Selfless Love Switches Off Brain’s Need For Reward


Romantic love tends to activate the same reward areas of the brain that are activated by cocaine. But new research shows that selfless love, a deep and authentic wish for the happiness of others, actually turns off the brain’s reward centers.

Said Judson Brewer, adjunct professor of psychiatry at Yale University and now at the University of Massachusetts:

“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.”

As reported in the journal Brain and Behavior, the neurological boundaries between these two types of love become clear in fMRI scans of experienced meditators.

Mettā bhāvanā Loving-Kindness Meditation

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 engage in loving-kindness meditation, also known as Metta Bhavana (which is the Pali term for the cultivation of loving-kindness).

Mettā bhāvanā is a popular form of meditation in Buddhism. In the Theravadin Buddhist tradition, this practice begins with the meditator cultivating benevolence towards themselves, then one’s loved ones, friends, teachers, strangers, enemies, and finally towards all sentient beings.

In the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, this practice is associated with tonglen, whereby one breathes out (“sends”) happiness and breathes in (“receives”) suffering. Tibetan Buddhists also practice contemplation of the Brahmavihāras, also called the four immeasurables, which is sometimes called compassion meditation.

Modern instruction for the cultivation of benevolence – such as is found in the works of Sharon Salzberg, the Triratna Buddhist Community’s Kamalashila, and Matthieu Ricard – is often based in part on a method found in Buddhaghosa’s 5th-century CE Pāli exegetical text, The Path of Purification (Visuddhimagga), Chapter IX.

This traditional approach is best known for identifying successive stages of meditation during which one progressively cultivates benevolence towards:

  • oneself
  • a good friend
  • a “neutral” person
  • a difficult person
  • all four of the above equally
  • and then gradually the entire universe

Such mindfulness meditations are a staple of Buddhism and are now commonly practiced in Western stress reduction programs.

The tranquillity of this selfless love for others, exemplified in such religious figures such as Mother Teresa or the Dalai Llama, is directly 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. 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,”

Brewer says.

The study authors write:

“We first assessed group differences in blood oxygen level-dependent (BOLD) signal during loving kindness meditation. We next used a relatively novel approach, the intrinsic connectivity distribution of functional connectivity, to identify regions that differ in intrinsic connectivity between groups, and then used a data-driven approach to seed-based connectivity analysis to identify which connections differ between groups.”

The results suggest:

“group differences in brain regions involved in self-related processing and mind wandering, emotional processing, inner speech, and memory. Meditators showed overall reduced BOLD signal and intrinsic connectivity during loving kindness as compared to novices, more specifically in the posterior cingulate cortex/precuneus (PCC/PCu), a finding that is consistent with our prior work and other recent neuroimaging studies of meditation. Furthermore, meditators showed greater functional connectivity during loving kindness between the PCC/PCu and the left inferior frontal gyrus, whereas novices showed greater functional connectivity during loving kindness between the PCC/PCu and other cortical midline regions of the default mode network, the bilateral posterior insula lobe, and the bilateral parahippocampus/hippocampus“.

  1. Kathleen A. Garrison, Dustin Scheinost, R. Todd Constable and Judson A. Brewer. BOLD signal and functional connectivity associated with loving kindness meditation. Brain and Behavior Volume 4, Issue 3, pages 337–347, May 2014

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Last Updated on January 11, 2023