Meditation, brain change, and compassion

What I’ve called self-trust in recent posts can be paraphrased as compassion. Compassion for oneself. In the last couple of weeks I’ve been exposed to the Buddhist perspective, which clearly sees compassion for others and compassion for oneself as two sides of the same coin. Compassion, or love, or trust, is considered a kind of natural state once all the cognitive cobwebs get cleared away. But how do you achieve it?

Meditation, of course.

So while I’m cruising the canals of the Netherlands, the next four days, with a great horde of relatives (my wife’s family), quite likely to tip over and sink, either physically or emotionally, or both, I’ll leave you with a description of a great little study by David DeSteno, a professor at Northeastern University. Here’s the link, but I’m pasting most of the article below to save you the trouble of clicking on it. (Now, that’s compassion.)

This article was brought to my attention by someone whom I’d love to acknowledge, except that I can’t remember who it was. Very embarrassing. If you’d like to step forward and receive due credit, then please do.

One more thought before you read the article. I’ve recently been perusing a lot of the literature on the neuroscience of meditation. The state of the art amounts to what’s usually known as a dog’s breakfast, not insulato be confused with a god’s breakfast. It’s a mess of overlapping and sometimes discrepant findings. But there’s one bit of the brain that reliably lights up as a result of meditation training: a wee bit of cortex called the insula — a structure that is thought to mediate enteroception, the feelings one gets from one’s own body. When you are consciously feeling your feelings, whether sadness, anxiety, fatigue, or pain, it’s the insula that’s giving you the message. So, meditators seem to be able to switch on that conscious state of feeling more easily than controls.

meditation open handsMaybe that’s no big surprise. But here’s the cool part: insula activation is a reliable correlate of empathy, induced through various experimental protocols, like looking at pictures of people who are suffering. In other words, you have to be able to feel your own feelings in order to feel empathy. Meditation seems to improve that ability. And given the results of the following study, that can translate into being good to others as well as good to yourself.


MEDITATION is fast becoming a fashionable tool for improving your mind. With mounting scientific evidence that the practice can enhance creativity, memory and scores on standardized intelligence tests, interest in its practical benefits is growing. A number of “mindfulness” training programs, like that developed by the engineer Chade-Meng Tan at Google, and conferences like Wisdom 2.0 for business and tech leaders, promise attendees insight into how meditation can be used to augment individual performance, leadership and productivity.

This is all well and good, but if you stop to think about it, there’s a bit of a disconnect between the (perfectly commendable) pursuit of these benefits and the purpose for which meditation was originally intended. Gaining competitive advantage on exams and increasing meditating in sunsetcreativity in business weren’t of the utmost concern to the Buddha and other early meditation teachers. As the Buddha himself said, “I teach one thing and one only: that is, suffering and the end of suffering.” For him, as for many modern spiritual leaders, the goal of meditation was as simple as that. The heightened focus on and insight into one’s own  mind, offered by meditation, plus the enhanced cognitive skills of clarity and self-regulation, were supposed to help practitioners see the world in a new way — in which  we are no longer the center of the universe. And that’s what allows for compassion — a genuine regard of other people and an intrinsic wish to end their suffering as well as our own. And a relaxation of the habitual categorizations (us/them, self/other) that commonly divide people from one another.

But does meditation work as promised? Is its originally intended effect — the reduction of suffering — empirically demonstrable?

To put the question to the test, my lab, led in this work by the psychologist Paul Condon, joined with the neuroscientist Gaëlle Desbordes and the Buddhist lama Willa Miller to conduct an experiment whose publication is forthcoming in the journal Psychological Science. We recruited 39 people from the Boston area who were willing to take part in an eight-week course on meditation (and who had never taken any such course before). We then randomly assigned 20 of them to take part in weekly meditation classes, which also required them to practice at home using guided recordings. The remaining 19 were told that they had been placed on a waiting list for a future course.

