by Rishidev Chaudhuri
A recent study on the relationship between positive emotions, social connectedness and a measure of heart health has been getting a lot of attention in the popular media. 1 It's an interesting addition to the emerging scientific literature on the uses and effects of meditative practices and on the mechanism of the placebo effect (which seems to be shorthand for a wide variety of fascinating and under-studied phenomena)2. These are both compelling topics, and perhaps good subjects for a future blog post, but the study was also interesting because it's one of a growing minority of studies that look at compassion meditations rather than concentration or mindfulness meditations.
Compassion meditations, roughly, are a family of exercises where you try to practice compassion by cultivating love and good wishes towards other people3. One way of doing this is to picture a series of people and wish them well in turn (taking your time over each and, typically, moving from yourself to people you like, then to people you are indifferent to and then to people you dislike). Another practice is to look at people as you make your way in the world and, for each person, say to yourself, “Like me, this person wants to be happy and avoid suffering”. Yet another is, in the midst of encountering another person, to every so often ask yourself “What is preventing me from being present with this person?”
Over the last few years, there's been a gradual increase in the number of scientific studies looking at compassion meditations. This is promising, not because these practices should be entirely understood by their effects on physiology, nor because the scientific lens is necessarily the best way to see them, but because it points to greater visibility and more general interest.
It's easy to see why scientists would be reluctant to study these practices; despite their age, they can seem like fluffy New Age exhortations, akin to telling someone, “Now let's all love each other.” When I was first introduced to these techniques, about a decade ago, I remember thinking they were silly. Mindfulness meditation, where you attempt to become aware of your thoughts and feelings as they happen, seemed like an intriguing way of probing at the structure of subjective experience; it could be criticized methodologically for being unverifiable, ungeneralizable and so on, but it seemed to have intellectually sound goals. Similarly, concentration meditation, where you train one-pointed focus, seemed like a useful training regimen: everyone wishes they could concentrate better. But compassion meditations seemed like an exercise in unfounded benevolence for people who couldn't be bothered to think carefully about ethics.