October 21, 2010

Is compassion good for your physical health?

Basic empathy is a biological given. “If you talk with a sad person, you are going to adopt a sad posture, and if you talk to a happy person, by the end you will probably be laughing,” said Emory primatologist Frans de Waal. He explained that evolution has programmed us to mirror both the physical and emotional states of others.

De Waal gave the opening remarks at an Oct. 18 conference bringing together His Holiness the XIV Dalai Lama and scientists studying the effects of compassion meditation on the brain and behavior.

“Empathy is biased – it’s stronger for those that are close to you than those that are distant,” De Waal said. “Nature has built in rewards for the things that we need to do, and being pro-social is something that we need when we live in groups.”

More than humans

In order to get from empathy to compassion and altruism, you need to identify others as distinct from you. While it used to be assumed that altruistic tendencies were only possible in humans, de Waal said that targeted helping of others has recently been observed among apes and elephants.

Richard Davidson, a neuroscientist from the University of Wisconsin, recalled when he first began studying the effects of compassion meditation in 1992. He traveled to a Tibetan Buddhist monastery and attached electrodes to the head of an expert meditation practitioner. The other monks began laughing.

“I thought it was because he looked so funny with the electrodes attached to him,” Davidson said. But it turned out the monks were amused that he was trying to study the effects of compassion by attaching the electrodes to the practitioner’s head, rather than his heart.

Years later, Davidson is finding that the monks’ view may be on target. New research shows that the heart rates of expert practitioners of compassion meditation beat more quickly while they are meditating than the hearts of novices. “We believe that compassionate meditation is facilitating communication between the heart and the mind,” Davidson said.

Working a nerve

Psychologist Barbara Fredrickson at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill cited her research into the effects of “love and kindness meditation,” or LKM, on the vagus nerve. The nerve, which extends from the deep within the brain stem to the heart, helps regulate emotions and bodily systems. The effectiveness of the vagus nerve is measured by its tone, or fitness. The higher the vagal tone, the better the vagus nerve performs as a regulatory pathway.

“With just six weeks of LKM training in novices, we see improvements in resting vagal tone,” Fredrickson said. “Just like physical exercise improves muscle tone, emotion training improves vagal tone.”

High vagal tone is related to both a person’s physical health and their ability to feel loving connections with others, Fredrickson said. “In a way, our bodies are designed for love, because the more we love, the more healthy we become.”

Emory researchers Charles Raison and Geshe Lobsang Tenzin Negi described their ongoing research into the effects of compassion meditation and depression.  Negi developed a secular form of meditation for the research, based on the Tibetan Buddhist mind-training practice called “lojong.” Lojong uses an analytical approach to challenge a person’s thoughts and emotions toward other people, with the long-term goal of developing altruistic behavior.

Starting young

The pair collaborated on a 2005 study that showed that college students who regularly practice compassion meditation had a significant reduction in stress and physical responses to stress. They have now expanded their research to the Compassion and Attention Longitudinal Meditation Study (CALM), to explore the physical effects of different forms of meditation.

“We’re trying to zero in on what is it about meditation that is useful for people’s health,” Raison said.

Emory researchers are also getting positive preliminary results in compassion meditation studies involving schoolchildren ages 6 to 8 and adolescents in the foster care system.

“This seems like the dawning of a new day,” the Dalai Lama said. “We’ve heard about the benefits, and now we need to act to cultivate compassion from kindergarten to universities.”

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