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Thursday, May 23, 2013

Compassion can be learned

Researchers at the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds at the Waisman Center of the University of Wisconsin-Madison set out to learn whether adults can learn to be compassionate and whether training can lead to greater altruistic behavior and related changes in neural systems underlying compassion.

Helen Weng, lead author of the study and a graduate student in clinical psychology, says, “Our evidence points to yes.”

The researchers trained young adults in what they term "compassion meditation," in which they envisioned a time when someone has suffered and then practiced wishing that the suffering was relieved. They repeated phrases to help them focus on compassion such as, “May you be free from suffering. May you have joy and ease.” They practiced this with various subjects, including themselves, loved ones, strangers, and difficult people. (This is similar to lovingkindness, or metta, meditation in Buddhism.)

They practiced for 30 minutes a day, using guided meditations over the Internet. The results were compared to a control group who learned "cognitive reappraisal," or reframing their thoughts to feel less negative.

“It’s kind of like weight training,” Weng says. “Using this systematic approach, we found that people can actually build up their compassion ‘muscle’ and respond to others’ suffering with care and a desire to help.”

The research tested this by asking the participants to play a game in which they were given the opportunity to spend their own money to respond to someone in need (called the “Redistribution Game”). They played the game over the Internet with two anonymous players, the “Dictator” and the “Victim.” They watched as the Dictator shared an unfair amount of money (only $1 out of $10) with the Victim. They then decided how much of their own money to spend (out of $5) in order to equalize the unfair split and redistribute funds from the Dictator to the Victim.

“We found that people trained in compassion were more likely to spend their own money altruistically to help someone who was treated unfairly than those who were trained in cognitive reappraisal,” Weng says.
What distinguishes this study is that researchers found actual physical changes in participants' magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) before and after training, the researchers measured how much brain activity had changed during the training. The biggest change was found in people who were the most altruistic after compassion training. They had increase activity in the inferior parietal cortex, a region involved in empathy and understanding others. Compassion training also increased activity in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and the extent to which it communicated with the nucleus accumbens, brain regions involved in emotion regulation and positive emotions.
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“People seem to become more sensitive to other people’s suffering, but this is challenging emotionally. They learn to regulate their emotions so that they approach people’s suffering with caring and wanting to help rather than turning away,” explains Weng.

UW-Madison psychology and psychiatry professor Richard J. Davidson, founder and chair of the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds and senior author of the article. said that “the fact that alterations in brain function were observed after just a total of seven hours of training is remarkable.”

Davidson foresees benefits from compassion training in schools, where it could decrease bullying, as well as with people who have social anxiety or anti-social behaviors. But even those with no obvious problems could benefit. Imagine if everyone became more compassionate and aware of others' suffering?

It's not a difficult practice, as long as you don't insist on fMRIs to prove progress. Visit a meditation center or try a metta meditation on youtube. Commit to doing it every day for two weeks, and see if you notice a change in your life.

Here's a guided metta meditation from Sharon Salzberg, a gifted and accessible teacher.