By:Ashraf Mian

 

The effects of meditation on stress have been documented in countless studies over the years. One of the best illustrations of this is a 1993 study conducted by noted physicist John S. Hagelin, PH.D. The study took place in Washington D.C. and was created to test Dr. Hagelin’s hypothesis that the violent crime rate could be reduced significantly in the Washington D.C. area by the presence of a group of people participating in Transcendental Meditation concentrating on reducing the stress levels in the area.

The study involved 4000 participants in Transcendental Meditation were brought to Washington D.C and, there, they meditated twice daily. The number of meditators increased over the study period to culminate at 4000 in the final week of the study. The study ran from June 7 to July 30 1993 and over that period the rate of violent crime decreased by 23 percent. The effect increased as the number of meditators increased.

Another study has shown that compassion can actually be trained. UW Madison researchers Richard Davidson, professor of psychiatry and psychology and associate scientist Antoine Lutz have been studying a group of 16 Tibetan monks to determine what parts of the brain correspond to compassionate thoughts and whether or not training in compassion meditation makes a difference in the brain. To image the brain, Davidson and Lutz employed the fMRI machines in Davidson’s department.

The group of 16 Tibetan monks are highly trained in the art of meditation, having clocked at least 10 thousand hours, especially compassion meditation. The control group was composed of 16 people of similar age with no training in mediation. Prior to being scanned, they were given basic instruction in meditation practices. The study included a total of 32 subjects, including the monks and laypeople.

During the scans, each subject was asked to either meditate of not to meditate Additionally, during each state, the subjects were played audio of negative and positive human vocalizations designed to elicit empathy.

The results of the scans showed increased activity in the insula, a region near the front of the brain. The insula plays an important role in the bodily effects of emotion. The amount of insula activation was associated with intensity of mediation. It was very pronounced in the monks as compared to the control group. Additionally, increased activity in the parietal juncture of the right hemisphere was noted. This region is involved in the perception of the mental and emotional state of others.

Activity in both these regions of the brain is linked to emotional sharing and empathy. The monks’ brains showed the most pronounced activity in these areas as opposed to the brains of those in the control group. These results support Lutz and Davidson’s hypothesis that learning and practicing meditation can result in a heightened sense of compassion.

As the results of these studies indicate, compassion can be both influenced and taught through the power of meditation. Every person can affect their surroundings and can influence others in their communities in a positive way though this skill.

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