After the eight-week period of instruction, we invited the participants to the lab for an experiment that purported to examine their memory, attention and related cognitive abilities. But as you might anticipate, what actually interested us was whether those who had been meditating would exhibit greater compassion in the face of suffering. To find out, we staged a situation designed to test the participants’ behavior before they were aware that the experiment had begun.

WHEN a participant entered the waiting area for our lab, he (or she) found three chairs, two of which were already occupied. Naturally, he sat in the remaining chair. As he waited, a fourth person, using crutches and wearing a boot for a broken foot, entered the room and audibly sighed in pain as she leaned uncomfortably against a wall. The other two people in the room — who, like the woman on crutches, secretly worked for us — ignored the woman, thus confronting the participant with a moral quandary. Would he act compassionately, giving up his chair for her, or selfishly ignore her plight?

cartoon crutches The results were striking. Although only 16 percent of the nonmeditators gave up their seats — an admittedly disheartening fact — the proportion rose to 50 percent among those who had meditated. This increase is impressive not solely because it occurred after only eight weeks of meditation, but also because it did so within the context of a situation known to inhibit considerate behavior: witnessing others ignoring a person in distress — what psychologists call the bystander effect — reduces the odds that any single individual will help. Nonetheless, the meditation increased the compassionate response threefold.

…recent findings by the neuroscientists Helen Weng, Richard Davidson and colleagues confirm that even relatively brief training in meditative techniques can alter neural functioning in brain areas associated with empathic understanding of others’ distress — areas whose responsiveness is also modulated by a person’s degree of felt associations with others. [see my comments on the insula!]

So take heart. The next time you meditate, know that you’re not just benefiting yourself, you’re also benefiting your neighbors, community members and as-yet-unknown strangers by increasing the odds that you’ll feel their pain when the time comes, and act to lessen it as well.




14 thoughts on “Meditation, brain change, and compassion

  1. William Abbott July 24, 2013 at 10:44 am #

    OMG– first responder

    This is not new news, at least to me. Ive seen it before and certainly Richie Davidson and others have shown similar but important things. But thanks to Marc, it does bear repeating .

    But my response is more of alarm. The first sentence of the report states that mindfulness or awareness practice is getting billing as improving the mind . There is huge danger in this idea as mindfulness gets more press and becomes part of pop culture. Because its not a panacea and cannot fix everything from hangnails to being a social misfit. We westerners are always looking for that quick fix . And then it will be bound to fail and we have lost something very important – those things that a mindful awareness practice can do and do well– such as increase our abilities to express compassion – to others and ourselves ( many think these are just different flavors of the same thing- including me)

    And Marc, in addictions we think of amygdala, nucleus accumbens, and insula . Blushes with preaching neuroscience to a neuroscientist . Ha Ha

    • Marc August 17, 2013 at 4:26 am #

      Bill, I’m not sure I fully get you. But I do agree that mindfulness practice does not fix everything. Like any “self-improvement” exercise we engage in, it tends to get boxed and slotted. This is what I do for 15 minutes each morning, then I get on with my day.

      A related insight recently occurred to me, and I’ll share it, though it’s a bit dicey. When my previous wife and I split up I had just arrived in Cambridge for a sabbatical. I got really depressed. I was far away from any friends or associates, except for my wife, who I’d recently discovered was cheating on me. I made it clear to those around me that I was in the midst of a reactive depression and I often apologized for not being all there.

      It just so happens that a scholar who’s deeply involved in the mindfulness movement worked in the same department and was in fact technically my host. And to this day I remain pissed off that he didn’t try to reach out to me a little bit more, to help or connect or just set aside some time to talk, but left me immersed in my depression. He was a very nice guy, he meditated, he was Buddhistically oriented, so to speak. But he was blind to the immediate needs of someone in the next room.

      There is no panacea, and being human is being flawed. But mindfulness is probably the best “product” to start a thorough house-cleaning, imperfect as it is.

