Key Findings

The following summary statements highlight key findings from research studies originating at the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds at the Waisman Center, UW-Madison.

2013

Weng, et al, "Compassion training alters altruism and neural responses to suffering."
Until now, little was scientifically known about the human potential to cultivate compassion. This is the first study to investigate whether training adults in compassion can result in greater altruistic behavior and related changes in neural systems underlying compassion. Compassion training was compared to a control group that learned cognitive reappraisal, a technique where people learn to reframe their thoughts to feel less negative. Both groups listened to guided audio instructions over the Internet for 30 minutes per day for two weeks. Researchers found that people trained in compassion were more likely to spend their own money altruistically to help someone who was treated unfairly than those who were trained in cognitive reappraisal. The researchers measured how much brain activity had changed from the beginning to the end of the training, and found that the people who were the most altruistic after compassion training were the ones who showed the most brain changes when viewing human suffering. They found that activity was increased in the inferior parietal cortex, a region involved in empathy and understanding others. Compassion training also increased activity in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and the extent to which it communicated with the nucleus accumbens, brain regions involved in emotion regulation and positive emotions. Compassion, like physical and academic skills, appears to be something that is not fixed, but rather can be enhanced with training and practice.

2012

Schuyler et al, “Temporal Dynamics of Emotional Responding: Amygdala Recovery Predicts Emotional Traits”
In this study, researchers use functional magnetic resonance imaging to examine the time course of amygdala activity in healthy adults in response to negative pictures. The authors split the time course into two periods: initial reactivity and recovery period.  The recovery period captures the extent to which negative emotion lingers.  They explain here that while initial reactivity does not predict negative emotional traits, recovery time does, underscoring the importance of studying temporal dynamics when studying emotional processing using fMRI.

Rosenkranz et al., “A Comparison of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction and an Active Control in Modulation of Neurogenic Inflammation”
Because stress is a contributing factor in many chronic inflammatory diseases, this study examined the use of mindfulness practice as a means to reduce inflammation.  The authors compared mindfulness-based stress reduction with an active comparison intervention, called the health enhancement program, in their ability to reduce psychological stress and experimentally-induced inflammation.  Those participating in the mindfulness-based approach showed a significantly smaller post-intervention inflammatory response, suggesting that behavioral interventions designed to reduce emotional reactivity may be of benefit in reducing symptoms of chronic inflammatory disease.

MacCoon et al., “The validation of an active control intervention for mindfulness based stress reduction”
This article summarizes a rigorous comparison of mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) with a well-matched active control intervention called the health enhancement program, and specifically tests mindfulness as an ‘active ingredient” in reducing stress caused by pain.  The research shows that while MBSR led to reductions in pain ratings and an increase in general wellbeing, both approaches proved to be effective means in reducing stress, anxiety and other symptoms.  The findings underscore the importance of using an active control in studying the effectiveness of MBSR.

Lutz et al., “Altered Anterior Insula Activation During Anticipation and Experience of Painful Stimuli in Expert Meditators”
Experientially opening oneself to pain, rather than avoiding it, is said to reduce anxiety and thus ameliorate the suffering often experienced in the face of pain.  While this is a core feature of mindfulness-based therapies, little was known about the neural mechanisms behind it.  This study looked at expert meditators (those with more than 10,000 hours of practice) and novices, and compared the two groups’ experience of pain.  The experts reported the same level of pain intensity, but less unpleasantness associated with it.  This difference was related to enhanced activity in the area of the brain known as the salience network in the expert practitioners.

Levinson et al., “The Persistence of Thought: Evidence for a Role of Working Memory in the Maintenance of Task-Unrelated Thinking”
Tasks that require working memory have been proven to reduce mind wandering. This is supported by two different hypotheses: one is that mind wandering relies on working memory resources, so that it cannot persist while the brain’s working memory is being used.  Another theory is that mind wandering can persist without working memory resources but is still decreased while performing a demanding task because performance requires attention be restricted to the task at-hand.  This article presents research where these theories are tested and compared, and shows that people with better working memory reported more task-unrelated thought while performing undemanding tasks, suggesting that working memory enables the maintenance of mind wandering.

Kabat-Zinn & Davidson, “The mind’s own physician…” publication 

Davidson and the Mind and Life Education Research Institute, “Contemplative Practices and Mental Training: Prospects for American Education”
This article summarizes findings in fields ranging from developmental psychology to neuroscience to highlight the mental skills and socio-emotional dispositions that are critical to education in the 21st century.  Strengthening prosocial and self-regulatory skills is possible through systematic contemplative practices, which induce functional and structural changes in the brain and support prosocial behavior and academic success in young people.  The authors argue for more programmatic research to better characterize which forms and frequencies of meditation practice benefit which types of children.

