What happens in the brain when we feel for others? Neuroeconomist Brian Knutson of Stanford University studies meditating monks to explore what compassion looks like in the brain.
Knutson is an expert in the pleasure center of the brain, the nucleus accumbens, which receives a dopamine hit when we experience something pleasant. In his newest study he wants to explore if this part of the brain is also activated for altruistic reasons. He chose to study the brain of Tibetan monks, as they have spent their lives pursuing a state of selfless non-attachment.
Knutson’s “monk study” is still in its early stages, but he already collected data from some Tibetan Buddhist monks and nuns, who lay down in a MRI scanner for eight to 12 hours a day, for three days.
In the machine, they were asked to withhold emotion and look at some of the faces neutrally, and for other faces, to look and actively extend compassion by feeling their suffering. Next the participants rated how much they liked a number of abstract paintings flashing by on a screen. At the same time Knutson flashed subliminal photos of the same faces before the pictures of the art appeared.
“Reliably they like the art more if the faces they showed compassion to came before it,” Knutson said. “Which leads to a hypothesis that there is some sort of compassion carryover happening.”
Knutson also asked the Buddhists to meditate in the MRI scanner. More specific, the participants practiced a style of meditation called “tonglen,” in which a person extends compassion to different human beings: first to their parent, then to a good friend, then to a stranger and last to all sentient beings. By studying the brain during this meditation, Knutson wants to explore whether brain activity changes depending on different types of compassion.
“Right now we’re trying to first develop the measurement of compassion, so then one day we can develop the science around it,” Knutson said.
“The research has important possibilities for medicine, and also it could get rid of some of the fuzz and help make meditation more empirically grounded,” he said. “If there is some kind of underlying structure to be understood scientifically, it could make things more clear for everyone.”