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The science of compassion. Cultivating compassion.

Posted on December 10, 2012 at 5:58 PM

Richard J. Davidson is one of the pioneer researchers in the neuroscience of emotion.

He has studied "experts in compassion", Budhist monks who have over 10.000 hours of formal practise in compassion meditation. They monitored areas of the brain that were going to be "recruited" during mediation.   

When practitioners begin to meditate they show a dramatic increase in gamma oscillations. There is no specific circuit in the brain dedicated to compassion but compassion training affects parts of the brain that are involved in many other kinds of function.

Circuits that are known to be involved in emotion and empathy - the Anterior Insula (AI), Temporal Parietal Junction (TPJ) and the Amygdala are being modulated during meditation.

They also looked at changes in the functioning of the autonomic nervous system. Compassion induces changes in heart rate. When the experts practice compassion there is a higher coupling between the activity in the brain (insula and the dorsal anterior cingulate) and heart rate. 

Even two weeks' daily 30 minute practice of compassion meditation changes the activity in the brain and stimulates altruistic behaviour. In an experiments practitioners were asked to contemplate and visualize the suffering and then wish the freedom from suffering for: a person they love, for themselves, for a stranger, for a person whom they find difficult and all beings. The phrase most used was: "May you be free from suffering. May you experience joy and ease. They were instructed to notice visceral sensations (especially in the area of the heart) and were instructed to feel compassion emotionally not simply repeat phrases cognitively. 

The researchers collected brain data and behavioural data before and after the training and noticed that compassion training changed brain function and also resulted in people being more likely to act altruistically.

Categories: Compassion, Neuroscience

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