Metta meditation, also known as loving-kindness meditation, is a Buddhist practice which involves cultivating goodwill, kindness, and warmth towards oneself, loved ones, and the world at large.
I first heard of LKM through my fiance, who practiced it at a 10-day Vipassana meditation retreat. She described the experience as one of the most heart-opening events of her life. As she went deeper into the meditation, tears rolled down her face as she felt a profound sense of love and compassion for herself, and everyone and everything around her.
After hearing of this, I too practiced it and had a similar experience. Was there science to back up the results we were seeing? I dug through the research and found hard-evidence of just how transformative metta meditation can be for our physical and mental health.
In this article, I describe six insights science has learned about this powerful practice.
1. Increase In Positive Emotions
A common reasons people regularly practice metta meditation, is that it simply makes you feel great. Over time, these positive emotions can have a compounding effect, allowing other areas in your life to improve as a result.
A 2008 study by The University of North Carolina followed 139 adults, asking half of them to practice metta meditation. Over time, the LKM group showed a cumulative increase in positive emotions experienced daily. The group also reported a number of benefits that accompanied these positive emotions such as increase in mindfulness, purpose in life, social support, decreased illness symptoms, and increased life satisfaction.1
2. Increase In Brain Thickness Associated With Emotional Regulation
A common misconception of meditation is that different forms of meditation affect the brain in a similar fashion. In reality, studies have found different types of meditation change different areas of the brain.
While focused awareness meditation is linked with increased thickness in the prefrontal cortex (involved in attention), metta meditation has been linked to increase thickness in areas of the brain associated with empathetic response, and emotional regulation.2 3
3. Increase In Vagus Nerve Activity
The Vagus nerve powers our parasympathetic nervous system, and controls unconscious body systems such as breathing, digestion, and various organs in the body. It’s linked with oxycontin networks, which helps us empathize. When you feel compassion, your vagus nerve is activated, which is why it’s known as the body’s love nerve. On top of this, it’s associated to a stronger immune response and stronger inflammation response to disease.
A 2013 study by The University of North Carolina showed those that those who practiced loving-kindness meditation had a stronger vagal tone (which measures the activity of the vagus nerve).4
4. Greater Telomere Length (associated with anti-aging)
Telomeres are strands at the end of DNA that make up our chromosomes. These caplike segments are often compared to the plastic tips at the end of shoelaces. Telomeres help protect our chromosomes from deteriorating and maintain its function. Our cells are constantly copying themselves, and each time this occurs, telomere length is slightly reduced. Overtime shorter telomeres are linked to accelerated aging and are even being considered the new cholesterol.
A 2013 study by Harvard Medical School found that those who practiced metta meditation had longer relative telomere length (RTL) than those who did not, especially in women participants.5
5. Increases Respiratory Sinus Arrhythmia (RSA)
Respiratory sinus arrhythmia (RSA) is the variability of your heart rate in synchrony with your breathing. In healthy individuals with strong RSA’s, heart rate speeds up slightly during an inhalation, and slows down during an exhalation. Measuring RSA is one of the best ways to determine the health of your physiology.
In a 2011 study by The University of Arizona, 113 participants showed that just a 10-minute session of metta meditation showed an immediate increase in RSA.6
6. Strengthen Areas Of The Brain Associated With Compassion
Are qualities like empathy and compassion something that can be trained and strengthened? The latest research on metta meditation seems to think so.
In a 2008 study by the University of Wisconsin-Madison, 32 subjects with no prior experience in the practice were placed inside fMRI scanners and asked to either practice metta meditation or refrain from it. While in the scanner, the participants were introduced to audio tracks of negative or positive human vocalizations, such as a baby laughing or a woman in stress.
Those that practiced metta meditation showed a significantly higher activity of the brain’s insula, a small region of the cerebral cortex that is associated with the detection of human emotion in others. There was also increased activity in the temporal parietal juncture, an area of the brain associated with empathy. The study also analyzed Tibetan monks with over 10,000 hours of practice with metta meditation, and found much greater activity in these areas than the novice practitioners.
These findings suggest that with regular practice of metta meditation, you can strengthen qualities of compassion and empathy.7
Metta meditation is a legitimate, science-backed practice that can transform your physical and mental health. If you’re up to dive into this practice, just twenty minutes a day can lead to substantial benefits in your life – from increasing brain thickness, to enhancing your nervous system, to even strengthening empathy and compassion. What are you waiting for?
Cover art by: Seamlessoo
- Fredrickson, Barbara L., et al. “Open hearts build lives: positive emotions, induced through loving-kindness meditation, build consequential personal resources.” Journal of personality and social psychology 95.5 (2008): 1045.
- Leung, Mei-Kei, et al. “Increased gray matter volume in the right angular and posterior parahippocampal gyri in loving-kindness meditators.” Social cognitive and affective neuroscience 8.1 (2012): 34-39.
- Valk, Sofie L., et al. “Structural plasticity of the social brain: Differential change after socio-affective and cognitive mental training.” Science Advances 3.10 (2017): e1700489.
- Kok, Bethany E., et al. “How positive emotions build physical health: Perceived positive social connections account for the upward spiral between positive emotions and vagal tone.” Psychological science 24.7 (2013): 1123-1132.
- Hoge, Elizabeth A., et al. “Loving-Kindness Meditation practice associated with longer telomeres in women.” Brain, behavior, and immunity 32 (2013): 159-163.
- Law, Rita W. An analogue study of loving-kindness meditation as a buffer against social stress. The University of Arizona, 2011.
- Lutz, Antoine, et al. “Regulation of the neural circuitry of emotion by compassion meditation: effects of meditative expertise.” PloS one 3.3 (2008): e1897.