|Researchers have looked beyond the idea of meditation as a no-frills form of brain training|
Erika Rosenberg at the University of California, Davis and her colleagues contrasted 30 experienced meditators who had recently completely a 3-month meditation retreat in the Buddhist tradition with a control group of participants who were matched for age, meditation experience and education, and who spent the same three-month period leading their lives as usual (they got to enjoy the retreat after the study was over).
Attendees worked principally with the shamatha technique, which is concerned with relaxation and focusing attention, but also spent discretional time in practices connected to the Buddhist "four immeasurable" of loving-kindness, compassion, empathetic joy, and equanimity. For example, attendees could spend time repeating phrases like "may you find happiness and the causes of happiness" towards imagined targets.
Before and after the three month retreat, amongst a bundle of psychological tests, attendees and controls watched films depicting human suffering, during which their facial movements were recorded. As they watched the distressing content, the group who attended the retreat were four times more likely to show facial muscular cues consistent with sadness and sympathy towards others, specifically indicated by the upwards movement of the inner corners of the eyebrows. The control and meditation group hadn’t differed in these behaviours when watching an earlier distressing film before the retreat, suggesting the retreat itself produced the effect.
The retreat involved a package of activities over and above meditation, including philosophical teachings that themselves undoubtedly pertain to empathy, meaning that it is difficult to be definitive about what is driving this effect. However, it’s worth noting that the more practice time an attendee had chosen to spend in contemplation of the four immeasurables, the more they responded to the film with these sad, sympathetic expressions, suggesting the contemplation aspect of the meditation retreat was a key ingredient.
The authors were also interested in the participants’ experience of so-called rejection emotions – anger, contempt, disgust – which can discourage acting to help others. After the retreat, attendees also showed fewer rejection emotions when viewing the film – for instance, anger or disgust at soldiers discussing atrocities they had committed.
After watching the films through, the participants also reviewed still frames from the films, noting the different emotions they felt when looking at each one. Participants who said they felt more sympathy when looking at a still from a given scene also tended to show more sadness and fewer rejection emotions in the face at that moment when they actually watched the film. However this matching between self-reported emotions and facial expressions was only seen in the participants after they’d completed the meditation retreat, not when they were tested earlier (and it wasn’t seen in the controls). This suggests that one effect of the retreat was to align self-report and involuntary facial expressions of emotion, potentially a sign that their emotional reporting had become more authentic.
A limitation of this research, beyond the difficulty of unpacking what part of the retreat may be driving change, is the fact that the participants (including controls) all had significant meditation experience, including having completed multiple retreats. Such people may be sensitive to how they are expected by researchers to respond – for example, they might report feeling sympathy because it is right to do so, and these “demand characteristics” may have skewed the results (at least in terms of the self-report; it’s unlikely they would have been able to consciously influence subtle facial movements associated with feeling sadness).
Although past research has shown that meditators engaged in more helping behaviours in a computer game, and were more likely to give up a seat to someone more in need, this is the first study to look at emotional behaviour as it unfolds in real time in the context of long-term meditation. By demonstrating signs of enhanced compassion and authenticity among retreat attendees, it broadens our understanding of what meditation has to offer, which can sometimes be caricatured as a kind of no-frills brain training, or as a de-stressing tool to slot in before your commute or to clear your mind before you continue an aggressive negotiation. The contemplation practices that have endured across the world make very different claims, about realising new ways of seeing yourself, others, and even reality itself. Research appropriate to this is welcome.
Rosenberg, E., Zanesco, A., King, B., Aichele, S., Jacobs, T., Bridwell, D., MacLean, K., Shaver, P., Ferrer, E., Sahdra, B., Lavy, S., Wallace, B., & Saron, C. (2015). Intensive meditation training influences emotional responses to suffering. Emotion, 15 (6), 775-790 DOI: 10.1037/emo0000080
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Post written by Alex Fradera (@alexfradera) for the BPS Research Digest.
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