Does meditation change our emotions?

New research suggests that compassion and empathy
meditation and mindfulness may be able to increase prosocial emotions and behaviour.

What effect does compassionate meditation have on prosocial behaviour?
What effect does compassionate meditation have on prosocial behaviour?

Authors: Luberto, C. M., Shinday, N., Song, R., Philpotts, L. L., Park, E. R., Fricchione, G. L., & Yeh, G. Y.

Year: 2018

Title: A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis of the Effects of Meditation on Empathy, Compassion and Prosocial Behaviors

Summary: Contemplative scientists may be aware of several recent meta-studies that have challenged the methodology and theoretical frameworks of meditation and mindfulness research. However a review by Luberto et al. recently found that compassionate and loving-kindness practices can positively influence prosocial emotions and behaviours. The key finding was that in the 26 reviewed studies, meditation was linked to a positive effect on self-reported and observed prosocial measures. Although this meta-study bucks the recent trend it should be noted that many of the known problems highlighted in earlier strategic reviews (methodological flaws, reliance on waiting list or no treatment control groups, weak theoretical frameworks) have not been fully addressed.

adult anger art black background

There is a growing understanding that repeated novel behaviours such as meditation training in meditation naive participants are correlated to new or adapted neural function and structure. This then places a much greater emphasis on using a meaningful control intervention from which to evaluate the effects of meditation training. The idea that compassion or empathy based meditation can increase prosocial feelings or behaviours when compared to ‘no intervention’ reflects an underlying weakness in meditation research generally. Comparing a meditation intervention to ‘no intervention’ offers us limited insight into the potential clinical value of a meditation technology. This synthesis included 15 waiting list or no intervention control group studies among the 26 featured experiments. But it should be stressed that significant results were found in studies using both passive and active control group interventions.

The paper included a Risk of Bias Assessment, a welcome inclusion given recent findings of the failure of scientific objectivity in some meditation and mindfulness research. Luberto and colleagues established the risk of bias using the Cochrane Collaboration guidelines. They reported that 11 of the 26 studies had a low risk of bias, 12 offered a medium risk with just 3 demonstrating a high risk. Eight potential domains for bias were evaluated for each of the reviewed studies, where the risk of bias in any of the domains could not be established a rating of ‘unclear’ for that domain was recorded. It should be noted that every study had a rating of ‘high’ or ‘unclear’ in at least one domain and the mean number of ‘unclear’ ratings was 40% of the total possible. Further, that in the risk evaluation of the 8 domains for each of the 26 studies (208 potential ratings in total), none were regarded as offering a medium risk of bias. Although I am unfamiliar with this approach to evaluating bias it would appear that an absence of data indicating potential bias in any domain is discounted from the overall classification. So individual studies with unclear data regarding potential for bias in areas such as blinding, incomplete results or selective reporting could still receive a low risk of bias rating!

“Is the absence of clear data masking real world risks of bias in meditation research?”

Stephen Gene Morris

Following a traditional approach, 26 papers with a total of 1714 participants were identified from academic and scientific databases. A selection criterion was used to deliver randomized controlled studies in a range of populations who were trained in loving-kindness or compassion meditation. Results for self-reported and observable outcomes indicated significant small to medium effects. Of note is that “subgroup analyses also supported small to medium effects of meditation even when compared to active control groups”.  The study also contained insights into potential physiological and neural mechanisms linked to the meditation training. Limitations of this review included the wide range of meditation methods encompassed and the variable lengths, intensities and modes of training undertaken by the respective participants.

adult bracelets colors fingers

Within this paper (and much of the available research) definitions of compassion appear to be fluid. Put simply there are few signs that contemplative science draws upon authoritative definitions of compassion either in the meditation methods used or in establishing the effect of the training. There also appears to be potential for a disconnection between the concepts integrated into the meditation methods and the instruments designed to measure compassion and empathy. Whilst the data presented offers a cautiously optimistic picture of the potential of meditation to improve positive prosocial emotions and behaviours, established concerns over methodology and theoretical frameworks remain unresolved.


Compassionate meditation creates a positive outlook

Train in compassion to create a more positive outlook.

man holding woman s hand
Regular compassion-based meditation linked to positive and caring thoughts

Authors: Jazaieri, H., Lee, I. A., McGonigal, K., Jinpa, T., Doty, J. R., Gross, J. J., & Goldin, P. R.

Year: 2016

Title: A wandering mind is a less caring mind: Daily experience sampling during compassion meditation training.

Summary: The concept of mind wandering is well known to all of us. It’s the kind of drifting off that we experience when we are not concentrating on a specific activity or goal, people also call it daydreaming or spontaneous thought. If we have a challenging task that requires our full attention we tend to do little or no mind wandering, and conversely, when we are mind wandering we are much less able to concentrate on a task. The two neural networks responsible for task functions and mind wandering respectively are thought to be negatively correlated, when one is more active the other in more passive and vice versa. The benefits of better concentration and task performance are obvious, but we are starting to see that mind wandering may also have a key role to play in our health and wellbeing. This study is one of the few investigations into meditation that acknowledges that mind wandering may have a positive role to play in our lives.

