Loving kindness: conceptual understanding vs meditation

Kang, Y., Gray, J. R., & Dovidio, J. F. (2014). The Head and the Heart: Effects of Understanding and Experiencing Loving Kindness on Attitudes Toward the Self and Others. Mindfulness, 1-8. Abstract.

Formation and maintenance of compassionate and loving attitudes toward the self and others is essential for adaptive social functioning. In this study, we use loving kindness meditation (LKM) to enhance positive attitudes toward the self and others. Meditation-based programs often include several components for which specific effects and dynamics are largely unknown, precluding conclusive support for their effectiveness. The present study tested actions underlying two main components of LKM programs: discussion and meditation.

Discussion focuses on a conceptual understanding of loving kindness, whereas meditation focuses on direct experiences and cultivation of loving kindness. Participants (n = 54) were randomly assigned either to attend a 6-week loving kindness discussion course or to be waitlisted for 6 weeks, both followed by attending a 6-week LKM course.

Attending the loving kindness discussion course alone had beneficial effects on attitudes toward the self, but not others. Attending the LKM course had additional positive impacts on attitudes toward the self and others.

These findings suggest that understanding ideas of lovingkindness through knowledge-based discussion without meditation may be sufficient to create positive changes in the view of self. However, for more comprehensive changes in attitude toward others, direct experiences of lovingkindness through meditation may be necessary.

Loving-kindess meditation beneficial in reducing back pain and anger

Carson, J. W., et al. (2005). Loving-Kindness Meditation for Chronic Low Back Pain Results From a Pilot Trial. Journal of Holistic Nursing, 23(3), 287-304Full text.

Purpose: Loving-kindness meditation has been used for centuries in the Buddhist tradition to develop love and transform anger into compassion. This pilot study tested an 8-week loving-kindness program for chronic low back pain patients.

Method: Patients (N = 43) were randomly assigned to the intervention or standard care. Standardized measures assessed patients’ pain, anger, and psychological distress.

Findings: Post and follow-up analyses showed significant improvements in pain and psychological distress in the loving-kindness group, but no changes in the usual care group. Multilevel analyses of daily data showed that more loving-kindness practice on a given day was related to lower pain that day and lower anger the next day.

Conclusions: Preliminary results suggest that the loving-kindness program can be beneficial in reducing pain, anger, and psychological  distress in patients with persistent low back pain. Clinicians may find loving-kindness meditation helpful in the treatment of patients with persistent pain.

Brain changes in ‘loving kindness’ meditators

Leung, M.K., et al. (2012). Increased gray-matter volume in the right angular and posterior parahippocampal gyri in loving-kindness meditators. [Abstract]. Soc Cogn Affect Neurosci. Published online. Full text.

Previous voxel-based morphometry (VBM) studies have revealed that meditation is associated with structural brain changes in regions underlying cognitive processes that are required for attention or mindfulness during meditation. This VBM study examined brain changes related to the practice of an emotion-oriented meditation, namely, loving-kindness meditation (LKM). A 3T MRI scanner captured images of the brain structures of 25 men, 10 of whom had practiced LKM in the Theravada tradition for at least 5 years.

Compared with novices, more gray-matter volume was detected in the right angular and posterior parahippocampal gyri in LKM experts. The right angular gyrus has not been previously reported to have structural difference associated with meditation and its specific role in theory of mind and cognitive empathy suggest the uniqueness of this finding to LKM practice. These regions are important for affective regulation associated with empathic response, anxiety, and mood. At the same time, gray matter volume in the left temporal lobe in the LKM experts appeared greater, an observation that has also been reported in previous MRI meditation studies on meditation styles other than LKM.

Overall, the findings of our study suggest that the experience with LKM may influence brain structures associated with affective regulation.