Providing evidence for these assertions, Zindel V. Segal, PhD, who is the Morgan Firestone Chair in Psychotherapy in the department of psychiatry and psychology at the University of Toronto and a central figure in the development of mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT), showed research from his group demonstrating that if episodes of sadness trigger excessive self-focus in patients with a history of major depression the risk of a depressive relapse significantly increases.2 Conversely, functional MRI data indicate that the practice of mindfulness meditation activates patterns of neural activity that reflect a diminished focus on self and an increased awareness of the current state of the body,3 which may provide a neural basis for the therapeutic benefits that have been observed when mindfulness training is added to more conventional cognitive-behavioral psychotherapy. Dr Segalconcluded his talk by noting that practices used in MBCT prioritize the cultivation of nonjudgmental awareness and that while these activities can be conceived of as acts of compassion toward the self, they do not include practices that explicitly seek to generate compassionate emotions toward the self or others.Compassion meditation
At this point, the discussion shifted from mindfulness-based practices to the neural effects and therapeutic potential of meditation practices designed to actively generate compassion through the use of cognitive exercises, visualization, and techniques that seek to activate empathic emotions for the self and others. Richard J. Davidson, PhD, Vilas Professor of Psychology and Psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and a seminal figure in the field of meditation and compassion research, highlighted the fact that depressed individuals tend to have abnormal neural responses to positive social interactions and that this provides a scientific justification for exploring compassion training in the context of mood disorders.
That compassion practice may have beneficial effects on brain circuits relevant to social cognition and emotional regulation was supported by data from Dr Davidson's group that advanced Tibetan Buddhist meditators show profound alterations in brain regions linked to empathy when they practice compassion techniques. Davidson also reported findings from his research group that showed that even short-term compassion training in novices can affect activity in relevant neural circuitry and can enhance altruistic behavior.
The final 2 presentations of the conference described an ongoing study of compassion meditation in college students attending Emory University. Geshe Lobsang Negi, PhD, senior lecturer in the department of religion at Emory University and spiritual director of the Drepung Loseling Institute in Atlanta, provided His Holiness and the audience with an explanation of the central components of compassion meditation based on the lojong tradition of Tibetan Buddhism before discussing some of the challenges he faced in secularizing and adapting these practices for use in a 6-week training program for college freshmen. He emphasized that lojong-based practices differ from more frequently studied mindfulness techniques in being discursive, cognitive strategies that encourage practitioners to challenge their everyday assumptions about relationships with others.
The author of this article (Charles L. Raison, MD) provided a rationale for compassion meditation as a potential strategy to protect individuals against depression by noting that positive social connectivity has been shown in many studies to reduce stress system reactivity and to be associated with reduced inflammatory tone in the body.4,5 In contrast, conditions that increase inflammatory activity, such as psychosocial stress and medical illness, greatly increase the risk of depression.6,7 Moreover, individuals with depression respond to stress with dysregulation of the autonomic nervous system and increased inflammatory signaling. Based on these data, Drs Negi and Raison hypothesized that by teaching individuals to perceive their social connections in a more positive light, compassion meditation might be especially effective at reducing the types of deleterious physiological responses to stress that have been associated with depression and a number of medical illnesses for which depression is a risk factor. Dr Raison presented data from the first phase of the Emory study that supported this hypothesis.
The conference concluded with a wide-ranging discussion between the Dalai Lama and the presenters regarding challenges and opportunities facing the field of meditation research. Issues discussed included how best to assess the effect of meditation practice time on outcomes, how to identify which individuals would be most likely to benefit from meditation training, how to identify whether a given individual would be especially likely to benefit from a particular practice, and whether meditation is likely to be of more benefit for depression as a treatment or a preventive strategy.