An fMRI study at the University of Wisconsin examined activity in the brains of people who have significant amounts of experience with compassion meditation. Compared to controls, these people showed notable changes in brain areas associated with detecting emotion and responding to it physiologically, and with picking up on other people’s emotional and mental states. I assume that feeling greater compassion and empathy would result in behavioral differences, but that question was beyond the scope of this study. The details are available in this press release on EurekAlert.
This result suggests that we can use our neural plasticity to train ourselves in caring for others, a welcome message indeed. The press release about the meditators mentions groups of people that might particularly benefit from training in compassion meditation, including adolescents and depressed people. Coincidentally, I just read a story in the New Yorker about Abu Ghraib, and it sounds like conditions there encouraged military personnel to dull any empathy and fellow-feeling they may have felt, just to get through their time there, which is just the opposite of what compassion meditation aims to do. I wonder, would the soldiers themselves, or the leaders who put the soldiers in that position, have benefited from training in compassion meditation? Would we trust a political or military leader who was known to be deeply compassionate and to easily imagine himself or herself in other’s shoes?