Home All IPPA Closing Keynote: Now Is the Time to Study Compassion

IPPA Closing Keynote: Now Is the Time to Study Compassion

written by Kathryn Britton 7 October 2011

Kathryn Britton, MAPP '06, is a former software engineer and executive coach. She is now a writing coach and editor with a focus on helping people write books, blogs, and articles that contribute to the greater good (Theano Coaching LLC). She has been facilitating writing workshops since 2013. Her own books include Sit Write Share on how to get writing done well, Smarts and Stamina on using positive psychology principles to build strong health habits, and Character Strengths Matter: How to Live a Full Life. Full bio. Her Sit Write Share website has resources for writers. Kathryn's articles are here.

The last day of the IPPA Conference opened with a keynote address by Dr. Richard Davidson about changing the brain by transforming the mind, finding pathways to sustainable well-being.

A Propitious Time in the History of Science

A neuroscientist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Dr. Richard Davidson made a commitment to the Dalai Lama in 1992 to help get meditation and compassion onto the scientific map by studying the way they affect the brain. At that time, a word like compassion would not appear in the index of a respectable textbook. Now, there are results that make it a serious subject of inquiry. He said we live at a very propitious time in the history of science for the following reasons:

Brain Image

Brain Image

  • Neuroplasticity, the concept that the brain is an organ built to change in response to experience, is now widely accepted.
  • Epigenetics is causing a revolution in nuclear biology. Gene regulation — when genes are or are not expressed — can be affected by the environment, including training. There are extraordinary new methods to look at epigenetic changes. (Wikipedia on Epigenetics: the study of heritable changes in gene expression caused by mechanisms other than changes in the underlying DNA sequence).
  • Neurally inspired behavioral interventions are proving to be the best ways to change the brain in specific and localized ways. Compared to them, drugs are blunt instruments.
  • Scientists are putting the brain back into biomedicine, studying the pathway back to the mind. We can study the way psycho-social factors affect the brain, and thus the mind.

Psychology professor Richard Davidson shares a laugh with the Dalai Lama and Buddhist monk Geshe Sopa.
Photo by Jeff Miller, University of Wisconsin/Madison.

Compassion Can Be Voluntarily Cultivated

Davidson has studied the voluntary cultivation of compassion, in part by studying Buddhist monks who are experts, with a minimum of 10,000 hours, average of 34,000 hours, and maximum of 62,000 hours of deliberate practice. These numbers are reminiscent of behavioral literature, that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to develop expertise. As described by Mathieu Ricard, they can achieve a state of love and compassion in the whole mind with no reasoning or discursive thoughts.

Dr. Mathieu Ricard provided the following instructions for loving-kindness-compassion meditation to novices who participated in a study by Lutz and others:

“During the training session, the subject will think about someone he cares about, such as his parents, sibling or beloved, and will let his mind be invaded by a feeling of altruistic love (wishing well-being) or of compassion (wishing freedom from suffering) toward these persons. After some training the subject will generate such feeling toward all beings and without thinking specifically about someone. While in the scanner, the subject will try to generate this state of loving kindness and compassion.”

In this study published in 2008, researchers used fMRI scanning to study the impact of neutral sounds and non-verbal sounds of human suffering on the brain states of novice and expert meditators during loving-kindness-compassion meditation. They found numerous differences between expert and novice meditators. For example, experts had increased heart rate and greater activation in a circuit commonly recruited during the reading of others’ mental states.

Davidson has been interested in which brain circuits are recruited by voluntary expressions of compassion. When he found that the anterior insula, which generally monitors visceral activity, was implicated in compassion, he remembered once making a speech to Buddhist monks. They burst out laughing. Later he found out that they didn’t understand why he was studying compassion in the head, since to them it occurs in the heart. The involvement of the anterior insula shows a significant coupling between the heart and brain.

Meditation Also Affects Attention

Focused Attention

Davidson went on to discuss attention, citing a William James goal for education, to develop “the faculty of voluntarily bringing back a wandering attention.” Tests of attention often use something called an attentional blink — showing a rapid stream of information with targets to be detected. If the two targets are too close together, people tend to miss the second target. Thus there appears to be an obligatory refractory period. But Davidson and colleagues have been able to show that people with some meditation training have shorter refractory periods, and expert meditators even shorter. It appears that how much energy is invested in detecting the first target affects whether one can unstick quickly enough to see the second target.