      • William Abbott August 17, 2013 at 10:16 am #

        Im not sure what you dont get but Ill say it another way. Mindful Awareness Practice is a very personal thing and will be different from person to person. However the benefits will be not experienced if the expectations are goals, or achievements . It doesnt fix anything– it allows change
        For instance if one seeks self improvement- its not going to happen. Thus understanding what it cannot do is important as I outlined on my piece on McMindfulness

        The key is the letting go and allowing the awareness and awe of presence. The stillness of being and not-doing


  2. Denise July 25, 2013 at 7:13 pm #

    Marc, I find this very interesting as I’ve always found the concept of “compassion” really fascinating. Why? I think because I had the gross misfortune of being born to and raised by a mother almost totally lacking in compassion. As a result, I believe, I grew up to be someone who is so compassionate that I hesitate before killing a tiny bug because I imagine how it will feel to him/her/it. And, no surprise here, like many people with unempathic mothers (and fathers, too), I became a healer.

    But more importantly, I’ve always thought that compassion is something that, like an outgoing personality, or a talent for math, one either has or doesn’t. I’ve never thought it could be learned or developed. Now, after reading your blog and the study you cited, it seems that there is hope, via meditation. That is truly wonderful, because without compassion people can be really evil and destructive. Imagine if all the members of the Weimar Republic had meditated prior to carrying out the Final Solution. History might have taken a very different turn.

    One other interesting thing about compassion – I’ve always believed that compassion is an all or nothing phenomenon, i.e., you’re either compassionate or you’re not. Someone who is compassionate is always compassionate; it’s not something that comes and goes, depending on the situation or one’s mood. Whether or not one acts on one’s feelings is not always so constant, but in my experience, the sensing of others’ feelings and overall reality is always present. Which leads to the question: if one is already compassionate and then gets into meditating regularly, what happens? I do meditate but not regularly… I think it’s worth a try to find out 🙂

    • Marc August 17, 2013 at 4:42 am #

      Hi Denise. I agree with you that compassion can be viewed as a trait, a stable individual difference, but only to a degree. The longer I live, the more I believe that life experiences can augment or diminish the compassionate instinct. So can plain old child development.

      I’ve often noticed that two-year olds easily give “gifts” to others — they just hand them things, and that may express an innate compassionate instinct. But then older children lose it. They become unbelievably selfish. Not all compassion is gone, but the drive to establish themselves, gather resources and prestige, meet selfish goals — all that, also clearly innate — interferes with our feelings for others. And then, maybe in the twenties or so, compassion seems to increase again. Maybe that’s due to greater awareness of others’ pain, maybe it’s a result of giving up a little bit on self-promotion. Whatever, I don’t know.

      And then there’s the role of experience. Being treated very badly it seems can either increase or decrease one’s compassion. In your case, it seems to have increased it, perhaps because you KNOW what it’s like to feel abandoned and uncared for. But for others, being mistreated seems to kill compassion. We don’t have to look far for examples: Syria, Egypt, Washington…. And I think that’s because empathy, though precious, is a rather weak emotion, and it can easily be trounced by fear and anger.

      Maybe meditation can make a difference between those divergent outcomes, because it helps us to live through our negative feelings without being completely dominated by them.

  3. Jordan O. July 26, 2013 at 11:25 am #

    It seems to me that enhancement of compassion has been suggested, if not rigorously demonstrated, by several studies, this being one great example which I’d never come across. Thanks Marc!

    If someone is sitting in regular lovingkindness meditation (taking a compassionate stance toward a friend, feeling the associated mind and body states, then making an effort to extend this toward neutral and disliked persons) would their brain circuits not undergo some plastic change? I’m thinking about increased connection & myelination of neural fibres in the brain circuits that are implicated in having “a compassionate attitude”.

    I also appreciate the view that self-compassion and other-compassion might be two sides of a coin on the neural level. Daniel Siegel has written about this extensively. If one can more readily identify emotional states and their associated interoceptive sensations in oneself, changing the structure/function of the insula, then one may have an increased capacity to resonate w/ others. Before one can have “accurate empathy” for another person, mustn’t we have it for ourselves?

    Marc – Do you know if studies of mirror neurons have gone beyond investigations of motor/intentional activity (e.g. monkeys reaching) to look at mirror neuron activity during emotional expression and reception?

