THURSDAY, March 27, 2008 (HealthDay News) -- New research suggests that qualities the world desperately needs more of -- love, kindness and compassion -- are indeed teachable.
Imaging technology shows that people who practice meditation that focuses on kindness and compassion actually undergo changes in areas of the brain that make them more in tune to what others are feeling.
"Potentially one can train oneself to behave in a way which is more benevolent and altruistic," said study co-author Antoine Lutz, an associate scientist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
How far this idea can be extrapolated remains in question, though.
"I think there's no question that people can benefit from these practices," said Dr. Louis Teichholz, medical director of complementary medicine and chief of cardiology at Hackensack University Medical Center in New Jersey. "I think the question is how easy is it to get trained enough so that it will make a clinical difference, and I don't think this study answers that."
The findings were published in the March 26 issue of the Public Library of Science One.
Recent brain-imaging studies have suggested that the insula and the anterior cingulate cortices regions are involved in the empathic response to other people's pain. But not much is known about how cultivating compassion might affect brain circuitry.
And previous research has indicated that meditation may reduce the brain's reaction to pain, and that it may actually improve cardiovascular health by decreasing the risk of metabolic syndrome.
"The main research question was to see whether some positive qualities such as loving-kindness and compassion or, in general, pro-social altruistic behavior, can be understood as skills and can be trained," Lutz explained.
In the same way that training in sports or chess or music produces functional and structural changes in the brain, the Wisconsin researchers wanted to see if cultivating compassion through the practice of meditation also produced brain changes -- suggesting that compassion could be viewed as a learned skill.
The study involved 32 people: 16 Tibetan monks and lay practitioners, who had meditated for a minimum of 10,000 hours throughout their lifetime (the "experts"); and 16 control subjects, who had only recently been taught the basics of compassion meditation (the "novices").
The senior author of the paper, Richard Davidson, a professor of psychiatry and psychology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and an expert on imaging the effects of meditation, has been collaborating with the Dalai Lama since 1992, studying the brains of Tibetan monks.
For the study, individuals in the control group were instructed first to wish loved ones well-being and freedom from pain, then to wish such benefits to humankind as a whole.
"We looked at whether there were any differences between experts and novices in generating compassion with the idea that a central practice in this tradition [of meditation] is to cultivate these positive emotions," Lutz said. "We wanted to see if there were any differences in the way the brain was reacting."
Each participant was hooked up to a functional MRI both while meditating and not meditating. During each state, the participants heard sounds designed to produce responses: the negative sound of a distressed woman, the positive sound of a baby laughing, and the neutral sound of background noise from a restaurant.
"We showed altered activation in brain circuitry that was previously linked to empathy and perspective-taking or the capacity to understand other's intentions and mental states and, more precisely, the insula was more activated, particularly in response to negative emotional sounds," Lutz said.
In the monks, especially, these areas of the brain were activated even more when they hard the cries of the distressed woman, she said.
The study authors hope the findings might one day help with a range of problems, including reducing the incidence of bullying in schools or helping people with depression.
"The next step is to see if this works," Lutz said. "If it works, then it can be applied to selective populations -- for instance, depressed people or, more broadly, in education."
The U.S. National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine has more about meditation and health.