According to a study just out in PLoS, you can learn to be nice. This study, using functional MRI brain imaging, assessed brain activity while meditation experts produced a meditative state called a “loving-kindness-compassion state” (and here I was thinking that the “loving-kindness-compassion state” was Vermont… ).
meditators have more than 10,000 hours of practice in Buddhist meditation and are perceived in their communities as embodying qualities of compassion (see Methods). Experts were compared with age-and gender-matched “novices” who were interested in learning to meditate, but had no prior experience except in the week prior to the scanning session, in which they were given meditation instructions for the same practice performed by the experts. The meditative practice studied here involves the generation of a state in which an “unconditional feeling of loving-kindness and compassion pervades the whole mind as a way of being, with no other consideration, or discursive thoughts” (for details see Meditation Instruction). According to the tradition, as a result of this practice, feelings and actions for the benefit of others arise more readily when relevant situations arise. Our main hypothesis was thus that the concern for others cultivated during this meditation would enhance the affective responses to emotional human vocalizations, in particular to negative ones, and that this affective response would be modulated by the degree of meditation training.
All of the “challenges” (signals) sent to the mediators were audio. Brain scans indicated significant activity in a certain part of the brain, and the intensity of the brain activity was correlated with the “intensity fo the meditation as assessed by” the meditating subject.
All subjects exhibited stronger responses to the emotional sounds while meditating than when not meditating, and the expert mediators exhibited even stronger responses.
I’m not sure what this means, but Davidson, one of the researchers comments:
“I think this can be one of the tools we use to teach emotional regulation to kids who are at an age where they’re vulnerable to going seriously off track…The world certainly could use a little more kindness and compassion …Starting at a local level, the consequences of changing in this way can be directly experienced.”
Lutz, A., Brefczynski-Lewis, J., Johnstone, T., Davidson, R.J., Baune, B. (2008). Regulation of the Neural Circuitry of Emotion by Compassion Meditation: Effects of Meditative Expertise. PLoS ONE, 3(3), e1897. DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0001897