    • Marc August 17, 2013 at 4:57 am #

      I really resonate with your thoughts about this, Jordan. While reading your comment, I was imagining the fibers growing out of insular activation. The front part of the insula connects directly to the back part of the orbitofrontal cortex (OFC). The OFC is where we appraise the “value” of things and begin to hatch behavioral responses to stimuli. So, yes, activate the frontal insula, which is most connected to the PFC, and then one imagines a feedback loop which enhances conscious self-feeling, and then that activation should move forward directly to the OFC, sprouting new dendritic branchings (new synapses) along the way — allowing us to appraise others empathically.

      The neural correlates of the enhancement of empathy should work something like that. But of course it must be way more complicated. Self-directed compassion seems to involve a kind of forgiveness. I get what I’m doing, and though I don’t like it, I forgive it. I see that it comes from…whatever, usually fear and or shame. So if you start to connect your own interoceptive sensations with a conscious image of acceptance and care, it makes sense that you can activate the same extended network to understand and forgive others.

      I haven’t looked at the mirror neuron research in some time. But I think it’s still considered a critical link for theory of mind acquisition. We haven’t even talked about theory of mind, but it’s got to be part of the process as well.

      Empathy seems like a simple instinct but also a complex phenomenon. But then again, simple instincts often acquire complex neural and psychological extensions as we develop. Sex, for example. Ah, the many mysteries of being human!

  4. Robin July 27, 2013 at 6:14 pm #

    I’m uncomfortable with studies that trick people.

    • Marc August 17, 2013 at 4:58 am #

      Then psychological research is not for you!

  5. NN July 31, 2013 at 1:22 pm #

    While one admires the spirit of an empirical investigation of meditation and compassion,
    a couple points come to mind.

    1) Compassion, if true, extends beyond those very like oneself. The fellow on crutches with a broken ankle is similar to those in the waiting room. Suppose instead an ill clothed, tottering bum from the street came into the waiting room, plopped himself into a chair and went to sleep. Doctors assistants (confederates) proceed (sham) to rough him up. Who will say something, or intervene.

    2) Where compassion fails dreadfully is in social situation where an ‘enemy people’ have been defined. Then the authorities call for extermination. People see their neighbors being dragged off, etc.

    Zen practitioners in wartime Japan provide a good example; with years of meditation under their belts, many supported measures taken by the Japanese military.

    Concerning famous Zen teacher, Yasutani (a mentor of Philip Kapleau)

    “Engaged Buddhism” by Brian Victoria: p.85
    _Journal of Global Buddhism_
    It was in the same year that his complete enlightenment was confirmed, 1943, that
    Yasutani addressed the following comments to Japanese soldiers and civilians alike:

    ///What should the attitude of disciples of the Buddha, as Mahàyàna Bodhisattvas,
    be toward the first precept that forbids the taking of life?

    For example, what should be done in the case in which, in order to remove various evil influences and benefit society, it becomes necessary to deprive birds, insects, fish, etc. of
    their lives, or, on a larger scale, to sentence extremely evil and brutal persons
    to death, or for the nation to engage in total war?

    Those who understand the spirit of the Mahàyàna precepts should be able to
    answer this question immediately. That is to say, of course one should kill,
    killing as many as possible. One should, fighting hard, kill everyone in the
    enemy army. . . . Failing to kill an evil man who ought to be killed, or
    destroying an enemy army that ought to be destroyed, would be to betray
    compassion and filial obedience, to break the precept forbidding the taking
    of life. This is a special characteristic of the Mahàyàna precepts

    On killing [the enemy] one should swallow one’s tears, bearing in mind the truth of killing yet not killing /// (Yasutani 1943:245)

    After the war, leaders of various Zen orders saw the light.

    From the article on Yasutani, in wikipedia.

