Meditation Increases Wellness, Compassion & a Sense of Security

Stanford studies monks’ meditation, compassion

Updated 12:02 p.m., Sunday, July 8, 2012

Stanford studies monks’ meditation, compassion – SFGate

A brain scan of a monk actively extending compassion shows activity in the striatum, an area of the brain associated with reward processing. Photo: SPAN Lab, Stanford University / SF
Stanford neuroeconomist Brian Knutson is an expert in the pleasure center of the brain that works in tandem with our financial decisions – the biology behind why we bypass the kitchen coffeemaker to buy the $4 Starbucks coffee every day.
He can hook you up to a brain scanner, take you on a simulated shopping spree and tell by looking at your nucleus accumbens – an area deep inside your brain associated with fight, flight, eating and fornicating – how you process risk and reward, whether you’re a spendthrift or a tightwad.
So when his colleagues saw him putting Tibetan Buddhist monks and nuns into the MRI machine in the basement of the Stanford psychology building, he drew a few double-takes.
Knutson is still interested in the nucleus accumbens, which receives a dopamine hit when a person anticipates something pleasant, like winning at blackjack.
Only now he wants to know if the same area of the brain can light up for altruistic reasons. Can extending compassion to another person look the same in the brain as anticipating something good for oneself? And who better to test than Tibetan monks, who have spent their lives pursuing a state of selfless nonattachment?

Meditation science

The “monk study” at Stanford is part of an emerging field of meditation science that has taken off in the last decade with advancements in brain image technology, and popular interest.
“There are many neuroscientists out there looking at mindfulness, but not a lot who are studying compassion,” Knutson said. “The Buddhist view of the world can provide some potentially interesting information about the subcortical reward circuits involved in motivation.”
By looking at expert meditators, neuroscientists hope to get a better picture of what compassion looks like in the brain. Does a monk’s brain behave differently than another person’s brain when the two are both extending compassion? Is selflessness innate, or can it be learned?
Looking to the future, neuroscientists wonder whether compassion can be neurologically isolated, if one day it could be harnessed to help people overcome depression, to settle children with hyperactivity, or even to rewire a psychopath.
“Right now we’re trying to first develop the measurement of compassion, so then one day we can develop the science around it,” Knutson said.

Stress reduction

Thirty years ago, medical Professor Jon Kabat-Zinn used meditation as the basis for his revolutionary “Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Program.” He put people with chronic pain and depression through a six-week meditation practice in the basement of the University of Massachusetts Medical School and became one of the first practitioners to record meditation-related health improvements in patients with intractable pain. His stress-reduction techniques are now used in hospitals, clinics and by HMOs.
“In the last 25 years there’s been a tidal shift in the field, and now there are 300 scientific papers on mindfulness,” said Emiliana Simon-Thomas, science director for the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley.
People who meditate show more left-brain hemisphere dominance, according to meditation studies done at the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds at theUniversity of Wisconsin-Madison.
“Essentially when you spend a lot of time meditating, the brain shows a pattern of feeling safe in the world and more comfortable in approaching people and situations, and less vigilant and afraid, which is more associated with the right hemisphere,” she said.

Effect on aging

The most comprehensive scientific study of meditation, the Shamatha Project led by scientists at UC Davis, indicates meditation leads to improved perception and may even have some effect on cellular aging.
Volunteers who spent an average of 500 hours in focused-attention meditation during a three-month retreat in 2007 were better than the control group at detecting slight differences in the length of lines flashed on a screen.