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.
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.
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.