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Can mental training in compassion lead to altruistic behavior and better health?

The first time I ever tried a loving-kindness med­i­ta­tion, I was over­come by a feel­ing of com­plete… futil­ity. Men­tally extend­ing com­pas­sion to oth­ers and wish­ing them free from suf­fer­ing seemed nice enough, but I had a hard time believ­ing that my idle thoughts could increase kind­ness in the real world.

Turns out I was wrong.

A new study, just pub­lished online by Psy­cho­log­i­cal Sci­ence, shows that train­ing adults in a loving-kindness-style “com­pas­sion med­i­ta­tion” actu­ally makes them sig­nif­i­cantly more altru­is­tic toward others.

The study sug­gests not only that it’s pos­si­ble to increase com­pas­sion and altru­ism in the world, but that we can do so even through rel­a­tively brief training.

What’s more, the study is the first to link these behav­ioral changes with mea­sur­able changes in brain activ­ity, shed­ding light on why com­pas­sion­ate thoughts may actu­ally lead to com­pas­sion­ate deeds.

We really wanted to show that com­pas­sion is a skill that you can work on, like exer­cise or learn­ing a musi­cal instru­ment,” says the study’s lead author, Helen Weng, who is a grad­u­ate stu­dent at the Uni­ver­sity of Wis­con­sin, Madi­son, where she’s affil­i­ated with the Cen­ter for Inves­ti­gat­ing Healthy Minds.

Train­ing to help

In the study, Weng and her col­leagues gave par­tic­i­pants one of two train­ings. In both train­ings, the par­tic­i­pants lis­tened to a 30-minute audio record­ing on their own once a day for just two weeks.

One was the com­pas­sion med­i­ta­tion, adapted from the Bud­dhist prac­tice of loving-kindness med­i­ta­tion. The com­pas­sion med­i­ta­tion gen­tly instructed the par­tic­i­pants to extend feel­ings of com­pas­sion toward dif­fer­ent peo­ple, includ­ing them­selves, a loved one, a casual acquain­tance, and some­one with whom they’d had difficulty.

The researchers call the other audio record­ing a “reap­praisal train­ing” because it involved recall­ing a stress­ful expe­ri­ence and try­ing to think about it in a new, less upset­ting way, such as by con­sid­er­ing it from another person’s point of view.

Before and imme­di­ately after each two-week train­ing, all par­tic­i­pants had their brains scanned in an fMRI machine while they looked at a series of images, some of which depicted peo­ple in pain, such as a burn vic­tim or a cry­ing child.

Also imme­di­ately after the train­ings, the par­tic­i­pants played an online game designed to mea­sure their altru­is­tic behav­ior. In the game, they were given $5, another player was given $10, and a third player had no money. (The other “play­ers” were actu­ally com­puter gen­er­ated, but the par­tic­i­pants were led to believe they were real peo­ple.) Each study par­tic­i­pant first watched as the player with $10 was asked to share some of his money but gave only $1 to the pen­ni­less player, who the researchers refer to as the “vic­tim.” The par­tic­i­pant could then choose to spend any amount of his $5; what­ever he spent would have to be dou­bled by the wealthy player and given to the vic­tim. So if the par­tic­i­pant was will­ing to part with $2, the vic­tim would receive $4 from the other player.

Would peo­ple who received the com­pas­sion train­ing be more will­ing to spend their money in order to help a stranger in need?

They were—in fact, they spent nearly twice as much as peo­ple who received the reap­praisal train­ing, $1.14 vs. $0.62.

Chang­ing the Brain

It’s impor­tant to note that, dur­ing the game, par­tic­i­pants weren’t instructed to think about any­thing they’d learned dur­ing their train­ing. Yet that brief daily med­i­ta­tion still seemed to have a strong carry-over effect on their behavior.

This demon­strates that purely men­tal train­ing in com­pas­sion can result in observ­able altru­is­tic changes toward a vic­tim,” the researchers write in their paper, “even when indi­vid­u­als are not explic­itly cued to gen­er­ate compassion.”

