Just in time for Valentine’s Day, a Yale study published on Feb. 12 investigated the brain regions that may help us wish others well.
To explore the neural foundation of this type of feeling, researchers used functional MRI imaging while both novice and experienced meditators practiced wishing love and kindness upon others. While previous research demonstrated that romantic love and drugs like cocaine triggered the same reward centers in the brain, selfless love deactivated these regions. The study pinpoints a potential biological foundation for meditative practices, such as those used in Buddhism and other religions, said Judson Brewer, a study co-lead author and adjunct professor of psychiatry at the Yale School of Medicine.
“In the West we look at this stuff and think it’s all holding hands and singing Kumbaya,” Brewer said. “In reality, these practices have a neurological basis behind them.”
In the study, the researchers evoked feelings of selfless love in 20 experienced meditators and 26 novices by having them repeat the phrase “may all beings be happy” while their brains were being scanned. The study found that the posterior cingulate cortex and precuneus, areas that become active when we think about ourselves, were particularly deactivated in experienced meditators compared to novices when both thought of selfless love while in the scanner.
The researchers induced “metta” meditation in the scanner, a form of love and kindness meditation that has been practiced for centuries by various sects of Buddhism — and more recently in the West as part of Insight meditation, which is associated with the Theravada branch of Buddhism, said Kathleen Garrison, a co-lead author of the study and a post-doctoral student at Yale School of Medicine.
“This selfless love, it’s not about us, it’s about getting out of our own way,” Brewer said. “When there’s no self, there’s no one to worry about feeling the pain, so that’s where the compassion arises.”
Garrison said this loving kindness is often depicted in many religious and philosophical traditions as a heartfelt feeling of selfless love, a feeling described both in ancient Greek texts and the Bible as “agape.”
According to Andrew Quintman, Yale professor of religious studies, the kind of expansive awareness cultivated in many Buddhist traditions can blur the lines between oneself and others. The cultivation of these attitudes, including love, is often understood as a preliminary practice for other forms of mental development, he said in an email.
Brewer and Garrison both said they hope the study will be helpful to other researchers and scientists interested in seeing how the brain develops as the result of different types of meditation. Brewer also said he hoped the findings will help improve different types of health care associated with mindfulness practice, such as mindfulness-based stress reduction.
Previous studies have found that romantic love, particularly in its most intense early stages, activates reward centers in the brain, Brewer said. However, these reward centers were not activated during the love and kindness meditation that the subjects were asked to cultivate.
“[This] doesn’t mean [romantic love] is a bad thing,” Brewer said. “It just means it’s not necessarily perfect all the time. There are as many songs about how painful love is as there are about how great love is.”
The study was published in the journal Brain and Behavior.