"We showed altered activation in brain circuitry that was previously linked to empathy and perspective-taking or the capacity to understand other's intentions and mental states and, more precisely, the insula was more activated, particularly in response to negative emotional sounds," Lutz said.
In the monks, especially, these areas of the brain were activated even more when they hard the cries of the distressed woman, she said.
The study authors hope the findings might one day help with a range of problems, including reducing the incidence of bullying in schools or helping people with depression.
"The next step is to see if this works," Lutz said. "If it works, then it can be applied to selective populations -- for instance, depressed people or, more broadly, in education."
The U.S. National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine has more about meditation and health.
SOURCES: Antoine Lutz, Ph.D., associate scientist, Waisman Center, University of Wisconsin-Madison; Louis E. Teichholz, M.D., medical director, complementary medicine, and chief, cardiology, Hackensack University Medical Center, New Jersey; March 26, 2008, Public Library of Science One