(NaturalNews) People who practice meditating on feelings of compassion increase the activity of sections of the brain associated with empathy, according to a study conducted by researchers from the University of Wisconsin at Madison.
"There is such a thing as expertise when it comes to complex emotions or emotional skills, such as the one of cultivating benevolence," said lead researcher Antoine Lutz. "That raises the possibility that you can train someone to cultivate this positive emotion."
The researchers took functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans of the brains of 16 veteran meditators, including some Tibetan monks, and 16 people from the United States with no meditation experience. The novices were given basic training in meditation practice before beginning the study.
The fMRI scans measured the blood flow in participants' brains as they either meditated or did not meditate on compassionate feelings while hearing a series of sounds designed to elicit emotional responses.
In the group of expert meditators, blood flow increased to the insula, associated with visceral emotional response, when the sound of a woman's scream was played while they were meditating.
While they were not meditating, the experts still experienced more activity in the right temporal-parietal juncture than the novices did when hearing a woman scream or a baby laugh. This area of the brain is believed to play an essential function in helping interpret others' emotions.
"The way you are going to understand the emotion of someone else is by somehow simulating, experiencing the emotion," Lutz said. "It makes sense that we found some activation of the brain region which is critical for the experience of an emotion."
The researchers are following up on their findings with a long-term study into whether and how the brain can be trained to experience empathy over time. In addition, they are studying whether different kinds of meditation, such as simple concentration vs. concentration on compassion, have different effects.