Davidson & McEwen, “Social influences on neuroplasicity: Stress and interventions to promote well-being”
This article presents evidence showing that the social brain is plastic.  Various forms of social experience alter cellular processes and synaptic connections.  Interventions designed to impact social and emotional behavior also induce plastic changes in both function and structure, illustrating that we can intentionally shape the social brain through systematic training, such as meditation.

2011

Slatger et al., “Mental Training as a Tool in the Neuroscientific Study of Brain and Cognitive Plasticity”
In this article, the authors review the rationale for using mental training, as practiced in meditation, as a means to study brain plasticity. They argue that the focus of traditional meditation practice on enhancing specific cognitive processes fosters processes of learning. The authors present recent findings of neuroimaging studies of meditation, as well as some of the methodological challenges researchers face when attempting to control or characterize factors that may underlie the effects of meditation practice.

2010

Van Reekum et al., “Aging is associated with positive responding to neutral information but reduced recovery from negative information”
This study suggests that older individuals have a greater capacity to react to and recover from negative information, and to interpret neutral information in a positive way.  This indicates that older people may process information differently than younger individuals.  The authors tested this hypothesis, drawn from an ongoing study of midlife in the United States, using objective psychophysiological measures as well as subjective reporting. 

Perlman et al., “Differential effects on pain intensity and unpleasantness of two meditation practices”
This paper highlights the possible effects of meditation-based clinical interventions, such as Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, on regulating pain. The authors examine the effects of two specific types of meditation practices on pain regulation in two groups – long-term practitioners and beginners.  The authors examined Focused Attention, in which practitioners directed their attention away from the pain stimulus, and Open Monitoring, during which the individual practices awareness of sensory experience.  They found that long-term meditation practitioners reported reduced unpleasantness, but not intensity, of pain during Open Monitoring compared with novices.  They reported no significant effect in either group using the Focused Attention method.

Davidson, R.J.  “Empirical explorations of mindfulness: Conceptual and methodological conundrums”
This article provides expert commentary on a special edition of the journal Emotion. The author notes that the primary focus of research on mindfulness has been emotion, and highlights the progress that has been made in the empirical study of mindfulness.  He also points out that the transformation of thoughts, emotion and behavior is the primary goal of all contemplative traditions, and addresses some of the conceptual and methodological issues present in research on the subject. 

2009

Slatger et al., “Theta phase synchrony and conscious target perception: Impact of intensive mental training”
This research further establishes the idea that intensive mental training, especially as cultivated in meditation practice, leads to better allocation of the brain’s resources in information processing, especially when presented with two simultaneous targets of attention. The findings establish the usefulness of mental training in the study of the human mind by revealing the neural mechanisms underlying attention, and show that mental training can affect how the mind’s attentional resources are distributed.

Rosenkrantz and Davidson, “Affective neural circuitry and mind-body influences in asthma”
While the relationship between emotion and asthma is well documented, very little research has focused on the role of affective neural circuitry in the expression of asthma symptoms.  This review article presents neuroimaging studies related to factors that impact the expression of these symptoms.  This integrated review of the literature indicates that the areas of the brain related to the regulation of emotion may be responsive to asthma-related changes in the body, and are important in influencing the expression and persistence of asthma symptoms.

Lutz et al., “Mental training enhances attentional stability:  Neural and behavioral evidence”
The inability to stabilize attention over time is the hallmark of several mental illnesses.  This paper establishes the idea that training attention, as cultivated in mindfulness meditation, can improve the ability to sustain attention.  The authors found that intensive mindfulness meditation training reduced variability in attentional processing; and that the subjects who showed the greatest increase in neural response consistency also showed the greatest decrease in behavioral variability.  These findings support the idea that mental training can affect attention and brain function.

Light et al., “Dynamic variation of pleasure in children predicts nonlinear change in lateral frontal brain electrical activity” The authors examined the relationship between pleasure and second-by-second lateral frontal brain electrical activity using hierarchical linear modeling in a sample of 128 children, ages 6-10 years.  EEG was recorded during a standardized task that elicits pleasure, consisting of a period of anticipation sandwiched between two play periods.  The findings indicate that task-dependent changes in pleasure relate to dynamic, nonlinear changes in lateral frontal activity.

Light et al., “Empathy is associated with dynamic change in prefrontal brain electrical activity during positive emotion in children”
This study investigated the relationship between empathy, positive emotion, and brain electrical activity in a sample of 128 children, ages 6-10 years.  The findings suggest that positive affect and empathy relate to asymmetric changes in prefrontal activity.  The authors for the first time identify an empathy spectrum that includes both negative (empathic concern) and positive subtypes: empathic cheerfulness, or the desire to alleviate the suffering of others, and empathic happiness, which is the ability to experience pleasure in response to another’s happiness.  This distinction between these higher-level forms of empathy is a key contribution of this paper.