There are practical uses of meditation for increasing attention. For example, children with ADHD tend to have more variable response times, but meditation practice can reduce response time variability, making attention more regular and focused.

People with many hours of meditation practice tend to have high amplitude gamma oscillations, states where perceptual binding, learning, and attention occur. For most non-experts, periods of gamma oscillations tend to last a second or two. In the lab, they found that gamma oscillation variation is very related to the level of meditation practice.

Concluding Remarks

After discussing the impact of meditation practices on responses to pain, body response to influenza vaccines, and healing, Davidson introduced an interesting outcome measure, sustainable well-being, that is, the ratio of psychological well-being to environmental footprint. The systematic training of the mind can change the brain in beneficial ways without the costs of pharmacology to the environment.

Editor’s Note: For more about Dr. Davidson’s work and a link to a very engaging 16-minute talk, see here.

This is the fifth article inspired by the 2nd World Congress of the International Positive Psychology Association. The others include one on Edward Deci and Self-Determination Theory, one on Barbara Fredrickson and love, one on awe and elevation at the movies, and one on the opening night speeches of new IPPA fellows.



Howard, M. W. et al (2003). Gamma Oscillations Correlate with Working Memory Load in Humans. Cerebral Cortex, 13(12), 1369-1374.

Lutz, A., Greischar, L. L., Rawlings, N. B., Ricard, M., & Davidson, R. J. (2004). Long-term meditators self-induce high-amplitude gamma synchrony during mental practice. PNAS
101(46), 16369–16373.

Lutz, A., Brefczynski-Lewis, J., Johnstone, T., & Davidson, R. J. (2008). Regulation of the Neural Circuitry of Emotion by Compassion Meditation: Effects of Meditative Expertise. PLoS ONE 3(3): e1897.


University of Wisconsin-Madison Psychology Professor Richard Davidson (R) shares a laugh with Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet (center), and Buddhist monk Geshe Sopa (L) during a tour of the Keck Laboratory for Functional Brain Imaging and Behavior.
© UW-Madison University Communications 608/262-0067. Photo by: Jeff Miller/UW-Madison. Used with Permission. See story in 2006

Tribute To Guitarist Pat Martino – Scan/Edit 03 07 courtesy of Mikey G Ottawa

Attention courtesy of Juliana Coutinho

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wayne 7 October 2011 - 6:56 pm

Kathryn – there is research suggesting that you don’t have to spend lots of time meditating to get a benefit

Spending an hour a day meditating is a turn – off

And as an aside Barbara Fredricksons PEP lab has found that there are no benefits from LKM unless you have high levels of HRV

Edwin Rutsch 8 October 2011 - 10:12 am

May I suggest a further resource to learn more about empathy and compassion.
The Center for Building a Culture of Empathy
The Culture of Empathy website is the largest internet portal for resources and information about the values of empathy and compassion. It contains articles, conferences, definitions, experts, history, interviews,  videos, science and much more about empathy and compassion.

I posted a link to your article to our Empathy Center Facebook page.

I posted a link to your article in our
Empathy and Compassion Magazine
The latest news about empathy and compassion from around the world

Editor K.H.B. 10 October 2011 - 2:16 pm


Good point about benefits from smaller amounts of time. I’m never going to put in 10,000 hours practicing compassion meditation, but as the next article will show, even short-term compassion training — on order of two-weeks practice — can make a difference.

The next article (this one was getting so long, the editor broke it in two) has a short description of Bethany Kok’s presentation at IPPA. I heard something slightly different from what you report. Yes, people with high vagal tone increased, for example, their feelings of love faster than people with low vagal tone. But all experienced increases.


oz 10 October 2011 - 4:04 pm

katherine – you can access the reserach here. http://www.bethanykok.com/Kok_Fredrickson_2010.pdf

If you have at figure 1 (page 435) you will see that what i suggest is pretty close to the mark re positive emotions


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