Neuroanatomist Jill Bolte Taylor had an opportunity few brain scientists would wish for: One morning, she realized she was having a massive stroke. As it happened — as she felt her brain functions slip away one by one, speech, movement, understanding — she studied and remembered every moment. This is a powerful story about how our brains define us and connect us to the world and to one another.
New research from the University of Wisconsin-Madison finds that we can acquire a greater capacity for compassion through meditation training, in much the same way as athletes or musicians train to improve their skill.
We’re in the midst of a revolution in brain science. The long-held dogma that brain connections are unchangeable after age five, is being usurped with findings that the brain is more plastic than we thought.
Researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison published a study in PLoS One this week, showing that our capacity for empathy can be learned and mastered – as one might learn to play soccer or piano. The skill here comes from meditation.
They studied the fMRI scans of 32 subjects, half were trained meditators including the Olympians of meditation, the Tibetan monks. The others were age-matched novices.
In the brain scanner, all were subjected to emotional sounds (like a baby laughing or woman screaming.)
They found that the insula (the area of the brain responsible for physical feelings of compassion) was highly active in the experts. And the right temporal-parietal juncture (an area connected to understanding anothers’ emotional state) was also much more active in experts than in the novices.
It may not be proof that we can turn a schoolyard bully into Ghandi, but it shows meditative training has a significant impact.