How kindness-compassion-empathy meditation helps your heart health

How kindness-compassion-empathy meditation helps your heart health
How kindness-compassion-empathy meditation helps your heart health

When you do a love and kindness meditation, also known as an LKM, it effects the tone and rhythm of your vagus nerve and your heart beat rate. How come hugs are being compared to drugs? Can meditating on compassion and empathy frequently help with heart health? The higher the vagal tone, the better the vagus nerve performs as a regulatory pathway, scientists have explained in a new study of compassion meditation and its effects on the human body.

Basic empathy is a biological given. “If you talk with a sad person, you are going to adopt a sad posture, and if you talk to a happy person, by the end you will probably be laughing,” says Emory primatologist Frans de Waal, according to an October 21, 2010 news release, “Are hugs the new drugs?”

He explains in the news release that evolution has programmed us to mirror both the physical and emotional states of others. De Waal gave the opening remarks at a conference a few years ago bringing together the Dalai Lama and scientists studying effects of compassion meditation on the brain, physical health and behavior. You may wish to see the article, “Monks + scientists = a new body of thought.”

“Empathy is biased – it’s stronger for those that are close to you than those that are distant,” De Waal says, according to the news release. “Nature has built in rewards for the things that we need to do, and being pro-social is something that we need when we live in groups.” Check out the article, “Elementary thoughts on love and kindness.”

In order to get from empathy to compassion and altruism, you need to identify others as distinct from you Whereas it used to be assumed that altruistic tendencies were only possible in humans, de Waal explains in the news release that targeted helping of others has recently been observed among apes and elephants. So being helpful is not only a behavior performed by humans. You also may wish to see the article, “Teen brain data predicts pop song success.”

Richard Davidson, a neuroscientist from the University of Wisconsin, recalled when he first began studying the effects of compassion meditation in 1992, according to the news release. He traveled to a Tibetan Buddhist monastery and attached electrodes to the head of an expert practitioner. The other monks began laughing.

“I thought it was because he looked so funny with the electrodes,” Davidson explains in the news release. But it turned out the monks were amused that he was trying to study the effects of compassion by attaching electrodes to the practitioner’s head, rather than to his heart. Compassion comes from the head first and then travels to the heart, which has a type of brain of its own, controlled by a person’s head-brain. But what about the smaller brain that the heart feels and ‘records’ in beating at a certain rate, perhaps in sync with music or emotions?

Years later, Davidson is finding that the monks’ view may be on target

New research shows that the heart rates of expert practitioners beat more quickly while they are meditating than the hearts of novices. “We believe that compassion meditation is facilitating communication between the heart and the mind,” Davidson says, according to the news release.

Psychologist Barbara Fredrickson at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill cites her research into the effects of “love and kindness meditation,” or LKM, on the vagus nerve. The nerve, which extends from the brain stem to the heart, helps regulate emotions and bodily systems. The effectiveness of the vagus nerve is measured by its tone, or fitness. The higher the vagal tone, the better the vagus nerve performs as a regulatory pathway.

Compassion meditation helps

“With just six weeks of LKM training in novices, we see improvements in resting vagal tone,” Fredrickson says in the news release. “Just like physical exercise improves muscle tone, emotion training improves vagal tone.”

High vagal tone is related to both a person’s physical health and their ability to feel loving connections with others, Fredrickson explains in the news release. “In a way, our bodies are designed for love, because the more we love, the more healthy we become.” But what happens when a person is too shy or scared of being hurt or criticized to make connections, and family members aren’t near, or it’s too difficult to make friends when one is an isolated senior who hasn’t made friends in the past?

It has been said that those friendless at 35 were also friendless at 55 and also at age 75. Can meditation on compassion help, especially isolated seniors that rarely receive visits from others? Or who are constantly criticized by family members for making mistakes in the past? See, “The biology of shared laughter.”

Emory researchers Charles Raison and Geshe Lobsang Tenzin Negi described their ongoing research into the effects of compassion meditation and depression

Negi developed a secular form of meditation for the research, based on the Tibetan Buddhist practice called “lojong.” Lojong uses an analytical approach to challenge a person’s thoughts and emotions toward other people, with the long-term goal of developing altruistic behavior.

The pair collaborated on a 2005 study that showed that college students who regularly practice compassion meditation had a significant reduction in stress and physical responses to stress. They recently launched the Compassion and Attention Longitudinal Meditation Study (CALM), to explore the physical effects of different forms of meditation. See, “Hugs go way back in evolution.”

“We’re trying to zero in on what is it about meditation that is useful for people’s health,” Raison says, according to the news release. Emory researchers are also getting positive preliminary results in compassion meditation studies involving schoolchildren ages six to eight and adolescents in the foster care system.

“This seems like the dawning of a new day,” the Dalai Lama says, according to the news release. “We’ve heard about the benefits, and now we need to act to cultivate compassion from kindergarten to universities.” You also may wish to see the article, “Escaping mental prisons.”

