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Laney Graduate School

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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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