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The Impact of Loving-Kindness Meditation on Affective Learning and Cognitive Control

Abstract

Research on meditation has examined many variables across a wide range of techniques. Research on loving-kindness meditation has investigated its impact on affective variables, but has not yet investigated its impact on cognition. The present study investigated the impact of loving-kindness meditation on an affective variable not yet examined in the literature—affective learning—as well as cognition. Participants were randomly assigned to a control condition or a three-session, loving-kindness meditation training. Our results suggest that the beginning stages of loving-kindness meditation training impact the tendency to learn to associate positivity with neutral stimuli and cognitive control. We discuss the implications of our findings and potential directions for future research.

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Correspondence to Matthew Hunsinger.

Appendix

Appendix

Meditation Instructions for Session 1

Now we are going to move onto the mental exercise activity. You’ll be asked questions about it later. During this and other sessions, I will provide instructions for the mental exercise.

It is very important that you follow my instructions and take the mental exercise activity seriously. We are all going to do this mental activity as a group. We will be sitting for the duration of it.

This task involves focusing your attention on a series of phrases over and over again in your head. You will repeat the four phrases on the sheet one at a time over and over again. After you say phrase 4, start from the beginning of the list at phrase 1. You will direct the phrases toward yourself; then, a close friend; next, a close relative; and finally, all human beings. For example, you will say to yourself: May I be safe from danger and harm; may I be happy; may I be healthy; may I be free from suffering.

I will let you know when to switch targets. So, just keep directing the phrases toward the same target until I tell you to switch. You can look at this sheet as much as you need to. It’s best to keep your eyes closed while doing this exercise, but if you would like to keep your eyes open, that’s fine. And obviously, you’ll have to open your eye if you need to look at the sheet.

While you repeat the phrases, focus on the meaning of the phrase, and try to generate positive feelings—feelings of warmth toward the person or all people and a feeling of connection with the person or all people. Each time you say a phrase, try to experience these feelings of warmth and connection. If you don’t experience these feelings, that’s okay; just keep focusing on the meaning of the phrases and a desire for the target to be safe, happy, and healthy. You can go through these phrases at your own pace, but don’t go through them so quickly that you can’t focus on their meaning. When you direct the phrases toward a close friend and close relative, pick one person for each, and stick to that person for all three experimental sessions instead of jumping around to different friends and relatives. For the close friend and relative, try to create a visual image of the person and hold onto that image, but if you have trouble creating an image or holding onto it, you don’t have to use an image. When directing the phrases toward your close friend, close relative, and all humans, you will add the phrase “Just as I wish to be….”

Your mind will probably wander to other thoughts, feelings, and sensations. It is very common for the mind to do this a lot. When this happens, notice that your mind is wondering and bring your attention back to the phrases, the meaning of the phrases, the feelings of warmth and connection, and the desire for the target to be safe, happy, and healthy. If you don’t remember what phrase you were on, just start at the beginning at phrase 1. Try to observe your mind wandering without judging yourself or the distracting thought, feeling, or sensation. When distracting thoughts, feelings, and sensations arise, you don’t have to push them away or suppress them. Just refocus your attention back on the phrases, and let the distraction fade away naturally.

It’s really important that during this activity you try your best to concentrate on the phrases and to refocus your attention on the phrases as soon as you notice your mind is wandering. Get comfortable but not too comfortable. You want to be in a relaxed, but poised, position, one that will promote mental alertness and not mental sluggishness. If you find yourself getting tired, try to sit up straighter or try shifting positions to a more erect position.

To get our minds focused, let’s just focus on our breathing for a little bit. Focus your attention on what it feels like to be breathing. Feel your chest expand and contract. [Participants did this for roughly 4 min.]

Now, start repeating the phrases with yourself as the target—May I be safe from danger and harm; may I be happy; may I be healthy; may I be free from suffering. Try to create positive feelings toward yourself and a genuine desire for those things to happen to you. Each time you say a phrase, try to experience those feelings of warmth and connection. [Participants did this for 4 min.]

Now, switch to a close friend and direct the phrases toward that friend. Call to mind a friend who you enjoy spending time with and feel really close to. If it’s not too difficult, try to create a visual image of that friend and hold that image if you can; if you have trouble creating the image or holding onto it, you don’t have to use an image. Remember that just as you wish to be safe, happy, and healthy, your friend does also, so don’t forget to start the phrases with “Just as I wish to be….” Try to generate feelings of warmth toward your friend, a genuine desire for him or her to be safe, happy, and healthy, and a feeling of connection with this person. If your mind becomes distracted by other thoughts, feelings, or sensations, notice that without judgment, and refocus your attention on the phrases, the meaning of the phrases, the feelings of warmth and connection, and the desire for your friend to be safe, happy, and healthy. You don’t have to force the thoughts, feelings, or sensations away. Just let them fade away naturally as you refocus your attention on the phrases. [Participants did this for 5 min.]

Now, switch to a close relative and direct the phrases at that person. Bring to mind a family member who you feel close to and enjoy seeing. If it’s not too difficult, try to create a visual image of the person and hold on to that image. Again, try to create feelings of warmth toward that relative, a genuine desire for him or her to be safe, happy, and healthy, and a feeling of connection with the relative. If you don’t experience feelings of warmth and connection, try focusing on the meaning of the phrase and a genuine desire for your relative to be safe, happy, and healthy. Each time you say a phrase, try to experience those feelings of warmth toward your relative and connection with him or her. [Participants did this for 5 min.]

Finally, focus on all human beings, directing the phrases toward humanity. Try to generate feelings of warmth toward all human beings, a genuine desire for everyone to be safe, happy, and healthy, and a feeling of connection with humanity. Remember that you share the same basic desires to be safe, happy, and healthy with all humans. Just as I wish to be safe from danger and harm, may all human beings be safe from danger and harm. And so on. If your mind becomes distracted by other thoughts, feelings, or sensations, notice that without judgment, and refocus on the phrases, the meaning of the phrases, the feelings of warmth and connection, and the desire for all humans to be safe, happy, and healthy. Let the distraction fade away naturally as you refocus your attention on the phrases. [Participants did this for 6 min.]

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Hunsinger, M., Livingston, R. & Isbell, L. The Impact of Loving-Kindness Meditation on Affective Learning and Cognitive Control. Mindfulness 4, 275–280 (2013). https://doi.org/10.1007/s12671-012-0125-2

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  • DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/s12671-012-0125-2

Keywords

  • Meditation
  • Loving-kindness meditation
  • Affective learning
  • Cognitive control