And now, to wrap up this six-part series on what we really know about the proven benefits of mindfulness, please allow me to present an account of my most favorite of empirically validated benefits of meditation practice: love.
(To read the intro to this series, click here.)
No, not that sappy, sugar-coated, fickle, inconstant moon type of pop-song teenage love. Love as a stance. Love as practice. Or, as psychoanalyst Erich Fromm put it so sweetly so many years ago: "standing in love."
Standing in love is more about a commitment to a way of being, less about a hapless joyride on the roller coaster of capricious affect.
And we now know, based on a couple dozen gold standard studies, that meditation practice increases our ability to feel and express love.
Our friend Helen Weng put together an experiment a few years ago to study the impact of compassion meditation training. It's a good study. A really good study. The questions:
- Does compassion practice actually lead to measurable outcomes?
- Do people's brains change?
- And do they do something different?
To find out, she took 56 participants and divided them into two groups. At the beginning the groups were just about identical in age, gender, and baseline compassion rates.
She then sent the two groups through two different trainings. The first group went through a two-week compassion training. The second group went through a two-week cognitive reappraisal training (i.e., an active control).
She ran everybody through an fMRI before and after the trainings.
She also had everybody play a video game in which a dictator stole money from a victim. In reality, the dictator and victim were simulated. But players thought they were real.
In this game, designed to measure compassionate action, players could give their own real money to help the victim. Knowing that, by the rules of the game, this would force the dictator to give the stolen money back.
In other words, people could undertake an act of altruism to right a wrong. Or they could just keep the money and go on about their lives.
Curious what she found?
First off, those who underwent the compassion training showed greater activation in the brain circuits usually associated with understanding the suffering of others, executive control, and emotion regulation. A beautifully articulated biomarker.
So that's already interesting.
But here's the real kicker:
The folks who did two weeks of compassion? They gave nearly twice as much money.
In other words, the compassion training not only impacted the way people felt about the victim (that's the brain part), they also changed the way they acted toward the victim. They were literally more willing to make a sacrifice to improve another person's situation.
In another study, this time done at Yale, researchers looked at bias. Again, they split participants into group. One group talked about kindness for six weeks. The second group actually did kindness meditation for six weeks.
Put simply, the first group saw no reductions in bias. But the group that actually learned to practice kindness meditation saw a significant drop.
(For more on this study, click here.)
Other research on kindness and compassion meditation has suggested that even short interventions can increase feelings of social connection and impact feelings of warmth toward strangers.
As Richie and Dan note, these kindness meditations seem to act quickly. As few as eight hours of kindness meditation has been shown to improve mood. That bias reduction happened in only sixteen. And, according to Richie and Dan (Ch. 6), the more people practice, the greater and longer lasting the effects seems to be.
All this is pretty big news, actually. Because for a long, long time, western scientific psychology was wedded to the belief that people probably had a kind of set point for kindness and compassion. That set point was likely based on some mix of genetics and early developmental experiences.
But what we're seeing now is that meditation nudges that set point. People can actually become kinder, more compassionate - they feel more for others, and act on those feelings.
Which brings us back around to the beginning of this little adventure we set out on almost two months ago. Remember that? When we all decided to look at only the very, very best of the published studies on meditation?
Well, now we've done that. Using Richie and Dan's work in Altered Traits we've taken a quick peek out what the science is really saying - leaving out the chaff, sticking close to the real meat (to mix metaphors). We've found that we know, pretty much for sure, that meditation:
I hope you've enjoyed the journey. I know I've had fun. Be well, and stay tuned for next week when I'll finally get around to explaining what I really mean by a gold standard research study.
Meanwhile, for information about upcoming mindfulness workshops with Devon & me, please click here.