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A Longitudinal Investigation of Empathic Behavior and Neural Activity and Their Modulation by Compassion Meditation

Mascaro, Jennifer Streiffer (2011)
Dissertation (229 pages)
Committee Chair / Thesis Advisers: Rilling, James K; Raison, Charles L
Committee Members: Preuss, Todd M ; Worthman, Carol
Research Fields: Anthropology, Physical; Biology, Neuroscience; Anthropology, Medical and Forensic
Keywords: meditation; empathy; compassion; fMRI
Program: Laney Graduate School, Anthropology
Permanent url: http://pid.emory.edu/ark:/25593/b3nm0

Abstract

While meditation is increasingly incorporated into clinical treatments for a variety of ailments and is offered to the public with claims of increasing overall health and well- being, there are sizeable gaps in our understanding of the outcomes related to its practice. First, very little is known about how meditation affects social cognition and related neural processes. Second, much of the current research on meditation is fraught with flawed experimental designs and incomplete assessments of practitioners, such that many have called into question any conclusions regarding the effects of meditation practices. Third, research on meditation has primarily been conducted under the assumption that all practitioners meditate for a common reason and with common goals, and that meditation acts the same way in all practitioners. This dissertation was designed to address the aforementioned gaps. More specifically, we aimed to assess (1) the social cognitive, neurobiological and behavioral changes related to compassion meditation, (2) the mechanisms by which neurobiological change is translated into outcomes in practitioners, and (3) the nuanced ways in which particular individuals adopt the meditation practice and attain effects. We used a randomized, controlled and longitudinal investigation of a secularized compassion meditation program adapted from the 11th century Tibetan Buddhist lojong tradition, and employed a battery of social cognitive, neurobiological, personality and behavioral assessments in order to explore the ways in which the practice of compassion meditation led to outcomes. Despite the fact that no study participants reported goals related to enhancing empathy, meditation enhanced empathic accuracy as well as the brain activity related to it, and it was meditation-related enhancement of neural activity in putative mirror neuron regions that partially accounted for enhanced empathic accuracy. However, other aspects of empathy remained unchanged, including self-reported levels of empathy, compassionate behavior, and the neural activity related to viewing another in pain. In addition, baseline brain activity predicted engagement with the practice, and baseline levels of anxiety and spiritual meaning moderated the effects of meditation. These findings highlight the importance of more holistic and rigorous meditation research, and suggest that compassion meditation may represent a unique behavioral intervention for enhancing empathy.

Table of Contents

-- Contents -- List of Illustrations -- List of Tables -- Chapter -- 1. Introduction -- Goals of the Research Project………………………………………..3 -- What is empathy?.................................................................................3 -- Overview of study……………………………………………………6 -- What follows?......................................................................................12 -- Specific Aims of the Research Project……………………………….13 -- 2. Empathic accuracy: Reading the Mind in the Eyes -- Introduction…………………………………………………………17 -- Background…..………………………………….………………17 -- Goals of the study………………………………………………..23 -- Hypotheses………………………………………………………25 -- Methods……………………………………...………………………26 -- Results………………………………………………………………..33 -- Discussion……………………………………………………………36 -- Figures and Tables………..……………………………………….…44 -- 3. Empathy for pain -- Introduction………………………………………………………..59 -- Background…………………………………………………….60 -- Novel aspects of this study……………………………….…….63 -- Goals of the study……………………………….……………...66 -- Hypotheses……………………………………………………..67 -- Methods.……………………………………………………………68 -- Results……….……………………………………………………..76 -- Discussion…………………………………………………………..79 -- Figures and Tables…………….……………………………………84 -- 4. Longitudinal investigation of compassion meditation -- Introduction…………..………………………….……………….101 -- What's missing from meditation research?...............................102 -- Goals of the study……………………………………..……...107 -- Hypotheses……………..…………………………………….109 -- Methods………………………………………………………..…110 -- Results……………………………….…..…………………….....117 -- Discussion.…………..……………………………………………121 -- Figures and Tables………………………….…………………….130 -- 5. Meditation on the ground -- Introduction…………………..…………………………………..150 -- Goals of the study……………………………….…………..153 -- Methods…….………………………………………….………..154 -- Results……………….………………………………….……….157 -- Discussion…………….…………………………………………161 -- Figures and Tables………………………………….……………169 -- 6. Conclusion -- Summary of findings…………………………………..…….…..181 -- Significance…………………………………..……………….…186 -- Problems encountered…………………………………..…….…190 -- Where to go from here…………………………………………...195

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