Meditate to Learn Compassion

Is compassion a skill that can be perfected, like playing a musical instrument or competing in sports? A study published this spring suggests: Yes. Researchers at the University of Wisconsin assert that cultivating compassion and kindness through learned meditation practices can make a person more empathetic.

Previous studies have pinpointed the insula and anterior congulate cortices in empathetic responses. Researchers recently investigated the voluntary generation of compassion in this neuronal network by asking participants to engage in compassion meditation, and measuring their brain activity using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). The participants were Tibetan monks with a minimum of 10,000 hours of meditation practice. Sixteen of these subjects were matched with age-matched controls with no previous meditation experience. The controls were taught the basics of compassion meditation 2 weeks prior to commencing the research.

fMRITo study brain activity, scientists presented both emotional and neutral sounds during meditation and comparison periods. (Sounds included a distressed woman, a baby laughing, and background restaurant noise.) This allowed participants to keep their eyes slightly open, but not focus on visual stimuli, as is typical of meditative practices. The fMRI scans revealed activity in the insula and the temporal parietal juncture in the right hemisphere — two areas of the brain that detect and respond to emotions. The activity was increased in response to negative sounds compared to positive or neutral sounds. Notably, the activity was much higher in the expert meditators than the novices.

The researchers concluded that the brain can, therefore, be trained to exhibit more powerful responses to empathy. People can learn to regulate thoughts and emotions and promote happiness and compassion through practicing compassion meditation regularly. Techniques for compassion meditation include concentration exercises that train attention, behavioral training such as practicing generosity, and cognitive strategies of self-reflection and visualizing the suffering of others. The long-term goal for practitioners of compassion meditation is to decrease egocentric traits, allowing altruistic behaviors to arise more frequently.

Scientists hope that these techniques may be useful for teaching compassion to children and adolescents and decreasing bullying and violence, as well as helping people prone to depression learn compassion for themselves. The researchers are planning a study to examine brain changes over a longer period of time of people who practice compassion meditation.

Meditation practices impact physiological pathways that regulate stress and disease-causing processes. Much attention is focused on meditation to improve attention, develop mindfulness, and calm the mind. However, there is now evidence that physiological processes are activated in meditation focused on cultivating compassion. An additional study found that engaging in compassion meditation might reduce stress-induced immune and behavioral responses.

Contemplative strategies have been used for centuries by various societies to encourage kindness and compassion. The ambition to cultivate positive feelings, including the wish for happiness for others and the wish to relieve others’ sufferings, is certainly noble. Hopefully, practice makes perfect when it comes to compassion.


Antoine Lutz, Julie Brefczynski-Lewis, Tom Johnstone, Richard J. Davidson (2008). Regulation of the Neural Circuitry of Emotion by Compassion Meditation: Effects of Meditative Expertise PLoS ONE, 3 (3) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0001897

T PACE, L NEGI, D ADAME, S COLE, T SIVILLI, T BROWN, M ISSA, C RAISON (2008). Effect of compassion meditation on neuroendocrine, innate immune and behavioral responses to psychosocial stress Psychoneuroendocrinology DOI: 10.1016/j.psyneuen.2008.08.011

Jennifer Gibson, PharmD

Jennifer Gibson, PharmD, is a practicing clinical pharmacist and medical writer/editor with experience in researching and preparing scientific publications, developing public relations materials, creating educational resources and presentations, and editing technical manuscripts. She is the owner of Excalibur Scientific, LLC.
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