Posted 06.15.2017 | by AMRA

The social pain associated with rejection or embarrassment activates some of the same brain structures that are activated during the experience of physical pain. These brain structures are also activated when we witness someone else’s embarrassment. Feeling distressed over someone else’s embarrassment can cause us to focus on reducing our own distress rather than on responding compassionately to the other person. In this way, excessive empathic distress paradoxically decreases our ability to relate compassionately.

Can mindfulness reduce the magnitude of empathic distress caused by another’s social pain, thereby facilitating increased compassion? Laneri et al. [Human Brain Mapping] explored how both mindfulness meditation and long-term meditation practice affect the brain mechanisms associated with empathic distress in long-term meditators and matched controls.

The researchers recruited 32 long-term meditators (average age = 51 years, 63% male, average length of meditation practice = 17 years, meditation practice = Zen, Vipassana, or Mindfulness Meditation) and 19 matched meditation-naïve control participants. All of the participants underwent functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) while engaging in a task designed to elicit empathic distress at someone else’s embarrassment.

Half of the long-term meditators were randomly assigned to engage in mindfulness meditation for eight minutes immediately before participating in the fMRI-monitored task, while the other half were instructed to merely rest prior to the task. The meditation-naïve controls also merely rested prior to the task.

The empathy-for-embarrassment task involved viewing a set of embarrassing and neutral social situations presented on a computer screen in the form of drawings accompanied by brief descriptions. As an example, one of the embarrassing situations included the description, “You are at a post-office: you observe a women’s trouser ripping while she bends down to lift a package.” Participants were asked to vividly imagine the situations while undergoing fMRI scanning and rate how embarrassed they thought the person in the drawing might be. Afterwards participants completed self-report measures of their own emotional reactivity to the situations and their level of compassion.

Participants in all groups reported a significantly greater degree of vicarious embarrassment for the embarrassing drawings as compared to the neutral drawings. Long-term meditators reported significantly higher levels of compassion than did controls (Cohen’s d = 1.2).

There was significantly greater activation in several brain regions for all groups of participants while viewing the embarrassing pictures including regions involved in the experience of pain (the anterior insula and anterior cingulate cortex) and a region involved in imagining situations from another’s perspective (the medial prefrontal cortex).

Long-term meditators who meditated prior to viewing the drawings showed significantly less activation of the anterior insula than did long-term mediators who rested before viewing the drawings. For long-term meditators, the less their anterior insula activation, the greater their self-rated compassion (r=-.36).

For the long-term meditators who engaged in mindfulness before viewing the situations, the longer they meditated in their regular daily practice, the less their anterior insula activation while viewing the drawings (r=-.42).

The study shows that while a history of long-term meditation practice doesn’t alter activity in the brain regions responsible for empathic distress, meditating immediately before viewing another’s embarrassment does. Decreased anterior insula activation was associated with greater self-ratings of compassion in long-term meditators.

These results support the idea that if people can use mindfulness to control their level of empathic distress, they can rely on their ability to see things from another’s perspective to generate increased compassion. This study also replicates earlier research regarding the brain structures involved in processing social embarrassment.

The study lacked a comparison group of meditation-naive participants who engaged in mindfulness practice just prior to viewing the embarrassing situations. This makes it harder to disentangle the effects of long-term practice from the short-term effects of meditating during the experiment.

Reference:

Laneri, D., Krach, S., Paulus, F. M., Kanske, P., Schuster, V., Sommer, J., & Müller-Pinzler, L. (2017). Mindfulness meditation regulates anterior insula activity during empathy for social pain. Human Brain Mapping.

[Link to abstract]