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Buddhist monks

How does compassion look like in our brains?


Neuroscientists scan the brains of Tibetan monks who are actively expanding compassion and this is what they find.

Neuro-economist Brian Knutson is an expert on the brain’s “pleasure spot” (the one which makes us go for a Starbucks coffee instead of having a fresh one out of our kitchen) and can connect you to a brain scanner and find out how you process risks and rewards. This process is used to find out what areas of the brain are active in distinct situations, mostly on financial decisions and consumerism. However, this brain scans have took an interesting turn towards studying a monk’s brain activity while they are working on compassion.

Knutson, who is primarily interested in the nucleus accumbens, the part of the brain that receives a hit of dopamine whenever an individual anticipates something pleasurable, now focused on observing how the same part of the brain is activated for altruistic reasons. “Perhaps our brain reacts in the same way when we show compassion toward another person as when we feel that something good is going to happen to us (like when we think we’re going win at black jack),” Knutson says.

There are many neuroscientists out there looking at mindfulness, but not a lot who are studying compassion,” Knutson said. “The Buddhist view of the world can provide some potentially interesting information about the subcortical reward circuits involved in motivation.

In observing these great meditators, neuroscientists seek to have a deeper understanding of what compassion looks like in the brain, a subject which, by the way, the Dalai Lama approached at a conference in Stanford University. Looking into the future, the scientists of this same institution are wondering if compassion can be neurologically isolated ––if their findings could one day be used to help people combat depression, calm hyperactive kids or even reconfigure a psychopath.

“We’ve been trying to develop a way to measure compassion so that we may be able to develop a science concerning it,” Knutson concludes. This discovery could change the way we behave in the world, especially in regards to what makes us feel momentarily happy, and find new ways to boost our sense of compassion which will last a lifetime and will help others and not only ourselves.

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