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The EEG analysis bore particularly rich fruit in the comparison between Oser at rest and while meditating on compassion. Most striking was a dramatic increase in key electrical activity known as gamma in the left middle frontal gyrus, a zone of the brain Davidson’s previous research had pinpointed as a locus for positive emotions. In research with close to two hundred people, Davidson’s lab had found that when people have high levels of such brain activity in that specific site of the left prefrontal cortex, they simultaneously report feelings such as happiness, enthusiasm, joy, high energy and alertness.
On the other hand, Davidson’s research has also found that high levels of activity in a parallel site on the other side of the brain—in the right prefrontal area—correlate with reports of distressing emotions. People with a higher level of activity in the right prefrontal site and a lower level in the left are more prone to feelings such as sadness, anxiety and worry. Indeed, an extreme rightward tilt in the ratio of the activity in these prefrontal areas predicts a high likelihood that a person will succumb to clinical depression or an anxiety disorder at some point in their life. People in the grip of depression who also report intense anxiety have the highest levels of activation in those right prefrontal areas.
The implications of these findings for our emotional balance are profound: we each have a characteristic ratio of right-to-left activation in the prefrontal areas that offers a barometer of the moods we are likely to feel day to day. That ratio represents what amounts to an emotional set point, the mean around which our daily moods swing.
Each of us has the capacity to shift our moods, at least a bit, and thus change this ratio. The further to the left that ratio tilts, the better our frame of mind tends to be, and experiences that lift our mood cause such a leftward tilt, at least temporarily. For instance, most people show small positive changes in this ratio when they are asked to recall pleasant memories of events from their past, or when they watch amusing or heartwarming film clips.
Usually such changes from the baseline set point are modest. But when Oser was generating a state of compassion during meditation, he showed a remarkable leftward shift in this parameter of prefrontal function, one that was extraordinarily unlikely to occur by chance alone.
In short, Oser's brain shift during compassion seemed to reflect an extremely pleasant mood. The very act of concern for others' well-being, it seems, creates a greater state of well-being within oneself. The finding lends scientific support to an observation often made by the Dalai Lama: that the person doing a meditation on compassion for all beings is the immediate beneficiary.
The data from Oser was remarkable in another way, as these were also most likely the first data ever gathered on brain activity during the systematic generation of compassion—an emotional state for the most part utterly ignored by modern psychological research. Research in psychology over the decades has focused far more on what goes wrong with us—depression, anxiety and the like—than on what goes right with us. The positive side of experience and human goodness have been largely ignored in research; indeed, there is virtually no research anywhere in the annals of psychology on compassion per se.
While Davidson’s data on compassion were surprising in themselves, still more remarkable results were about to be reported by Paul Ekman, one of the world's most eminent experts on the science of emotion, who heads the Human Interaction Laboratory at the University of California at San Francisco. Ekman was among the handful of scientists who had attended the Dharamsala meeting, and he had studied Oser a few months earlier in his own laboratory. The net result was four studies, three of which are described here.