By Anastacia Mott Austin

For years, devotees of various forms of meditation have insisted that regular practice can make you a better person. It turns out they are right, and scientists are backing them up.

A new study released by researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison (UW-M), published in the March 26th issue of The Public Library of Science One has shown that people can literally train their brains (and of course, their spirits) to be more compassionate toward others.

The study used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) imaging to examine the brains of 16 Tibetan monks who had years of practice in compassion meditation. They matched these folks, by age, with 16 other people who had only had simple introductory instructions on compassion meditation.

During the testing, researchers and UW-M professors Richard Davidson and Antoine Lutz asked both the control and experimental groups to imagine feelings of loving kindness, first toward people they knew, and then toward humanity in general, while playing audio sounds of varying human emotions.

The fMRI scans of the monks showed high activity in the insular cortex, an area of the brain near the frontal lobe which reacts when emotions are triggered. The more intensely the participants felt the compassion meditation, the more activity was observed in the insular cortex.

"The insular cortex is extremely important in detecting emotions in general, and specifically in mapping bodily responses to emotion," said Davidson, "such as heart rate and blood pressure, and making that information available to other parts of the brain."

There was far less activity detected in the insular cortex of the brains of the untrained subjects.

High activity was also detected in the monks' temporal parietal juncture, an area on the right side of the brain that is responsible for empathetic responses to others' emotional states.

The findings that both of these emotionally responsive areas of the brain were more active in the monks during meditation was meaningful to the author's study.

"Both of these areas have been linked to emotion sharing and empathy," said Davidson. "The combination of these two effects, which was much more noticeable in the expert meditators as opposed to the novices, was very powerful."

What do they think this means for our everyday lives?

It means that we can train our minds to become more empathetic with regular compassion meditation.

The researchers believe this will be especially useful in populations of people with a history of depression, or children and adolescents who have a difficult time empathizing with the plight of others.

"We can take advantage of our brain's plasticity and train it to enhance these qualities," says Davidson to reporters. "People are not just stuck at their respective set points."

Granted, not everyone has the time and the focus to devote thousands of hours to daily meditation, as monks do. But the findings are still encouraging because they indicate that personality traits previously thought to be inborn can be developed.

At a fundamental level, the research is groundbreaking. If all humans have the potential to train themselves to become more compassionate, what kind of world could we envision? What kind of changes would an empathetic, compassionate race of humans create?

At the very least, from our vantage point in an uncertain present, it gives much-needed hope for a better future.