Researchers prepare a Tibetan monk for a brain scan, as part of a study of the biology of compassion. Knutson’s “monk study” is still in its early stages, but he already collected data from some Tibetan Buddhist monks and nuns, who lay down in a MRI scanner for eight to 12 hours a day, for three days. In the machine, they were asked to withhold emotion and look at some of the faces neutrally, and for other faces, to look and actively extend compassion by feeling their suffering.

A brain scan of a monk actively extending compassion shows activity in the medial prefrontal cortex, an area of the brain associated with reward processing. Neuroeconomist Brian Knutson of Stanford University studies meditating monks to explore what compassion looks like in the brain. By studying the brain during this meditation, Knutson wants to explore whether brain activity changes depending on different types of compassion.

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