From Channel 4 – People can train their brains to be kinder and more compassionate through meditation, a study of Buddhist Tibetan monks has shown.
Researchers found that meditative training produced specific changes in the brain linked to empathy.
Participants in the study underwent functional magnetic resonance imaging brain scans during meditation sessions.
The study, published in the journal PLoS One, involved 16 Tibetan monks who had spent thousands of hours cultivating compassion meditation practices.
They were matched against 16 volunteers with no previous meditation training who were taught the fundamentals of the practice just two weeks before the brain scanning took place.
The scans showed that brain circuits used to detect emotions and feelings were dramatically changed in the monks, but not in the inexperienced volunteers.
The lay volunteers were asked first to concentrate on loved ones, wishing them well-being and freedom from suffering. After rudimentary training, they were then asked to generate the same feelings towards all people in general without thinking of specific individuals.
Each of the 32 participants was placed in a scanner and asked either to begin compassion meditation or to refrain from it.
During each state, they were exposed to negative or positive human vocal sounds designed to evoke empathic responses, or neutral vocalisations. The sounds included a distressed woman, a baby laughing and background restaurant noise.
The scans revealed significant activity in the insula – a region near the front of the brain that plays a key role in bodily representations of emotion – when the monks were engaged in meditation and exposed to emotional vocal sounds. The strength of the activity was associated with the intensity of the meditation, as judged by the monks themselves.