Meditation helps pinpoint neurological differences between two types of love

wildmind meditation newsBill Hathaway, Yale News: These findings won’t appear on any Hallmark card, but romantic love tends to activate the same reward areas of the brain as cocaine, research has shown.

Now Yale School of Medicine researchers studying meditators have found that a more selfless variety of love — a deep and genuine wish for the happiness of others without expectation of reward — actually turns off the same reward areas that light up when lovers see each other.

“When we truly, selflessly wish for the well-being of others, we’re not getting that same rush of excitement that comes with, say, a tweet from our romantic love interest, because it’s not about us at all,” said Judson Brewer, adjunct professor of psychiatry at Yale now at the University of Massachusetts.

Brewer and Kathleen Garrison, postdoctoral researcher in Yale’s Department of Psychiatry, report their findings in a paper scheduled to be published online Feb. 12 in the journal Brain and Behavior.

The neurological boundaries between these two types of love become clear in fMRI scans of experienced meditators. The reward centers of the brain that are strongly activated by a lover’s face (or a picture of cocaine) are almost completely turned off when a meditator is instructed to silently repeat sayings such as “May all beings be happy.”

Such mindfulness meditations are a staple of Buddhism and are now commonly practiced in Western stress reduction programs, Brewer notes. The tranquility of this selfless love for others — exemplified in such religious figures such as Mother Theresa or the Dalai Llama — is diametrically opposed to the anxiety caused by a lovers’ quarrel or extended separation. And it carries its own rewards.

“The intent of this practice is to specifically foster selfless love — just putting it out there and not looking for or wanting anything in return,” Brewer said. “If you’re wondering where the reward is in being selfless, just reflect on how it feels when you see people out there helping others, or even when you hold the door for somebody the next time you are at Starbucks.”

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5 Comments. Leave new

I might have misunderstood, but is this saying that experienced meditators lose the ability to experience romantic love? Or at least aren’t excited by it anymore? Why would that be desirable? I hope it’s not the case!

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The study is not saying that experienced meditators lose the ability to experience romantic love. The relevant part is this: “The reward centers of the brain that are strongly activated by a lover’s face … are almost completely turned off when a meditator is instructed to silently repeat sayings such as ‘May all beings be happy'”.

What it’s saying is the lovingkindness and romantic love are different. And in this case, when people cultivated lovingkindness, they weren’t experiencing romantic love. But unless you spend all your waking hours cultivating lovingkindness, this presumably leaves plenty of time for other forms of love.

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Ah, thank you. I came to a similar conclusion when I thought about it. Obviously I see the vast benefit of cultivating loving kindness, but wouldn’t like to think that it was at the cost of other experiences :) Thanks for taking the time to reply.

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I’m very glad that scientists are beginning to study metta meditation, and it would be better if the article distinguished it from the mindfulness of breathing meditation. The sentence beginning “Such mindfulness meditations” implies that cultivating selfless love is part of standard mindfulness meditation, when it’s a distinct form of meditation that needs to complement mindfulness.

Do you think though, that our goal as practitioners is to spend a lot of our waking hours cultivating loving-kindness, and not bother with other forms of love? If we’re married with children, should we try and drop the expectations of reward that come with romantic attachments, and love them selflessly just because they are sentient beings? Is the rush of excitement a sign of egoic clinging, to be superseded by disinterested kindness?

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Perhaps it’s the journalist who’s at fault for conflating “mindfulness meditation” and lovingkindness. However canonically there is no such thing as “mindfulness meditation.” It’s a recent and made-up term, and I don’t think it’s a very useful one. All meditation involves mindfulness, or it’s not meditation.

Anyway, I’d say it’s up to individual practitioners to decide what the pattern of their practice is, but if you have a spouse, then you’re going to have problems if you don’t relate to them as a romantic and sexual being. That doesn’t exclude having metta for them, of course. Valuing another person’s happiness and wellbeing is (or should be) the basis of all intimate relationships as well as the basis of lovingkindness. I’d say that metta is an ideal basis for a marriage, but that it’s not enough. You also need the romance and sexuality. For most people, at least.

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