    Kubota Ji’un, [was] “the 3rd Abbot of the Religious Foundation Sanbô Kyôdan”

    Eventually, in 2000, Kubota Ji’un issued an apology for Yasutani’s statements and actions during the Pacific War:

    If Yasutani Roshi’s words and deeds, now disclosed in the [Victoria]book, have deeply shocked anyone who practices in the Zen line of the Sanbô Kyôdan and, consequently, caused him or her to abhor or abandon the practice of Zen, it is a great pity indeed. For the offense caused by these errant words and actions of the past master, I, the present abbot of the Sanbô Kyôdan, cannot but express my heartfelt regret.[web 7]

    Hirata Seiki, leader of a Rinzai order, similarly:

    Hirata Seiki writes:

    /// In the lineage of Rinzai Zen Buddhism, I am the Dharma-grandchild of Seki Seisatsu, a Zen master singled out for criticism by Brian Victoria. I would like to take this opportunity to express my sincere apologies for those words and those actions of Seisatsu that lent support to the Japanese militaries. Furthermore, I would like, on behalf of the entire Tenryuji-branch of Rinzai Zen Buddhism, to express my heart-felt remorse for the crimes committed by the Japanese military during the Pacific war and for the support given to the militarist regime by members of the Rinzai Zen-clergy.///[18]

    _Zen at War_ is a book by Brian Victoria.

    To summarize: The actual practice of compassion is a complex phenomenon. Even the clergy mentioned above, the most experienced meditators are affected by the social
    situation and its demands. Putting it mildly, these may overcome the alleged effects of meditation. However, if one reads closely, certain Buddhist principles may lend themselves to interpretations which ignore the humanity of others:

    From the same article by Victoria:

    Rinzai Zen master Takuan (1573-1645)…included the following passage in a letter written to his warrior patron, Yagyå Tajima no kami Munenori:

    ///The uplifted sword has no will of its own, it is all of emptiness. It is like a flash
    of lightning. The man who is about to be struck down is also of emptiness,
    and so is the one who wields the sword. . . . Do not get your mind stopped
    with the sword you raise, forget about what you are doing, and strike the
    enemy. Do not keep your mind on the person before you. They are all of
    emptiness, but beware of your mind being caught in emptiness. ///

  6. Marc August 17, 2013 at 5:10 am #

    Fascinating stuff. Your words resonate with comments by Denise and Jordan above and also with my own replies. My conclusion was that empathy, though fundamental, is a relatively weak emotion (if it IS an emotion) that gets quickly mowed down by the more powerful emotions of anger and fear.

    You draw attention to the critical role of categorizing others. It certainly seems clear that we can more easily empathize with members of our in-group than members of out-groups. See, for example, I think about that a lot, especially when reflecting on the present European moral crisis concerning the incorporation of Islamic immigrants into their societies. Or when I read of the latest atrocities in Syria or Egypt. But your description of Yasutani is particularly disturbing. Despite being officially “enlightened”, his adherence to filial duty seems to have won the day. And that strikes me as the fundamental Achilles’ heal in international relations. As an old cigarette commercial put it, we’d rather fight than switch.

  7. Nalliah Thayabharan November 23, 2013 at 9:02 am #

    Until we reached age of 4 during the normal state of eyes open, awake and alert our brains were functioning in the delta state, with brain waves function at less than 4 Hz. But still when we have deep sleep our brains function in the delta state..

    From age of 4 to 7, during the normal state of eyes open, awake and alert our brains were primarily operating in theta state, with brain waves functioning mainly between between 4 to 7 Hz. Now we experience this level of brain wave activity during sleep and during states of fear when the body goes into a fight,-flight or freeze response, (hyper arousal, or the acute stress response). This is a powerful level from which to initiate change and in this state, we only need mostly just one or couple of experiences of learning to change our behaviour.

    From the age 7 until we reached our puberty, during the normal state of eyes open, awake and alert our brains were mainly operating in the alpha state of 7 to 14 Hz. Now during light sleep, meditation, or eyes closed relaxation we reach alpha state. At this level effective learning can take place after about 21 repetitions. Practice a new behaviour for about 21 times and that behaviour becomes a habit. Strong levels of physical healing can take place when the brain is at 10 Hz

    Since puberty during the normal state of eyes open, awake and alert our brain operates in the beta state, 14 to 21 Hz during the normal state of eyes open, awake and alert. In this state it may take many thousands of repetitions to learn a new behaviour. To create significant change in our lives at this level takes extensive deal of time and effort.

