Summary: There has been a trickle of studies investigating the health benefits of prosocial behaviour in recent years. And research into altruism has remained at the periphery of psychological enquiry. A search of academic databases reveals greater scientific interest in ‘self-compassion’ than ‘compassion for others’ in recent years. The paper by Wang et al. poses some problems for current thinking in psychology. That selfless acts may hold a key to reducing the experience of pain. But, in common with all experiments involving complex human behaviours, the findings of this paper need validating through replication.
As a starting point, this study built on the foundations of two pilot investigations. Its cognitive insights are underpinned by the results of brain imaging technology (fMRI). The researchers found that altruism relieved pain in both experimental and clinical settings. The clinical participants were cancer patients suffering from chronic pain. The goal of the experiment was to test the hypothesis that altruism could reduce physical suffering. In this regard the results were significant. People undertaking altruistic acts did experience less pain than participants in control groups. More experienced experimental psychologists might like to comment on the methods, but they appear to be robust. We should treat such radical findings with caution of course, but also bear in mind this is not a new idea. Compassion and altruism exist in every culture, they are universal human traits.
Successful repetition of these experiments would open up new areas of research into pain management. Whilst also signposting novel understandings of the mind. For example, a link between pro-social behaviour and mental and physical wellbeing more generally. This latest study should encourage scientists and clinicians working with compassion meditation.
“If found to be reliable, these findings may put behavioural sciences on a new trajectory.”
Mirror neurons may have significant implications for meditators and spiritual practitioners.
Authors: Di Pellegrino, G., Fadiga, L., Fogassi, L., Gallese, V., & Rizzolatti, G.
Title: Understanding motor events: a neurophysiological study
Summary: Research emitting from the University of Parma in the 1990s changed cognitive science forever. This was the place where the mirror neuron was identified. At first sight it might not appear to have a direct relevance with meditation, but mirror neurons demonstrate a characteristic of the human brain central to understanding how we interconnect with each other. Under certain conditions we are directly affected by what we see other people do. This phenomenon is not restricted to humans.
If we see others undertaking a behavior that reflects something we have done, it will fire our mirror neurons as if we were doing it. This effect is not linked to species it is about how closely observable behaviors correspond our own motor repertoire.
Stephen Gene Morris
In the original experiment a macaque monkey demonstrated mirror neuron activity when a human experimenter undertook tasks that it had been trained to do. The implications for meditators include:
Firstly it is a weakening to self-other duality, humans and animals can, under relatively common conditions share action potentials in mirror neurons.
Secondly there is a clear relationship between what we see and how this affects our brain. It seems plausible that if we see kind acts that we ourselves have done in the past our mirror neurons will fire as if we were administering the kindness. The same would apply for unkind acts.
I have written a paper on this experiment which can be made available on request. The original literature (linked below) is very readable but it is the first in a series of the Parma Mirror Neuron Experiments.
Dualism is a crucial issue in the understanding and practice of meditation.
Author: Josipovic, Z.
Title: Neural correlates of nondual awareness in meditation
Summary: Many practitioners of nondual meditation have a theoretical and experiential understanding of nondual awareness (NDA). NDA has been described simply as an appreciation of the limitations of subject-object dichotomies. Perception of phenomena as dualistic and non dualistic permeates every aspect of our lives, but NDA is the relative state when we become aware of our habitual fluctuation between dual and nondual views. Neurologically speaking NDA increasingly appears to be fundamentally different from dualistic thought and indeed dualistic meditation. In terms of methodologies, meditation systems can be divided many different ways. But one of the most important and least researched categorisations is between the dual and nondual approaches. Josipovic offers an insight into the nondual approach and explains why and how it is different from other forms of meditation.
Supported both by contemporary experimental evidence and traditional explanations (to some extent). Josipovic presents a study exploring a neuroscience basis for NDA through the relational activity in intrinsic and extrinsic networks during three different forms of meditation (NDA, focussed attention and fixation). Results indicate a reduction during nondual meditation of the negative correlation between the intrinsic and extrinsic networks when compared to both fixation and focussed attention. It should be noted that there are neuroscience and cognitive studies that both support and contradict Josipovic’s hypothesis. However only when reviewed alongside research demonstrating the limitations of intrinsic network suppression can the full potential of his insight be appreciated.
Editor’s Note: The scientific exploration of meditation in all its forms has been hampered by a (much reported) failure to establish authoritative theoretical frameworks. Josipovic has provided an approach which appears to successfully encompass the traditional explanations of NDA and can support phenomenological accounts integrated within a neuroscientific context.