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Monday, March 31, 2008

Focus on This

Scientists continue to look into the health benefits of meditation, which studies show may not only help those who struggle with depression and substance abuse, but also improve immunity, increase fertility, and slow the effects of aging. Researchers like Richard Davidson, a professor of psychology and psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who for years has studied the brains of Buddhist monks in his neuroscience lab, have found good evidence that meditation can impact the brain in measurable ways, possibly even changing it physically in areas that have been linked to happiness and the processing of emotion. His latest study, published in the journal PLoS ONE, suggests we may even be able to train our brains to be more compassionate and empathetic. The study used functional magnetic resonance imaging scans to discover that the brain circuits used to detect feelings were significantly different in Tibetan monks who practice what's called "compassionate meditation"—in essence, focused concentration on a feeling of loving kindness toward all human beings—than in those who were new to the practice of meditation. But it's possible we all can teach ourselves to be more compassionate through meditation, the researchers claim, in much the same way that we can, through dedicated concentration, learn to play an instrument or a sport. —Heather Wax