What stories most changed your life in the long-term?

Many people can recall reading at least one cherished story that they say changed their life. Now researchers at Emory University have detected what may be biological traces related to this feeling: Actual changes in the brain that linger, at least for a few days, after reading a novel. Their findings, that reading a novel may cause changes in resting-state connectivity of the brain that persist, were published by the journal Brain Connectivity.

You really need a page-turning plot to hold your interest. And you need a strong narrative where the characters show and tell the experience as if it were unfolding with the the reality of nature’s and human’s impact on individuals. Are novels and stories or the TV and movie adaptation of them, like hugs, the new drugs?

If stories are drugs, then humans can be addicted to them, either books, movies, TV, or old-time radio theater. Stories are something that can come from nothing, if you consider a thought, an image, and imagination nothing.

Are stories that you identify with or want to experience vicariously similar to addictive drugs or feel-good foods?

Intangible, yes, but not ‘nothing.’ Stories that enhance creativity and put imagination to use can be uplifting, or show universal life experiences, stages of life most of us go through at different ages. When stories affect the mind chemically through imagery, as escape literature, comedy, or drama, there’s safer than chemically induced behavior and emotions.

“We already knew that good stories can put you in someone else’s shoes in a figurative sense. Now we’re seeing that something may also be happening biologically,” says Emory University neuroscientist Gregory Berns, according to the January 3, 2014 news release by Carol Clark, “A novel look at how stories may change the brain.” Or see the same news release at: “Your brain on books.”

Many people can recall reading at least one cherished story that they say changed their life

Now researchers at Emory University have detected what may be biological traces related to this feeling: Actual changes in the brain that linger, at least for a few days, after reading a novel.
Their findings, that reading a novel may cause changes in resting-state connectivity of the brain that persist, were published by the journal Brain Connectivity.

“Stories shape our lives and in some cases help define a person,” says neuroscientist Gregory Berns, lead author of the study and the director of Emory’s Center for Neuropolicy, according to the news release. “We want to understand how stories get into your brain, and what they do to it.”

Neurobiological research using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) has begun to identify brain networks associated with reading stories. Most previous studies have focused on the cognitive processes involved in short stories, while subjects are actually reading them as they are in the fMRI scanner.

The Emory study focused on the lingering neural effects of reading a narrative. Twenty-one Emory undergraduates participated in the experiment, which was conducted over 19 consecutive days. Co-authors of the study included Kristina Blaine and Brandon Pye from the Center for Neuropolicy, and Michael Prietula, professor of information systems and operations management at Emory’s Goizueta Business School.

The researchers chose the novel “Pompeii” for the experiment, due to its strong narrative and page-turning plot.

All of the study subjects read the same novel, “Pompeii,” a 2003 thriller by Robert Harris that is based on the real-life eruption of Mount Vesuvius in ancient Italy. “The story follows a protagonist, who is outside the city of Pompeii and notices steam and strange things happening around the volcano,” Berns says. “He tries to get back to Pompeii in time to save the woman he loves. Meanwhile, the volcano continues to bubble and nobody in the city recognizes the signs.”

The researchers chose the book due to its page-turning plot. “It depicts true events in a fictional and dramatic way,” Berns says in the news release. “It was important to us that the book had a strong narrative line.”

For the first five days, the participants came in each morning for a base-line fMRI scan of their brains in a resting state. Then they were given nine sections of the novel, about 30 pages each, over a nine-day period. They were asked to read the assigned section in the evening, and come in the following morning.

After taking a quiz to ensure they had finished the assigned reading, the participants underwent an fMRI scan of their brain in a non-reading, resting state. After completing all nine sections of the novel, the participants returned for five more mornings to undergo additional scans in a resting state.

The results showed heightened connectivity in the left temporal cortex, an area of the brain associated with receptivity for language, on the mornings following the reading assignments. “Even though the participants were not actually reading the novel while they were in the scanner, they retained this heightened connectivity,” Berns says in the news release. “We call that a ‘shadow activity,’ almost like a muscle memory.”

Read any mind-altering books lately? Writer Joyce Carol Oates once cited “Alice in Wonderland” as a big influence on her imaginative life.

Heightened connectivity was also seen in the central sulcus of the brain, the primary sensory motor region of the brain. Neurons of this region have been associated with making representations of sensation for the body, a phenomenon known as grounded cognition. Just thinking about running, for instance, can activate the neurons associated with the physical act of running.

“The neural changes that we found associated with physical sensation and movement systems suggest that reading a novel can transport you into the body of the protagonist,” Berns says in the news release. “We already knew that good stories can put you in someone else’s shoes in a figurative sense. Now we’re seeing that something may also be happening biologically.”

Neural changes in the brains of the study’s participants persisted for five days after reading the novel

The neural changes were not just immediate reactions, Berns explains in the news release, since they persisted the morning after the readings, and for the five days after the participants completed the novel.