Heller et al., “Reduced capacity to sustain positive emotion in major depression reflects diminished maintenance of fronto-striatal brain activation”
Anhedonia, or the loss of pleasure or interest in previously rewarding activities, is a core feature of major depression.  The authors hypothesize that this may be due to the inability to sustain positive affect over time.  Using positive images, the researchers used an emotion regulation task to test whether depressed individuals are unable to sustain activation in neural circuits underlying positive affect and reward.  Their findings support the notion that anhedonia is related to the inability of depressed patients to sustain engagement of brain activity structures related to positive engagement and reward.

2008

Lutz et al.  “Attention regulation and monitoring in meditation”
This review conceptualized meditation as an emotional and attentional training tool that can cultivate emotional well-being.  The authors examined the potential regulatory function of two styles of meditation practice: focused attention meditation, in which attention is focused on an object, and open monitoring meditation, which involves monitoring of experience from moment to moment.  The review reported evidence that both styles of meditation have long-term positive effects on attention and emotion.

Lutz, Brefczinski-Lewis, et al.  “Regulation of the neural circuitry of emotion by compassion meditation: Effects of meditative expertise”
While fMRI has been used to study the neural activity involved in empathy, nothing in the literature to date has explained the impact of voluntary compassion on the brain.  The authors used fMRI to examine the neural circuitry of expert and novice meditation practitioners in response to the sounds of other people’s suffering while they practiced compassion meditation.  The authors found that compassion cultivated during this type of meditation enhances specific neural pathways involved in empathic responding, and that this response varies according to the level of expertise in the practitioners.

Khalsa et al. “Interoceptive awareness in experienced meditators”
In this study, the authors examined the idea that experienced meditation practitioners had a greater level of awareness of internal body sensation than non-practitioners.  The study compared two types of meditation in which practice of body sensations is a key component, Kundalini and Tibetan Buddhist, with people who did not practice meditation, and looked at their awareness of the heartbeat.  The results showed no evidence that long-term practitioners in these traditions performed any differently than novices in a task measuring their ability to sense the heartbeat.

Davidson & Lutz:  “Buddha’s brain: Neuroplasticity and meditation”
This review examined  how the long-term practice of meditation alters the function and structure of the brain.  The authors found that that long-term practitioners, who had meditated for tens of thousands of hours, had actually altered the function and structure of their brains. These changes are encompassed in the term in neuroplasticity, which the authors describe as the changes that occur in the brain as a result of experience.  Using neuroimaging, the authors describe the relationship between the degree of meditation training and the response in the amygdala to distractions.

Davidson – “Spirituality and medicine: Science and practice”
This article explores the spiritual dimension of primary care outcomes.  The author reviews recent literature on how the interpersonal environment affects emotion and general well-being, and how these dynamics affect the biological systems that are important to health.  The paper reports on several studies using brain imaging that underscore how high-quality relationships – whether between doctor and patient, or husband and wife – affect brain function in specific, predictable and beneficial ways.

2007

van Reekum et al.  “Individual differences in amygdala and ventromedial prefrontal cortex activity are associated with evaluation speed and psychological well-being”
This research examined how the brain responds to negative and neutral information in order to determine the extent to which individual differences in these responses affect general psychological well-being.  Using fMRI, the researchers found that higher well-being is associated with more activation in the prefrontal cortex, specifically the anterior cingulate cortex.  They determined that well-being is associated with more effective recruitment of this region of the brain, resulting in slower evaluation time and less salient response to negative stimuli.

Slagter et al.  “Mental training affects use of limited brain resources”
It is well documented that the information-processing resources of the human brain are limited. This research shows that mental training, specifically meditation practice, affects the distribution of these limited resources.  Using the “attentional blink” task, in which two attentional targets are presented within milliseconds of one another, the researchers found that individuals with more intensive mental training are more able to accurately identify the second target.  This suggests that meditation practice results in greater control and distribution of limited brain resources.

Brefcynski-Lewis et al. “Neural correlates of attentional expertise in long-term meditation practitioners”
This paper examined the attentional expertise, or ability to focus, of two groups of meditation practitioners: novices and two groups of expert practitioners: one with an average of 19,000 hours of meditation experience, the other with an average of 44,000 hours.  Using fMRI, the study showed that, compared with novices, the groups with more meditation experience had less activation in regions of the brain related to sustained attention.  In response to distractor sounds, experienced meditators had less activation than novices in regions related to discursive thoughts and emotions. These findings suggest that meditative expertise is related to more efficient use of neural resources.

Waisman Center LogoUniversity of Wisconsin - Madison Logo