This is Your Brain on Meditation, Alcohol, and PowerBy Bernie Wong, Carmen Sobczak | August 12, 2011 | 2 comments
Summaries of new research on how meditation shapes the brain, how alcohol makes us (im)moral, and how depression can reduce empathy.
* This Greater Good section, Research Digests, offers short summaries of recent studies on happiness, empathy, compassion, and more. Quick to read, easy to digest—we review the research so you don’t have to! Subscribe to the Research Digests RSS feed to receive future digests.
Brief Meditation Produces Positive Brains
"Frontal EEG Asymmetry Associated with Positive Emotion is Produced by Very Brief Meditation Training"
Moyer, C., et al. Psychological Science, publication forthcoming.
Meditating for just 15 minutes a day can produce substantial improvements in brain activity, according to this study. Eleven people participated in a five-week meditation training program, where they practiced focusing their attention on their breathing and cultivating awareness of their fleeting thoughts before promptly letting them go. After the program, researchers recorded the participants’ brain activity, comparing it with people who didn’t receive the training. Those who received the training had significantly greater activity in the brain’s frontal lobe, resulting in more positive emotions and a greater willingness to approach people or experiences. The researchers argue that the benefits of meditation are much more widely available than previously believed: Practicing for just a few minutes a day can lead to a more positive (and happier) state of mind. —Bernie Wong
Does Being Drunk, Powerful, and in the Dark Make You Do Good—or Evil?
"Drunk, Powerful, and in the Dark: How General Processes of Disinhibition Produce both Prosocial and Antisocial Behavior. "
Hirsh, J., Galinsky, A., Zhong, C. Psychological Science, publication forthcoming.
This study examines how power, alcohol, and anonymity can have strong influences on our behavior, for better or for worse. Why do they lead some people to act more kindly, even heroically, while others display more aggression and hostility? Reviewing a range of research, this study’s authors find that all three factors promote disinhibition, in which the brain cannot recognize every possible response to a given situation. Without the mental ability to gauge the effects of different choices, people are more likely to choose the response that seems most obvious to them in the moment. The nature of their response depends on personal dispositions and social cues—for example, disinhibited people are more likely to act kindly towards others if they have a naturally compassionate personality or if social pressures call for considerate behavior. —Carmen Sobczak
How Depression Reduces Empathy
"Depression and Empathic Accuracy within Couples: An Interpersonal Model of Gender Differences in Depression"
Gadassi, R., et al. Psychological Science, publication forthcoming.
This study suggests that depression can reduce feelings of empathy for one’s partner in a relationship. Researchers looked at 55 couples who had been living together for a minimum of six months. First, the researchers assessed each partner’s levels of depression, they then videotaped the couples taking turns asking each other for help with a problem. Later, each partner watched the footage and recorded what they thought they and their partner had been thinking and feeling during the conversations. For three weeks afterward, they also kept a daily diary of their moods, feelings about their relationship, and empathy levels. When the researchers analyzed the responses to the videos and the diaries, they found that the more depressed women seemed, the worse they were at identifying the feelings of their partner; men didn’t show this link between depression and empathy. Also, when women were more depressed, men were worse at understanding their emotions. Since empathy is important to intimate relationships, the results suggest how depression among women can challenge a relationship by reducing their empathy and their partner’s empathy. —Bernie Wong