Science Research Roundup
Compassion Meditation Improves neural Basis of Empathy
A recent study conducted by Emory researchers has found that compassion-based meditation can improve a person’s ability to read and interpret the facial expressions of others.
The purpose of the study, explained lead author and post-doctoral fellow in anthropology Jennifer Mascaro, was to investigate whether eight weeks of training in a compassion-based meditation program, called Cognitively-Based Compassion Training (CBCT), would enhance empathic accuracy, or people’s ability to read facial expressions, and increase the brain activity associated with this social skill.
According to Mascaro, previous research has already proven that people who can better read emotional expressions of others have better relationships. This study’s results, however, suggest that behavioral intervention could enhance empathy by increasing activity in parts of the brain that are important to recognizing emotions in others.
The meditation protocol CBCT was developed by study co-author Lobsang Tenzin Negi, director of the Emory-Tibet Partnership. The program is based off of ancient Tibetan Buddhist practices but is secular in content and presentation.
The CBCT program focuses on teaching people to interpret and study their relationship with others, explained Negi. In an Emory press release on Oct. 1, Negi states that CBCT aims to condition one’s mind to recognize how people are interdependent and that everyone desires to be happy.
The improved empathy was tested through both behavioral tests of the study subjects and through functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans of the subjects’ brain activity.
According to the news release, study participants included 13 healthy adults without prior meditation experience and eight randomized control subjects that did not participate in the CBCT program. The researchers then tested empathic accuracy before and after CBCT through fMRI brain scans while analyzing black and white photographs of people’s expressions.
The results showed an increase in scores for people who participated in the CBCT program and no change or decrease for the control subjects, stated Mascaro. The CBCT subjects also showed increased neural activity in brain areas important for empathy and reading facial expressions, suggesting that the changes in brain activity during the task accounted for the changes in scores, explained Mascaro.
“We know that positive relationships with others are intimately related to well-being, so identifying training programs that enhance empathy will have far-reaching effects on the health of the practitioners and likely on those around them,” said Mascaro.
Besides Mascaro and Negi, the research team also included a former psychiatrist at Emory’s School of Medicine currently at the University of Arizona, Charles Raison, and Emory College professor and anthropologist James Rilling. The study was published by Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience journal.
Physicists Find Another Piece to the Glass Puzzle
Physicists and researchers at Emory are the first to create an experiment and discover the particle motion and dynamics for glass formation.
Lead researcher and professor of physics Eric Weeks explored what makes glass different at the molecular level as super-cooled liquid transforms into a glass state.
Weeks and his lab found that cooling a liquid not only changes the substance viscosity, a type of super thickness, but also alters the way the material particles move through space, explained an Emory press release on Oct. 15.
Weeks and Kazem Edmond, another graduate student in the lab, created an experiment that showed the three-dimensional movement through a three-dimensional movie. They analyzed mixtures of water and tiny tetrahedral balls the size of the nucleus of a cell through a specific kind of microscope that scanned the samples as the viscosity and rate of glass formation increased.
Weeks described the changes in motion as particles becoming “decoupled.” According to Weeks in a press release, this means that the amount of rotation and the direction occur at different rates; in this case, the rotation starts to slow down more for glass molecules.
Weeks explains that the two types of motion, directional and rotational, remain correlated and at similar rates in normal liquids and solids. Weeks explains that when liquid water turns into ice, the water molecules slow down and lock into crystal patterns. However, when liquid forms into glass, the movement of glass molecules slow down but remain mixed and variable, stated Weeks.
The results were published in the science journal Proceedings of the National Academy of the Sciences.
How Fear Changes our Spacial Perception
Emory psychologists have found that fear can skew our perception of approaching objects in a recent clinical study.
Stella Lourenco, co-author of the study and associate professor of psycholgoy, said that the study showed that emotion and perception are not completely separate from each other in the mind. According to Lourenco, fear can change how people perceive the world around them.
Lourenco explained through an Emory press release on Oct. 9 that people usually have a well-developed spatial perception, which is the ability to sense when objects moving towards them will make contact.
To test how fear alters this perception, the researchers created an experiment where subjects made inferences on collision time of images on a computer screen. The news release states that the images changed in size to simulate a visual pattern for judging collision time called “looming.”
The results showed that the subjects underestimated the collision time of snakes, spiders and other frightening objects versus non-intimidating objects like rabbits or butterflies, stated the news release. This suggests that scarier objects are perceived as making contact sooner compared to non-threatening objects. According to Lourenco, this implies that what the object is makes a difference on how people perceive looming.
Furthermore, researchers were able to estimate by how much participants would underestimate the collision time based off the amount of fear each person had. The study shows that the more frightened someone is, the more they underestimated a collision time, stated Lourenco.
Lourenco said in the press release that these results and this study can help understand many severe phobias. The researchers hope to further their findings by discovering whether the fear expands a person’s personal space or changes how fast the object seems to be moving.
The study was done in collaboration with Matthew Longo, a psychologist at the University of London and was published in the science journal, Current Biology.
— Mallika Manyapu