You can learn to be nice

i-114c7be764cd3aa1e67b9ba4246d04de-plosbrain.jpgAccording 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... ).

ResearchBlogging.orgFrom the paper:

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

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Wouldn't it be interesting to compare the rates at which people can learn to be nice with the rates at which gays can "learn" not to be homosexual? At the very least, it might give us some guidance on which group can most benefit from the therapeutic resources.

"OK, Rev. Haggard, you're scheduled for 2 months of "nice" camp..."

By PoxyHowzes (not verified) on 28 Mar 2008 #permalink

there isn't much to this article that would interest a scientist, its just another piece of propaganda

Great idea, now where do I get MY lobotomy?
seriously though, it is a 'nice' idea--so you are vindicated for the rest of the day! Now go take out an ATM, or rob an ol'lady....

By the real Randa… (not verified) on 28 Mar 2008 #permalink

Meditation in a general sense is one of those few things that I've had trouble dismissing as 'woo.' I'm sure it's hard to study empirically (though it sounds like folks are taking a stab at it with imaging technology) but specific meditation practices have helped me feel better (more patient, less quick to anger, and yes, more compassionate and able to consider another's POV) both short- and long-term. I would love to see more work done on discovering the neurological basis (if there is any) for any measurable benefits (if there are any.) It's something I've been meaning to look up for a while, to see what's already available on the subject. Thanks for the post.

As I say in my commentary, I'm not sure what to make of this particular paper. I am not a woo guy. However, I am fully prepared to accept evidence that mental state can be self-controlled or altered through meditation, and can result in measurable effects. The effects described here are pretty ordinary. My difficulty here is really just that they have not ruled out effect that are not empathetic ... such as increased sensitivity to noise, that sort of thing.

I'm not really sure what effect they're showing either, except that people can tell when they are feeling empathetic. "How deep into the meditative state were you, now that you know how you reacted?" I really wanted to know more about the sound set they were using, but that reference article isn't open.

I'd have also liked disclosure that one of the authors (Davidson) meditates in the tradition used in the study. I only found that out when I went looking for an article I'd seen a couple years ago about side effects of meditation.

Ironically, the Humanist article suggests there are lasting (negative) effects of meditation for some people, but the study was quiet on the subject. Unless it was buried in jargon and I missed it, the authors didn't discuss any differences between experts and novices in reactions in the rest state. Although they pointed out that experts had greater cortical thickness, they didn't show that it was used outside of meditation. Not very useful. Really, how often does one interact with others and meditate at the same time?

By Stephanie Z (not verified) on 28 Mar 2008 #permalink