    Brain waves less than 7 Hz are very ideal for rejuvenating and to maintain good health.

    0.5 Hz – Relaxation, Soothe headaches
    0.5 – 1.5 Hz – Pain relief. Endorphin release
    0.9 Hz – Euphoric feeling
    1 Hz – Well being. Harmony and balance
    1 – 3 Hz – Profound relaxation, restorative sleep. Tranquility and peace
    2.5 Hz – Production of endogenous opiates (pain killers, reduce anxiety)
    2.5 Hz – Relieves migraine pain. Produces endogenous opiates
    3 – 8 Hz – Deep relaxation, meditation. Lucid dreaming
    3 – 8 Hz – Increased memory, focus, creativity
    3.4 Hz – Helps achieve restful sleep
    3.5 Hz – Feeling of unity with everything. Whole being regeneration
    3.9 Hz – Self renewal, enhanced inner awareness
    4 Hz – Enkephalin release for reduced stress
    4 Hz – Allows brain to produce enkaphalins, all natural pain killer
    4 Hz – Full memory scanning. Releases enkephalins
    4.Hz – Vital for memory and learning. Problem solving, object naming
    4 – 7 Hz – Profound inner peace, emotional healing. Lowers mental fatigue
    4 – 7 Hz – Deep meditation, near-sleep brainwaves.
    4.5 Hz – Brings about Buddha’s state of consciousness, Buddhist chants.
    4.9 Hz – Induce relaxation and deeper sleep
    4.9 Hz – Introspection. Relaxation, meditation
    5 Hz – Reduces sleep required. Replaces need for extensive dreaming
    5.3 Hz – Allows relaxing breathing, free and efficient
    5.5 Hz – Inner guidance, intuition
    6.5 Hz – Activates creative frontal lobe
    7.5 Hz – Activates creative thought for art, invention, music. Problem solving
    7.5 Hz – Ease of overcoming troublesome issues
    7.8 Hz – Schumann earth resonance. Grounding, meditative, Leaves us revitalized
    8 Hz – Associated with the mouth. Brings creativity
    8- 10 Hz Super-learning new information, memorization, not comprehension.
    10 Hz – Enhanced serotonin release. Mood elevation, arousal, stimulant
    10 Hz – Provides relief from lost sleep, improves general mood
    10 Hz – Mood elevator. Used to dramatically reduce headaches
    10 Hz – Clarity, subconscious correlation. Releases serotonin
    11 Hz – Relaxed yet awake state
    11 – 14 Hz – Increased focus and awareness
    12 Hz – Centering, mental stability.
    12 – 15 Hz – Relaxed focus, improved attentive abilities
    12 – 14 Hz – Learning frequency, good for absorbing information passively
    13 – 27 Hz – Promotes focused attention toward external stimuli
    13 – 30 Hz – Problem solving, conscious thinking
    14 Hz – Awakeness, alert. Concentration on tasks, Focusing, vitality.
    16 Hz – Bottom of hearing range. Releases oxygen/calcium into cells
    18 – 24 Hz — Euphoria, can result in headaches, anxiety.

    • Marc November 23, 2013 at 12:28 pm #

      Some of your characterizations of frequency ranges are very accurate and helpful. But I don’t believe that kids/adolescents function ONLY in the frequency ranges you stipulate. I’ve done lots of EEG work with kids — they show the same frequency ranges as adults, though proportional time in each range probably does differ along the lines you suggest. See our upcoming paper in Neuroimage (Liu is first author) on developmental changes in theta amplitudes….

  8. Laura September 8, 2014 at 11:29 am #

    Your blogs truly inspire me! Anybody who is seeking motivation needs to read your words. You really take your time and research and answer back to every comment. I love your work, thank you. You help me stay focused in my recovery everyday.

    All the best,
    Laura Judge

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