This study investigated the effects of nine weeks of compassion training on 51 adults. As part of my own research into meditation and mind wandering, I have revisited the paper. There are two conclusions that I’d like to draw your attention to. Firstly that the meditation was linked to a decline in mind wandering to neutral topics but an increase towards pleasant topics. That meditation can lead to decreased mind wandering is well known, the highlight of this study is that meditation seemed to change the type of mind wandering. This is highly suggestive that mind wandering has both a qualitative and quantitative aspect. That some forms of mind wandering might actually be beneficial in some way, therefore suppressing mind wandering generally might not of itself be a useful target of any wellbeing intervention.

The evidence that compassionate meditation can naturally draw the mind away from the negative and towards the positive could have profound implications for our health. Mind wandering is spontaneous, it’s not consciously constructed if compassionate meditation leads to a natural increase in positive thoughts, it indicates an association with a range of other cognitive processes. This view is supported by a second finding from the research, that compassionate meditation is linked to augmentation in caring behaviours for oneself and others.



Compassion, meditation and depression

Can cognitive based compassion therapy (CBCT) help with depression?


Authors: Jennifer S. Mascaro,  Sean Kelley, Alana Darcher, Lobsang Tenzin Negi, Carol Worthman, Andrew Miller, Charles Raison

Year: 2018

Title: Meditation buffers medical student compassion from the deleterious effects of depression

Summary: The body of evidence demonstrating that compassion training offers significant benefit to its practitioners (and the wider community) is growing.  This particular study investigated cognitive-based compassion training’s (CBCT) relationship to the wellbeing of medical students in their second year of training. Compassion is a particularly important issue for people working in clinical settings. Because of the nature of their activity, a degree of compassion is desirable if not essential. However, there is concern over issues connected to ‘compassion fatigue and ‘burn out’. A total of 59 students engaged in the research, those participants that received CBCT reported increased compassion and decreased loneliness and depression.

Perspective: Contemplative science, health psychology


The Great Divide – Non Dual/Dual Meditation

Dualism is a crucial issue in the understanding and practice of meditation.


Author: Josipovic, Z.

Year: 2014

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.

Perspective: Contemplative science, neuroscience


Mindfulness Meta-study Reveals Conflicting Findings

This meta study finds t conflicts between methodology and findings of mindfulness research.


Title: Meditation Programs for Psychological Stress and Well-being: A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis

Authors: M Goyal, S Singh, EM Sibinga, NF Gould, A Rowland-Seymour, R Sharma, Z Berger, D Sleicher, DD Maron, HM Shihab, PD Ranasinghe, S Linn, S Saha, EB Bass, JA Haythornthwaite

Year: 2014

Summary: In this meta-analysis the effectiveness of meditation programs to impact on stress related outcomes was investigated. Randomized clinical trials where meditation was used by adult clinical populations to reduce the effect of conditions including; anxiety, perceived quality of life, depression, substance use, stress and distress were studied. The analysis included 47 trials with 3515 participants and indicated that mindfulness meditation training delivered moderate evidence of lower anxiety levels, depression and experience of pain and low evidence of improvements to stress, and distress levels. The research found little evidence that meditation had any significant impact on: eating habits, sleep, attention, substance use or positive mood. In conclusion the study found that meditation offered no greater benefit than other active treatments such as drugs, exercise or therapeutic intervention.

Perspective: Health psychology, medicine


Effects of Mindful-attention and Compassion Meditation Training on Amygdala Response to Emotional Stimuli in an Ordinary, Non-meditative State

Authors: Gaëlle Desbordes, Lobsang T. Negi, Thaddeus W. W. Pace, B. Alan Wallace, Charles L. Raison and Eric L. Schwartz

Year: 2012

Title: Effects of Mindful-attention and Compassion Meditation Training on Amygdala Response to Emotional Stimuli in an Ordinary, Non-meditative State

Summary: There is a long standing association between the amygdala and emotional processing. Previous research has indicated that in a meditative state amygdala response to emotional stimuli could be reduced. However this investigation points to the possibility that the effect of meditation training on emotional processing may exert an influence beyond the meditative-state. Participants were given training in either Mindful Attention Training (MAT) or Cognitively-Based Compassion Training (CBCT).

Perspective: Neuroscience


Open Hearts Build Lives: Positive Emotions, Induced Through Loving-Kindness Meditation, Build Consequential Personal Resources

Authors: Barbara L. Fredrickson,  Michael A. Cohn, Kimberly A. Coffe, Jolynn Pek and Sandra M. Finkel.

Year: 2008

Title: Open Hearts Build Lives: Positive Emotions, Induced Through Loving-Kindness Meditation, Build Consequential Personal Resources

Summary: Does meditation practice produce a cumulative effect? Is there a relationship between meditation and positive emotions, which, in turn produce increased personal resources connected to life satisfaction and reduced depressive symptoms.

Perspective: Social Psychology, Positive Psychology