Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Compassion - Bridging Practice and Science

Science magazine has an article by Kupferschmidt pointing to the work of Tania Singer, a director at the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Leipzig, who has embarked on an ambitious study involving 160 participants to find out whether meditation can make people more compassionate. He notes that meditation research does not have a very rigorous reputation, and some scientists are skeptical about the work, but Singer — who has long practiced meditation herself—hopes her study will be methodologically rigorous enough to withstand criticism. In 2004 Singer published a landmark paper in Science that showed that bilateral anterior insula (AI), rostral anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), brainstem, and cerebellum were activated when subjects received pain and also by a signal that a loved one experienced pain. AI and ACC activation correlated with individual empathy scores. Singer has just release a free 900-page e-book, entitled "Compassion - Bridging Practice and Science", that is quite amazing. I'm going to spend some time paging through it. Here is one clip from Kupferschmidt's commentary:
Numerous studies have shown that people can be "primed" to think more socially in various ways—from reading simple instructions to holding a warm cup of coffee. In one test, participants who listened to Bob Sinclar's hit song "Love Generation" were more likely to come up with words like "help" than those who listened to Sinclar's less uplifting song "Rock This Party." But Singer isn't interested in words; she wants to train people to act more socially in everyday life. And from personal experience, she believes meditation may be the way to do it. At its most basic, the technique simply involves focusing on a feeling. In one meditation exercise in her study, participants are told to imagine a person they love and to concentrate on positive feelings toward them. "May you be happy. May you be safe and sheltered. May you be healthy. May you live with a light heart," the teacher intones. Like bodybuilders increasing the weights they lift, meditators can intensify their compassionate feelings over time. Expert meditators can go very far, Singer says; rape victims may meditate on feeling compassion for their rapist, for instance. To measure meditation's effects, researchers in the ReSource Project determine the level of the stress hormone cortisol in participants' saliva, test their reaction times, have them fill out questionnaires, and shepherd them through virtual reality worlds while monitoring their heart rate. Each participant's brain is scanned for several hours five times over the course of the study. Participants also play computer games designed to evaluate their compassion level. In one of them, developed with Swiss economist Ernst Fehr, they have to guide a smiley along a winding path that leads to a treasure chest; they have blue or red keys to open gates of the same color. But another smiley is also wandering the screen, on its own quest to another treasure, and players have to decide whether to open gates for it, too. In a preliminary study in 2011, Singer showed that just one day of compassion meditation made people more likely to help the other smiley, whereas 1 day of memory training did not. Singer is also trying to better understand what goes on in the brain when it is feeling compassion. The activation patterns seen in the scanner leave open two possibilities: The feeling could be linked to the neurotransmitter dopamine and the brain's reward circuits (which, among many other things, makes you crave chocolate) or it could be linked to what she calls the affiliation network, which is activated for example when you view a picture of your partner or your own child, and is mediated by the neurotransmitters oxytocin or opioids. Singer admits that pinning down the neurobiology of compassion is difficult because the mental state it corresponds to remains fuzzy. A French Buddhist monk may have a very different concept of compassion than an African doctor or a British businessman, and there's friction between the classic third-person perspective of science and subjective experiences. "But we need the first-person experience as well as the third-person science," she says.

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