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Stanford scientists examine meditation and compassion in the brain

We've written previously about Stanford researchers' ongoing efforts to study the science of compassion and altruism. A San Francisco Chronicle story from yesterday takes a  closer look at one such project.

In the study, neuroeconomist Brian Knutson, PhD, and colleagues use magnetic resonance imaging to compare the minds of expert meditators and novices to better define what compassion looks like in the brain. Meredith May writes:

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.

The full story, which discusses research done elsewhere on meditation's effects on aging and stress reduction, is worth a read.

Previously: How being compassionate can influence your health, Neurotheology: Investigating the relationship between the brain and spirituality and Dalai Lama and Stanford researchers explore science of compassion and altruism
Photo by jessebezz

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