Study finds no links between compassion and meditation

By Valerie McMurray – vrmcmurr@unca.edu – Asst. News Editor | Oct. 15, 2014 |

Contrary to what scientists at Emory University were expecting in their recent study, meditation showed no effect on brain systems associated with compassion.

The study’s findings were presented at a workshop, “The Heart and Science of Compassion: An Introduction to Cognitively-Based Compassion Training” at UNC Asheville’s Sherrill Center on Sept. 27.

“We must address the Dalai Lama in addressing compassion,” said Lobsang Tenzin Negi, director of the Emory-Tibet Partnership and former Buddhist monk. “He says that at a basic level, compassion, which is called in Tibetan, nying je, is understood mainly in terms of empathy, how you would enter into and to some extent share others’ suffering.”

The large, federally-funded study focused on of the effects of meditation practices on well-being and health. Jennifer Mascaro, a biological anthropologist who has studied the effectiveness of CBCT since 2010, presented the findings.

Study participants also did not self-report feeling more compassion after meditation.

Negi created the meditation training in 2004 to help reduce the prevalence of stress among students at Emory University in Atlanta, where he is a lecturer in the religious department.

According to the UNCA website, CBCT is intended as an introduction to compassion practices drawn from the Lojong tradition of Tibetan Buddhism, “a systematic practice of gradually training the mind in compassion until altruism becomes spontaneous.”

Sophie Mills, professor of the humanities, presented the workshop along with UNC School of Medicine Asheville and Mars Hill University.

Mascaro’s team did find that the meditation group scored better on a task measuring empathy than the control group. The meditation group had 11 percent odds of improving their score due to increase in activity in areas of the brain responsible for decoding others’ facial expressions.

Mascaro said one drawback to the test for the purposes of their study is people don’t usually see photos of expressions – they see real people.

The test activated the areas of the brain responsible for sensing others’ feelings and the areas for detecting threats.

“We really wanted to see if differences in physiology and neural activity accounted for differences in behavior,” Mascaro said.

The study included 30 people, ages 25 to 55, who were inexperienced with meditation. The control group held a weekly health discussion of various topics rather than meditating. They were asked to self-report, among other personal background information, levels of spiritual meaning and anxiety in their lives.

Scientists did not find people reporting high levels of spiritual meaning going into the study reporting higher levels of compassion, contrary to their expectations.

Mascaro said people higher in spiritual meaning endorsed a lot of more fundamentalist spiritual traditions.

For their current study, Mascaro’s team is recruiting veterans diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and gone through front line treatments. They’re not really suffering from acute PTSD symptoms anymore, but they continue to report interpersonal symptoms.

They are also recruiting second-year medical students for training in compassion meditation.

“There’s a lot of research showing that well-being takes a huge hit in medical school, but parallel to that, empathy does as well. Those are cognitively related. We want to see if compassion meditation has effects on those two features,” Mascaro said.

Recent research reveals empathy and compassion are more different than neuroscientists realized. Tests show eliciting compassion stimulates the same reward and motivation systems triggered by eating chocolate, viewing potential mates or abusing drugs.

“The other reason I think this is interesting is that in my other line of work we look at parental empathy and caregiving so there’s a lot of research now showing that this system is a proactive motivation to care for offspring,” Mascaro said. “I think it fits in well with how Buddhist contemplatives think about compassion.”

Negi said the empathy and compassion a parent feels for their child could extend to unlimited care for others in need. He intends for meditation learners to take advantage of their pro-social feelings.

“This I would call an engaged form of compassion that may lead one to actually do something to alleviate another’s suffering and to promote their well-being,” Negi said.

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