Loving Kindness Meditation – Reflections for the festive season

By | December 25, 2012

The majority of current research into meditation so far focused on mindfulness-based practices and similar methods. Recently, this has shifted a bit and we see a growing interest in meditation practices aimed at improving love and compassion. First studies, investigating some of the neural underpinnings do emerge, such as the 2012 study by Lee and co-workers.

In 2008 Barbara Fredrickson, one of the leading figures of Positive Psychology, published a study showing that employees of a software and information technology services company, who took part in a 7-week loving-kindness meditation programme, experience increased levels of wellbeing. In that study the researchers primarily used the Loving Kindness meditation to improve positive affect. Their broaden-and-build theory predicts that an increase in positive affect would lead to a momentary broadening of one’s thought-action-repertoire (the broadening part of the theory), which in turn would lead to the build-up of psychological resources such as resilience and mindfulness (the build part of the theory). The increase in personal resources would then lead to improved well-being. The results confirmed the assumptions of this theory and although Loving Kindness Meditation was instrumentalised to bring about personal positive emotional experiences – which, obviously is not the main aim of this type of meditation – the study nevertheless shows that Loving Kindness meditations can have a positive effects, in particular in terms of improving one’s resources and wellbeing.

More recently, Lee and co-workers – based in Hong Kong – took Loving Kindness meditation into the brain scanner. Their aim was to compare the brain activity related to two types of meditation: Loving Kindness and Focused Attention meditation, while meditators experienced in one or the other of these meditations were performing a sustained attention task (the continuous performance test) and an emotion processing task.

Depiction of the tasks

For the attention task the results show differential activity in attention-related brain areas in the right hemisphere, but only for experts in Focused Attention meditation. While activity in the right thalamus was reduced (indicating reduced task effort), it was increased in the right mid-temporal gyrus and the right precuneus (the medial part of superior parietal cortex) indicating improved stimulus-related attention and the lack of task habituation, respectively. No specific effects were observed for the Loving Kindness meditators.

The emotion processing task required participants to watch sequences of positive, negative and neutral affective pictures. While for the sustained attention task, differential activities were only observed for Focused Attention meditators, for this task differential effects were observed for both groups of meditators. Overall, the expert Focused Attention meditators displayed lower emotional reactivity, indexed by higher activity in the left insula when viewing positive/happy pictures (possibly reflecting more effort in controlling ones emotional responses) and by stronger activity in the inferior and superior frontal gyrus when viewing negative/sad pictures. These results suggest a generalized effect of long-term Focused Attention practice, even when the form of meditation practice does not emphasize emotion processing in the same way as Loving Kindness meditation does.

fMRI imaging results

The expert Loving Kindness meditators displayed activity in emotion-processing regions, which may have an impact on emotion regulation and the subsequent production of positive emotions, reflecting the ability of sharing the positive emotions of others by feeling their happiness and further wishing for others’ happiness. This was particularly related to increased activity in the left ventral anterior cingulate cortex (implied in identifying the emotional value of stimuli and producing the corresponding affective state) and in the right inferior frontal gyrus (implied in the retrieval of episodic memories and in self-referential processing).

Concerning the negative/sad pictures, experts in Loving Kindness meditation displayed brain activity in line with higher emotion reactivity in conjunction with more efficient voluntary emotion regulation, indexed by higher activity in the left caudate nucleus and medial frontal gyrus.

In sum, the study shows that the type of meditation plays a role. Loving Kindness meditation appears to selectively change brain activity related to the processing of affective pictures but does not extend to sustained attention processes, whereas Focused Attention meditation appears to lead to improvements in neural activation in a sustained attention task and in neural emotional processing.


Fredrickson, B. L., Cohn, M. A., Coffey, K. A., Pek, J., & Finkel, S. M. (2008). Open hearts build lives: positive emotions, induced through loving-kindness meditation, build consequential personal resources. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 95(5), 1045-1062. doi: 10.1037/a0013262

Lee, T. M., Leung, M. K., Hou, W. K., Tang, J. C., Yin, J., So, K. F., . . . Chan, C. C. (2012). Distinct neural activity associated with focused-attention meditation and loving-kindness meditation. PLoS One, 7(8), e40054. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0040054


© 2012 – 2014, Peter Malinowski. All rights reserved.

4 thoughts on “Loving Kindness Meditation – Reflections for the festive season

  1. Angel Todoroff

    It is very interesting. Different kinds of meditation are becoming more and more popular in nowadays and it will be useful if we have more scientific researches like this.

    I am looking forward for more information about the topic.

    Best wishes!

    1. Peter Malinowski Post author

      Indeed – we do what we can. 😉 It is great to see that research into meditation diversifies and slowly we get a broader scientific understanding of some aspects of meditation. … there is much more to come.

      Cheers, P

  2. Gretchen Newmark

    Peter, is anyone looking at the effects of the Kye Rim (building up)Dzog Rim (dissolving) type of meditations used in Diamondway Buddhism?

    1. Peter Malinowski Post author

      Hello Gretchen,

      good question 🙂

      I am not sure – I haven’t heard of anybody. There is a published study from 2001 (Lehmann et al., 2001) with one participant who went through the different phases of Diamond Way meditation.

      There is another study looking at the effects of such meditation on visuospatial processing. I commented on it in a blog post a while back: Meditation on buddha forms improves visual spatial processing.

      I have some reservations regarding research into this question: First of all, the predictions regarding meditation states are not particularly clear (thus there is not much good/relevant research regarding any meditation state) and it is not so clear what we would do with the results.

      While it is relatively “easy” to investigate changes resulting from meditation practice – in all kinds of domains – studying the meditation process itself in any meaningful way is very hard. That’s why my group focuses on the effects of meditation practice. Even this work is in its infancy. We know very little and the majority of research is not specific enough for determining specific effects of certain meditation practices. Consider, for instance, if you study the effects of MBSR: You will not be able to determine which component of MBSR (e.g. mindful breathing, body scan, yoga, …) or which combination of components is responsible for observed changes. We wouldn’t even know if it is the “M” in “MBSR” that does the trick. It thus tells not much about the underlying processes.
      That’s one of the reasons why we use a different approach: We study one specific form of meditation technique (e.g. mindful breathing) and determine to what changes this leads (psychological, neurophysiological, …). In this way we come closer to understanding the processes. And slowly we may work our “way up” to also study more complex forms of meditation, as for instance the kye rim and dzog rim phases.
      When we have established the fundamental processes of core meditation practices we will be able to relate effects of more advanced forms of practice to these.

      Give us a few years (or decades?)


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