Buddhist Monks and the Power of Compassion

It can be hard to tell what a normal day of work is like in the Psychology department of Stanford University; but even as neuroeconomist Brian Knutson led Tibetan monks and nuns through the depths of the department’s basement and to the MRI machine, it was obvious that business was hardly going to be usual. But in such a setting, who is to judge?

Knutson has spent much of his career looking at the brain and specifically at the nucleus accumbens—a deeply set area of the brain most commonly associated with risk and reward, anything from the flight-or-fight response to fornicating, eating and the reward that comes with both.  It is this complex area of the brain that can dictate some of the most important decisions a person can make.

Through his experience with the pleasure center of the brain, Knutson wanted to take it a step further and study just how the brain acts when particular activities (namely showing compassion) are acted out by a subject. And when it comes to studying compassion, what better subject than monks and nuns—individuals who cast aside their own self in favor of others and the greater good.

“There are many neuroscientists out there looking at mindfulness, but not a lot who are studying compassion,” Knutson explained about his research. “The Buddhist view of the world can provide some potentially interesting information about the subcortical reward circuits involved in motivation.” By getting a better idea of how an emotion like compassion manifests within the brain, at some point in the future the doors will open to better measure these feelings with scientific evidence.

With support from the Dalai Lama (Stanford’s Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education received a generous donation as seed money from His Holiness after a 2005 visit to the campus), the study was well underway. Each subject received a $500 an hour compensation, an expensive process considering that each were made to lay in the MRI machine for somewhere between eight to 12 hours a day for at least three days 

As per the process, Knutson and his team of colleagues asked each of the monks and nuns to lie down in the MRI scanner. At first, pictures of human faces were flashed before their eyes; Knutson asked for each to consider some of the faces neutrally and to show compassion towards others. For these latter pictures, the monks and nuns considered the person’s situation and life outside of being simply a photograph. Pictures of paintings were next projected above them, and the subjects were asked to weigh in on those paintings they enjoyed.

However, what the subjects were unaware of at this time was that the researchers had subliminally inserted pictures of the previous faces between the pictures of the paintings. “Reliably they like the art more if the faces they showed compassion to came before it,” explained Knutson. “Which leads to a hypothesis that there is some sort of compassion carryover happening.”

As with most research, this evidence is just the beginning. Yet even this is enough to show that there are certain correlations between our emotions and the way we view the world. What this could mean for medicine is tough to tell, but if anything is concrete it is that feeling and doing good is more than just a moment, but rather something that can shape the way we see the world and choose to live in it.


Photo Credit: commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Tibetan_monk_in_Tashilhunpo_Monastery.jpg

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