The Neuroscience of Compassion, Love and Forgiveness - A Fetzer Initiative

The Neuroscience of Compassion, Love and Forgiveness - A Fetzer Initiative

This project is a five-year commitment for the Fetzer Initiative on the Neuroscience of Love, Compassion, and Forgiveness in the laboratory of Dr. Richard Davidson at the University of Wisconsin in Madison.

Dr. Davidson is the William James and Vilas Research Professor of Psychology and Psychiatry and director of the W.M. Keck Laboratory for Functional Brain Imaging and Behavior and the Laboratory for Affective Neuroscience.

He is noted for a body of research that indicates how contemplative practices such as meditation change how the brain behaves. Using brain-imaging techniques, his findings support the idea that the brain is not a fixed entity, but rather one that changes in response to experience and training. The implication is that studying our physical brains can offer significant clues about how we can encourage and develop positive qualities such as compassion, love, and forgiveness.

As part of the Fetzer initiative, Davidson and his research team at the University of Wisconsin will study these qualities using brain imaging and other innovative techniques, and he will work to develop and improve laboratory techniques for scientific inquiry into related issues. Davidson also will continue his research into different contemplative practices that may help to cultivate compassion, love, and forgiveness. Another aspect of the initiative will be development of the neuroscience of compassion and forgiveness, which will involve an annual meeting with top scientists to advance awareness of and interest in the research. In addition, two fellowships will be awarded each year to nurture the next generation of researchers in this area of study.

Fetzer's aim is to support rigorous neuroscience of love, compassion, and forgiveness.

Neuroscience, an interdisciplinary field in which scientists investigate the full spectrum of structure and function in the brain, is the fastest-growing area in basic scientific research. Neuroscience provides key tools and insights into the mechanisms of human emotions and actions. At Fetzer, we are interested in understanding positive transformations in humans, and how humans can better learn to love and be more compassionate. Neuroscience and neuroimaging techniques provide a means to better understand the mechanism of positive human transformation. While neuroscience now examines emotions and the brain, neuroscience has not until recently addressed issues around love, compassion, and forgiveness.

This first year of Fetzer support for this initiative has concluded with the following work:

Research - The first-year research projects include several studies to develop and test basic methodologies for neuroscientific investigation of compassion and forgiveness. These include:

  • a study of neural influences on trust
  • pilot studies to assess the usefulness of economic decision-making tasks as measures of compassion and as stimuli for neural imaging assessments
  • a study of the effects of a short-term compassion meditation
  • publication of a study examining the coupling of brain and heart activity in meditation practice

The study on trust examined the role of fear as an inhibitor of trust and of the capacity for love and compassion. Activation of the amygdala region of the brain is generally associated with inhibition of trust. The researchers tested whether this is true even in the absence of the conscious experience of fear. In the laboratory, they used varying and unpredictable sound tones on subjects to activate the amygdala in the absence of any conscious experience of fear. They found that these tones decreased trust as measured by economic decision-making tasks and self-report. Such groundwork will be important for the neuroscience studies now planned around compassion and empathy.

The second study compared the economic tasks in the laboratory with self-report measures of empathic concern for others. Davidson and colleagues found that, after an unfair act had been witnessed, empathic concern consistently predicted redistribution of money in the economic tasks. Thus the study validated the potential role of such economic tasks in compassion research.

The third study examined the effects of a short-term compassion meditation practice. Davidson's data analysis is ongoing, and it includes economic decision-making, self-report measures, and data from functional magnetic resonance imaging. The economic games are ones that the Davidson laboratory has devised involving real money. Initial analysis shows positive associations between short-term compassion meditation and some of these measures of compassion. One interesting aspect that the Fetzer Science and Spirituality Advisory Group discussed was that stronger positive effects were observed for women than for men. This gender "compassion gap" is consistent with other reports and studies; it needs further study.

Finally, Davidson reported on a very interesting study that has been accepted for publication in the journal NeuroImage. In comparing long-term meditation practitioners with novices, researchers found that during compassion meditation, long-term practitioners had a significantly higher heart rate than the novices and also had greater coupling/communication between the heart rate and insula-based brain circuitry. This raises questions about: common assumptions of meditation as relaxation and the wholeness of the body-mind connection when contemplating compassion.

Training - Two Fetzer Fellows were appointed as part of the work of the lab, Daniel Levinson and Helen Weng. Both are in the clinical psychology PhD program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Annual Meeting Dr. Davidson will host an annual working meeting that brings together leading scientists and scholars to focus on research paradigms and training procedures for research on compassion, lovingkindness, and forgiveness.

Media and Press Dr. Davidson is often interviewed for media stories on issues in the field of neuroemotions. Over the past year he has appeared in

an NPR segment in a series of stories on˙The Science of Spirituality

˙Can love change your mind? New project explores neuroscience of positive qualities. University of Wisconsin-Madison News, September 10, 2008 

˙Meditate on This: You Can Learn to Be More Compassionate Scientific American, March 26, 2008

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