The Neuroscience of Meditation

In 1992, the Dalai Lama invited an up-and-coming neuroscientist, Richie Davidson, out to Dharamsala, India to discuss the future of neuroscience research. Why, wondered the Dalai Lama, don’t scientists devote more effort to the study of positives like happiness or compassion?

Since that pivotal conversation the field has accepted the Dalai Lama’s challenge, in particular linking positive human states with Eastern philosophical ideas and practices and exploring what those practices look like in the brain. The Dalai Lama himself is fascinated with this research and has spent years fostering relationships with Western scientists, and has written a book on his thoughts regarding the melding of science and philosophy. Meditation has become a hot topic, as meditation practices can be separated relatively easily from religious beliefs, and thus can be more readily studied in a scientific setting. Researchers have looked at the brains of Tibetan Buddhist monks and nuns to see how they differ from non-meditators, and then have looked at non-meditators before and after meditation interventions in order to see how meditation could benefit everyday people. Two types of meditation have received the most attention: mindfulness meditation, which teaches focused yet relaxed awareness of the moment; and compassion meditation, which teaches loving-kindness through purposeful empathizing with others.

The majority of research connecting neuroscience and meditation has been on mindfulness meditation. Perhaps the most well-known application of mindfulness research is the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) Program, developed by Dr. John Kabat-Zinn. First used for people dealing with depression or chronic pain due to illness, MBSR has since been shown to reduce stress in a variety of populations. This stress reduction is correlated with left-side anterior temporal activation, and researchers have shown that this activation can be increased through mindfulness trainings like MBSR (Davidson et al., 2003). Other recent work has shown that mindfulness meditation training can help treat symptoms of ADHD in adults and adolescents, which makes sense, considering that mindfulness meditation teaches how to focus attention (Zylowska, 2007). Mindfulness meditation has even been correlated with sustained grey matter volume in the brain during the aging process when individuals normally lose grey matter density (Pagnoni and Cekic, 2007)

While research on mindfulness meditation usually focuses on how to improve our own well-being, research on compassion meditation looks at how we may better relate to others. A recent study looked at an intervention of cognitive-based compassion training (CBCT), which is a meditation training based on Tibetan Buddhist compassion meditation, on participants’ ability to accurately infer others’ emotional states. They found increased neural activity in regions associated with mentalizing, or thinking about the mental states of others, that correlated with better performance on an empathic accuracy task (Mascaro et al., 2013). Other teams are looking at whether compassion meditation can increase prosocial behavior, with some exciting early findings showing that compassion meditation training increases charitable giving (Weng et al., 2013).

The Dalai Lama’s accepting attitude toward neuroscience research has opened doors for further collaborations and there are now several centers dedicated to studying Eastern thought as it pertains to psychology and neuroscience. Richie Davidson answered the Dalai Lama’s call all those years ago and has founded the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds at the University of Wisconsin, Madison in order to better understand the more positive aspects of life. Likewise, the Stanford Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education and the Berkeley Greater Good Science Center are exploring meditation, neuroscience, and how they link to positive changes in people’s lives.