And these changes were also reflected in changes to brain activ­ity. Specif­i­cally, when com­pared with their brain activ­ity before the train­ing, peo­ple who received the com­pas­sion train­ing showed increased activ­ity in neural net­works involved in under­stand­ing the suf­fer­ing of oth­ers, reg­u­lat­ing emo­tions, and pos­i­tive feel­ings in response to a reward or goal.

The researchers saw sim­i­lar brain changes in the reap­praisal train­ing group, but that brain activ­ity didn’t trans­late into altru­is­tic behav­ior. To explain this, the researchers pro­pose how the inter­ac­tion between the train­ing, brain activ­ity, and behav­ior may have dif­fered between the two groups.

They point out that a height­ened sen­si­tiv­ity to suf­fer­ing causes peo­ple to avoid that suf­fer­ing because it doesn’t feel good; how­ever, because the com­pas­sion train­ing also seemed to strengthen the brain’s abil­ity to reg­u­late emo­tions, peo­ple may have been able to sense suf­fer­ing with­out feel­ing over­whelmed by it. Instead, the care for oth­ers empha­sized by the com­pas­sion train­ing may have caused them to see suf­fer­ing not as a threat to their own well-being but as an oppor­tu­nity to reap the psy­chic rewards from achiev­ing an impor­tant goal—namely, con­nect­ing with some­one else and mak­ing him feel better.

Helen Weng
“When your goal is to help another per­son, then your reward sys­tem will be acti­vated when you’re meet­ing that goal,” says Weng.

By con­trast, the reap­praisal group’s goal was to decrease their own neg­a­tive emo­tions, mak­ing them less inclined to be altru­is­tic when con­fronted with some­one else’s pain. “When you’re focused on decreas­ing your own neg­a­tive emo­tions,” she says, “I think that makes you less focused on other people.”

Build­ing on pre­vi­ous studies

This study fol­lows prior research doc­u­ment­ing the pos­i­tive effects of other com­pas­sion train­ing pro­grams, such as theCom­pas­sion Cul­ti­va­tion Train­ing devel­oped at Stan­ford Uni­veristy and the Cognitively-Based Com­pas­sion Train­ingout of Emory Uni­ver­sity. A study pub­lished ear­lier this year, also in Psy­cho­log­i­cal Sci­ence, sug­gests that train­ing in mind­ful­ness med­i­ta­tion sig­nif­i­cantly increases com­pas­sion­ate behavior.

But this new study is note­wor­thy for sev­eral rea­sons. For one thing, many of the pre­vi­ous stud­ies have exam­ined train­ings that took sev­eral hours a week for at least eight weeks; this study’s com­pas­sion train­ing, by con­trast, took just a total of seven hours over two weeks.

Also, prior stud­ies of com­pas­sion train­ings have mostly looked at their effects on brain activ­ity, emo­tional well-being, or phys­i­cal health. But this is the first study to both exam­ine “whether train­ing in com­pas­sion will make you more car­ing and help­ful toward oth­ers,” says Weng, and then doc­u­ment how “those changes in behav­ior are linked to changes in neural and emo­tional respond­ing to peo­ple suffering.”

Weng says she’s excited by the impli­ca­tion that peo­ple can develop sig­nif­i­cantly more com­pas­sion and altru­ism, even out­side of a train­ing like the one she helped to create.

Our find­ings sup­port the pos­si­bil­ity that com­pas­sion and altru­ism can be viewed as train­able skills rather than as sta­ble traits,” she and her co-authors write. “This lays the ground­work for future research to explore whether compassion-related train­ings can ben­e­fit fields that depend on altru­ism and coop­er­a­tion (e.g., med­i­cine) as well as clin­i­cal sub­groups char­ac­ter­ized by deficits in com­pas­sion, such as psychopaths.”

––  Jason Marsh is the edi­tor in chief of Greater Good, based at UC-Berkeley, is an online mag­a­zine that high­lights ground break­ing sci­en­tific research into the roots of com­pas­sion and altru­ism. Copy­right Greater Good.

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