woman in distress) rather than neutral sounds (voices in a restaurant) or positive sounds (a baby laughing)
  • The circuits reacted more strongly during sessions that the meditators reported as more intense; and
  • The circuits showed increased activity in the insula (a key region for detecting and responding to emotion) and the right side of the temporal parietal juncture (a region linked to empathy for others.”

They now intend to extend this by studying what happens in the brains of people who are beginning to practice loving-kindness meditation over time, and their hypothesis is that their brains will change and that both individuals and society as a whole will benefit from these kinds of practices.

Didn’t we kind of suspect that all along?

I vaguely recall that there were some studies done with transcendental meditation (in the 80s and 90s, I think) where it was found that crime levels in an area decreased, when a certain percentage of the population participated in TM. One of these was a study done in Washington DC during June-July 1993 with regard to preventing violent crime by means of a TM-program. Do a search on Transcendental Meditation, the TM-Sidhi program and the Maharishi Effect on Google, and you’ll find quite a bit of info on it (of course you’ll also find some whacky and nutty stuff about it, but just wade through that).  

Ask anyone who has ever done loving-kindness or compassion meditation, or mindfulness meditation, etc. whether they feel better afterwards. Of course, sustaining the kind of ‘zing’ you get from a happy blissed-out kind of meditation when you are bombarded with the incessant demands of daily reality on your way home from the meditation centre may be a little tricky… but I’m told it gets easier with practice.

However, I guess that’s just too anecdotal evidence, so I’m quite chuffed that the scientists are finally deeming it a subject worthy of sceptical scrutiny.

And now, I am off to OMmmmmm….. .

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