“It remains an open question how long these neural changes might last,” Berns says in the news release. “But the fact that we’re detecting them over a few days for a randomly assigned novel suggests that your favorite novels could certainly have a bigger and longer-lasting effect on the biology of your brain.”

Just think of how many novels people read more than once. Some people read the same novel several times and often get the same feeling from them. For example, reading an uplifting novel that makes you feel happier at the end of the novel may give you a feeling as if you’d like the novel (or movie) to continue with another adventure. That’s how serial fiction affects some people.

You look forward to the next adventure in a series of stories, novels, or other entertainment fiction and sometimes nonfiction that plays like a novel when truth gets better than fiction. That’s one reason why historical novels set in a particular century and country bring readers back to vicariously experience the next adventure featuring the same protagonist.

What your dog thinks

Brain scans have unleashed canine secrets. What does your dog think of you? What’s really on a dog’s mind? According to the May 4, 2012 news release, “What is your dog thinking?” when your dog gazes up at you adoringly, what does it see? A best friend? A pack leader? A can opener? An alpha wolf in sheep’s clothing?

Many dog lovers make all kinds of inferences about how their pets feel about them, but no one has captured images of actual canine thought processes – until now. Emory University researchers have developed a new methodology to scan the brains of alert dogs and explore the minds of the oldest domesticated species. The technique uses harmless functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI), the same tool that is unlocking secrets of the human brain.

The Public Library of Science (PLoS ONE) published on May 11, 2012 the results of their first experiment, showing how the brains of dogs reacted to hand signals given by their owners. “It was amazing to see the first brain images of a fully awake, unrestrained dog,” says Gregory Berns, according to the May 4, 2012 news release, “What is your dog thinking?” Berns is the director of the Emory Center for Neuropolicy and lead researcher of the dog project. “As far as we know, no one has been able to do this previously. We hope this opens up a whole new door for understanding canine cognition and inter-species communication. We want to understand the dog-human relationship, from the dog’s perspective.”

Key members of the research team include Andrew Brooks, a graduate student at the Center for Neuropolicy, and Mark Spivak, a professional dog trainer and owner of Comprehensive Pet Therapy in Atlanta.

Two dogs are involved in the first phase of the project. Callie is a two-year-old Feist, or southern squirrel-hunting dog. Berns adopted her at nine months from a shelter. McKenzie is a three-year-old Border Collie, who was already well-trained in agility competition by her owner, Melissa Cate. Both dogs were trained over several months to walk into an fMRI scanner and hold completely still while researchers measured their neural activity.

The researchers aim to decode the mental processes of dogs by recording which areas of their brains are activated by various stimuli. Ultimately, they hope to get at questions like: Do dogs have empathy? Do they know when their owners are happy or sad? How much language do they really understand?

In the first experiment, the dogs were trained to respond to hand signals

One signal meant the dog would receive a hot dog treat, and another signal meant it would not receive one. The caudate region of the brain, associated with rewards in humans, showed activation in both dogs when they saw the signal for the treat, but not for the no-treat signal.

“These results indicate that dogs pay very close attention to human signals,” Berns says in the news release. “And these signals may have a direct line to the dog’s reward system.”

Berns is a neuroeconomist, who normally uses fMRI technology to study how the human mind works. His human brain-imaging studies have looked at everything from why teens engage in risky behavior to how adults decide to follow, or break, established rules of society.

Dog lovers may not need convincing on the merits of researching the minds of our canine companions

“To the skeptics out there, and the cat people, I would say that dogs are the first domesticated species, going back at least 10,000 years, and by some estimates 30,000 years,” Berns says in the news release. “The dog’s brain represents something special about how humans and animals came together. It’s possible that dogs have even affected human evolution. People who took dogs into their homes and villages may have had certain advantages. As much as we made dogs, I think dogs probably made some part of us, too.”

The idea for the dog project came to Berns about a year ago, when he learned that a U.S. Navy dog had been a member of the SEAL team that killed Osama bin Laden

“I was amazed when I saw the pictures of what military dogs can do,” Berns says in the news release. “I realized that if dogs can be trained to jump out of helicopters and airplanes, we could certainly train them to go into an fMRI to see what they’re thinking.” You also may wish to check out the article, “The price of your soul: How your brain decides whether to ‘sell out’.”

All procedures for the dog project were approved by the Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee of Emory. “From the outset, we wanted to ensure the safety and comfort of the dogs,” Berns says in the news release. “We wanted them to be unrestrained and go into the scanner willingly.”

The dogs were trained to wear earmuffs, to protect them from the noise of the scanner. They were also taught to hold their heads perfectly still on a chin rest during the scanning process, to prevent blurring of the images.

“We know the dogs are happy by their body language,” says Mark Spivak, the professional trainer involved in the project. Callie, in particular, seems to revel in the attention of breaking new ground in science. “She enters the scanner on her own, without a command, sometimes when it’s not her turn,” Spivak says in the news release. “She’s eager to participate.”


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