Previous brain studies have shown that when a person witnesses someone else in an emotional state—such as disgust or pain—similar activity is seen in both people’s brains. This shows a physiological base for empathy, defined as the ability to understand and share another person’s experience. Now research at the University of Wisconsin has used advanced brain images (fMRI, functional magnetic resonance imaging) to show that compassion meditation—a specific form of Buddhist meditation—may increase the human capacity for empathy.
In the study, researchers compared brain activity in meditation experts with that of subjects just learning the technique (16 in each group). They measured brain activity, during meditation and at rest, in response to sounds—a woman in distress, a baby laughing, and a busy restaurant—designed to evoke a negative, positive, or neutral emotional response.
The researchers found that both the novice and the expert meditators showed an increased empathy reaction when in a meditative state. However, the expert meditators showed a much greater reaction, especially to the negative sound, which may indicate a greater capacity for empathy as a result of their extensive meditation training.
An increased capacity for empathy, the authors say, may have clinical and social importance. The next step, they add, is to investigate whether compassion meditation results in more altruistic behavior or other changes in social interaction.
Lutz A, Brefczynski-Lewis J, Johnstone T, et al. Regulation of the neural circuitry of emotion by compassion meditation: effects of meditative expertise. PLoS ONE.; 3(3):e1897.2008