In my blog last week I introduced research into loving kindness meditation by exploring some systematic reviews and meta-analyses of the body of research evaluating loving kindness meditation interventions. Please refer to that blog as an introduction to this blog. In particular, it describes what loving kindness meditation is, how it differs from compassion meditation and how we apply it in our Mindfulness Association course offerings.
This blog will explore some research into the biology and neuroscience of loving kindness meditation, ie. changes in biological markers and changes in brain activation that result from the practice of loving kindness.
Carson et al, 2005 undertook a randomised control pilot study for an eight week loving kindness program for patients experiencing chronic low back pain. The control group were subject to standard care. Those who experienced the loving kindness course experienced improvements in pain and psychological distress. In particular, the more loving kindness practice they did on a given day related to lower pain after the practice and lower anger on the following day. Those patients who practiced the most, also benefitted the most. They conclude that loving kindness practice might be a useful therapy for chronic pain, especially when the pain is accompanied by anger.
Hoge et al (2013) found that relative telomere length was longer in loving kindness meditators, suggesting that this practice may alter a biomarker associated with longevity. Although, there was a small sample size and there may be other diet and lifestyle factors associated with loving kindness practitioners, which might contribute to the increased telomere length. However, this result is supported by a randomised control trial conducted by Khoa et al (2019), which demonstrated that loving kindness meditation slowed biological aging in novices over a period of 12 weeks.
Kathi et al (2015) undertook a small study exploring links between loving kindness meditation and cardio-vascular health by exploring the metabolism of nitric oxide. They conclude that long term meditators demonstrated improved metabolism and lower stress, although there was a small sample size.
Hofmann et al 2011 reviewed the background, the techniques and the empirical contemporary literature related to loving kindness and compassion meditation. They conclude that the literature suggests that these practices are associated with increased positive emotion and decreased negative emotion. Also, that neuroimaging studies indicate that these practices increase activation of brain areas involved in emotional processing and empathy. They also suggest that these practices when combined with therapies such as cognitive behavioural therapy may contribute to improving psychological problems involving interpersonal processes, such as depression, social anxiety, marital conflict, anger and coping with long term caregiving. They note a remarkable difference in the techniques used in loving kindness and compassion interventions and that the research was very much in its infancy in 2011.
Lee et al 2012, compared the neural effects of focussed attention meditation and loving kindness meditation on expert and novice Chinese male practitioners, while they were performing cognitive and emotional processing tasks. It demonstrated distinct neural activity associated with these different forms of meditation in the tasks undertaken. In particular, when viewing happy pictures, the expert practitioners of loving kindness meditation may be more able to share in the positive emotions of others by feeling their happiness as their own. When viewing sad pictures, the expert practitioners experienced increased emotional reactivity as well as more efficient voluntary emotional regulation. Lee et al postulate that this is consistent with the idea that emotional regulation helps to distinguish empathy from emotional contagion and distress. Given the participant group, these results may not be generalisable to other populations.
In their 2015 paper Mascaro et al link contemplative accounts of compassion and loving kindness practices with research from social cognitive neuroscience and social psychology to predict how these practices might alter brain structure and function and social cognition. This paper has a focus on research evidence related to the psychology and neurobiology of empathy. It concludes that kindness based meditation (including compassion) may enhance perceptual and motor simulation processes and the simulation of another’s emotional body state in the brain so that practitioners are more able to accurately understand the emotional state of another. It may also generate slower and higher-level perspective taking and emotional regulation resulting in increased equanimity. Finally, it postulates an increase in self/other discrimination in which practitioners are less inclined to become caught up in the distress of another and so are more able to help them.
In chapter 6 of their book The Science of Meditation, Goleman and Davidson (2017) describe empathy as an ability to feel with and describe three kinds of empathy. The first is cognitive empathy, which is understanding how the other thinks, but without a felt sense. The second is emotional empathy, which is understanding how the other feels, but if the feelings are too painful they will be tuned out while we tend to our own distress. The third is empathetic concern or caring, which underpins a compassionate response to distress.
Goleman and Davidson (2017) describe how loving kindness meditation can help to overcome the tuning out aspect of emotional empathy, thus enabling us to respond compassionately. They describe how noticing, empathising and actually helping someone is stimulated by loving kindness meditation. They cite research that recorded an increase in good feelings, relaxation and generosity in beginners. They argue that the strength of positive effects from the early days of loving kindness or compassion meditation may signal our biological preparedness for goodness. Encouragingly, widening circles of loving kindness to neutral people, people who are difficult and then to all beings can reduce unconscious bias.
We should remain sceptical as this research is in its early days. In addition, often the practices of loving kindness and compassion are evaluated together, as equivalents, even though they are different. Some of the research cited above begins to unpick the different results from loving kindness and compassion meditation.
Carson et al 2005 – https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/16049118/
Goleman & Davidson, 2017 – https://www.goodreads.com/de/book/show/36121358-the-science-of-meditation
Hofmann et al 2011 – https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/21840289/
Hoge et al (2013) – https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0889159113001736
Khoa et al (2019) – https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0306453019300010
Mascaro et al 2015 – https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2015.00109/full
Kathi et al (2015) – https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1550830714002055
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