Hindus do it. So do Buddhists. Sikhs, Muslims, Taoist and Jains all practice it too. No, I’m not reciting lyrics from a Cole Porter song, I’m referring to meditation, “a discipline in which the mind is focused on an object of thought or awareness”. Although meditation has been practiced by all of the world’s great religions since time immemorial, here in the West, meditation is often dismissed as a New Age activity, something to do for a few minutes before breaking into an ashtanga sweat.
Contrary to popular opinion (that meditation is some airy-fairy endeavor), new research shows that tangible results can be achieved by those who meditate — especially in the areas of kindness and compassion. In a study published in the March 26 issue of the Public Library of Science One, “32 people: 16 Tibetan monks and lay practitioners, who had meditated for a minimum of 10,000 hours throughout their lifetime (the ‘experts’); and 16 control subjects, who had only recently been taught the basics of compassion meditation (the ‘novices’)” were hooked up to MRI machines while in meditative and non-meditative states. During each state, “the participants heard sounds designed to produce responses: the negative sound of a distressed woman, the positive sound of a baby laughing, and the neutral sound of background noise from a restaurant.”
The results were spectacular: “We showed altered activation in brain circuitry that was previously linked to empathy and perspective-taking or the capacity to understand other’s intentions and mental states and, more precisely, the insula was more activated, particularly in response to negative emotional sounds,” said study co-author Antoine Lutz, an associate scientist at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.
What’s more, the brain reactions of the monks upon hearing the distressed women were more pronounced than those of the novices. The upshot? That just like music, chess or sports, meditation can also be regarded as a learned skill. Says Lutz: “Potentially one can train oneself to behave in a way which is more benevolent and altruistic.” The authors hope to see real world applications in the near future such as reducing bullying in schools or helping depressed people.
In the meantime, even the suggestion that getting your om on helps make you more compassionate seems to me something worth meditating on.