Sharp Brains: Brain Fitness and Cognitive Health News

Neuroplasticity, Brain Fitness and Cognitive Health News

Icon

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.

Relat­ed arti­cles:

Leave a Reply...

Loading Facebook Comments ...

Leave a Reply

Categories: Education & Lifelong Learning, Health & Wellness

Tags: , , , , ,

Watch All Recordings Now (40+ Speakers, 12+ Hours)

About SharpBrains

As seen in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, BBC News, CNN, Reuters and more, SharpBrains is an independent market research firm tracking health and performance applications of brain science.

Follow us and Engage via…

twitter_logo_header
RSS Feed

Search for anything brain-related in our article archives