University of Pennsylvania
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Brain Pathways Underlying Compassionate Action

Principal Investigators:

Tor D. Wager, Ph. D., Associate Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience, University of Colorado at Boulder
Sona Dimidjian, Ph. D., Assistant Professor, Department of Psychology, University of Colorado at Boulder

This project seeks to develop a neurophysiological model of compassionate behavior that links specific cognitive ingredients of compassion, neural pathways involved in thinking about and affiliating with others, and choices to donate experimental earnings to charity. We focus on two specific ingredients of compassion, mentalization and affiliation, which involve representing another's thoughts and feelings in one's mind, relating those feelings to oneself, and attaching positive affective value to the other. Participants (N = 80) will undergo two experimental sessions, one behavioral and one during fMRI imaging, in which they view images of others in need and have the option to donate a portion of their participation fee to an associated charity. During the four weeks between sessions, subject will participate in one of four interventions: compassion-focused meditation (CM) in which subjects practice mentalizing and affiliating with images of others, a placebo intervention to control for subject expectancies, a memory task to control for subject familiarity with images, or no intervention. We expect activation in DMPFC, associated with mentalizing, and VMPFC, associated with affective value, to mediate the amount of money given to charities associated with each image. The CM intervention group is expected to show specific, enhanced activity in the brain mediators of giving. Developing a positive neuroscience of compassion will advance the study of compassion in a systematic and scientifically grounded way, permitting interrelation with social and scientific institutions that treat biologically based models in a privileged fashion and ultimately benefitting diverse spheres of human society.

Biographies

Tor Wager, Ph.D., is the director of the Cognitive and Affective Control Laboratory and Associate Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience at the University of Colorado, Boulder. His research program focuses on the brain mechanisms underlying expectations and placebo effects, and their influences on brain systems involved in pain, emotion, and motivation. He is actively involved in the emerging field of brain-body medicine, which integrates brain activity with physiological activity in the body to promote understanding of health and disease. Dr. Wager is also actively involved in developing new analysis methods to enhance our ability to understand brain function using human neuroimaging. His resume includes over 60 published articles, and he is currently the principal investigator or co-investigator on 8 funded grants, 4 of which are NIH-sponsored. He also serves on the editorial boards of several scientific journals.

Sona Dimidjian, Ph.D., is the director of the Clinical Research, Education, Service and Treatment Laboratory and Assistant Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience at the University of Colorado, Boulder. Her research has focused on the development and testing of interventions designed to improve well-being in clinical populations. She has been a leader in the application of rigorous methods to the study of behavioral and contemplative interventions, with current NIMH-funded work examining meditation based approaches focused on the prevention of depression and enhancement of wellness among at risk pregnant women. Her resume includes 35 publications, and she is the principal investigator or co-investigator on 6 funded grants. She serves on the editorial boards of several scientific journals. She also serves on research advisory boards focused specifically on the study of meditative practices.


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