Studies have shown that meditation can change your neural circuitry in ways that make you more compassionate.
A growing body of neuroscience research shows that meditation can make us better to each other.Finding the best ways to do good.Eight weeks ago, I started meditating every day. I knew I’d be going home to visit my family at the end of December, and well, I have a bad habit of regressing into a 13-year-old whenever I’m around them.
All my old immaturities and anxieties get activated. I become a more reactive, less compassionate version of myself. But this holiday season, I was determined to avoid fighting with my family. I would be kind and even-tempered throughout the visit. I knew that in order to have a chance in hell of achieving this, I’d need a secret weapon.
That’s where the meditation came in. Starting in 2005, Harvard neuroscientist Sara Lazar began to publish some mind-blowing findings: Meditation can literally change the structure of your brain, thickening key areas of the cortex that help you control your attention and emotions. Your brain — and possibly, by extension, your behavior — can reap the benefits if you practice meditation for half an hour a day over eight weeks.
Just eight weeks? I thought when I read the research. This seems too good to be true! I was intrigued, if skeptical. Above all, I was curious to know more. And I wasn’t the only one. By 2014, there had been enough follow-up studies to warrant a meta-analysis, which showed that meditators’ brains tend to be enlarged in a bunch of regions, including the insula (involved in emotional self-awareness), parts of the cingulate cortex and orbitofrontal cortex (involved in self-regulation), and parts of the prefrontal cortex (involved in attention).
A host of other studies showed that meditation can also change your neural circuitry in ways that make you more compassionate, as well as more inclined to have positive feelings toward a victim of suffering and to see things from their perspective.
Further research suggested that meditation can change not only your internal emotional states but also your actual behavior. One study found that people made charitable donations at a higher rate after being trained in meditation for just two weeks. Another study found that people who get that same measly amount of meditation training are about three times more likely than non-meditators to give up their chair when they see someone on crutches and in pain.
Still skeptical, I fell down an internet rabbit hole and soon found many more neuroscientific studies. Looking closely at them, I did find that a fair number are methodologically flawed (more on that below). But there were many others that seemed sound. Taken together, the literature on meditation suggested that the practice can help us get better at relating to one another. It confronted me with evidence that a few weeks of meditation can improve me as a person.
I say “confronted” because the evidence really did feel like a challenge, even a dare. If it takes such a small amount of time and effort to get better at regulating my emotions, paying attention to other people, seeing things from their point of view, and acting altruistically, then … well … am I not morally obligated to do it?
The science behind mindfulness meditation and how we pay attention to others
The word “meditation” actually refers to many different practices. In the West, the most well-known set of practices is “mindfulness meditation.” When people talk about that, they’re typically thinking of a practice for training our attention.
Here’s how Jon Kabat-Zinn, a scientist who helped popularize mindfulness in the West, defines it: “Mindfulness is awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally.”
And here’s what mindfulness meditation practice often involves: You sit down, close your eyes, and focus on feeling your breath go in and out. When you feel your attention drifting to the thoughts that inevitably arise, you notice, and then gently bring your attention back to your breath.
This combination of attention training and direct observation is the basic practice. Sounds simple, right? But according to some studies, it can have profound effects on your brain.
In a 2012 study, people who were new to meditation underwent eight weeks of mindful attention training, practicing for around four hours each week. Before the training, they got fMRIs, scans that show where brain activity is occurring.
While they were in the MRI scanner, they viewed a series of pictures, some of which were upsetting (like a photo of a burn victim). After eight weeks of mindfulness meditation, when they viewed the upsetting pictures in the scanner again, they showed reduced activity in a crucial brain region: the amygdala.
The amygdala is our brain’s threat detector. It scans our environment for danger, and when it perceives a threat, it sets off our fight-flight-freeze response, which includes releasing stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline. It glues our attention to the threat, making it hard for us to focus on anything else…