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There’s hope: Compassion can be learned

Training increases people’s willingness to redistribute funds altruistically, according to an intriguing study.

Sounds like the Dalai Lama got it right on both counts when he wrote: “If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.”
Courtesy of The Office of His Holiness the Dalai Lama/Jeremy Russell

With some relatively simple training, people can learn to be more compassionate, and such training increases people’s willingness to redistribute funds altruistically, according to an intriguing new study from University of Wisconsin researchers.

Compassion training also appears to elicit changes in the brain associated with an enhanced sense of personal well-being.

Sounds like the Dalai Lama got it right on both counts when he wrote: “If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.”

Methodology

For the study, neuroscientist Richard J. Davidson and his colleagues at the UW’s Center for Investigating Healthy Minds recruited 41 volunteers, aged 18 to 45. Each volunteer was randomly assigned to receive two weeks of 30-minute daily sessions of either compassion training or reappraisal training.

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The compassion training consisted of an ancient Buddhist meditation technique that has been shown in previous studies to increase caring feelings for people who are suffering. The technique involves envisioning someone who is in distress or pain and then imagining that person’s suffering being relieved while repeating mantras such as “May you be free from suffering” or “May you have joy and ease.”  

Practitioners start by focusing on a loved one. They then move on to focusing on a more distant relative or friend, themselves and a stranger (in that order). The training ends with the practitioners envisioning the suffering of a “difficult” person in their lives — someone with whom they’ve had a personal conflict.

Reappraisal training, which is often used in cognitive behavioral therapy, is more self-focused. This technique encourages people to look at personally stressful events and reinterpret them to decrease their negative emotional effect.

Before and after the compassion/reappraisal training, the study’s volunteers underwent magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) of their brains to observe any changes in neural activity. While having their brains scanned, the volunteers were presented with photos that depicted either human suffering (a child crying, for example, or a burn victim) or “neutral” images.

After the training, the volunteers were also asked to participate in an online redistribution game. It involved two anonymous players, a “Dictator” and a “Victim.” The Dictator distributed an unfair amount of money ($1 out of $10) to the Victim. The study’s volunteers had to then decide how much of their received money ($5) they were willing to share with the unjustly treated Victim.

Results

The study found that the volunteers who had undergone the compassion training exhibited significantly more altruistic behavior (the giving up of their own money) during the online redistribution game than the volunteers who had received the more self-focused reappraisal training.

Furthermore, the compassion-training volunteers exhibited the greatest post-training changes in brain activity. In particular, they showed increases in the inferior parietal complex, an area of the brain involved in empathy and the understanding others, and in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, which is believed to play a major role in the regulation of emotions in general and in the development of positive emotions in particular.

“In sum, these results build on existing evidence that the adult human brain may demonstrate functional and structural changes after mental training and extend these previous findings to include socioemotional domains such as compassion and altruism,” the authors of the study conclude.

A ‘demonic’ roadblock

The finding that human compassion can be learned is, of course, encouraging — and hopeful. Davidson and his colleagues point out that their study “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.”

However, I’m not sure we will be able to convince many people to practice Buddhist-like compassion meditation, no matter how clear the societal benefits. Not when we have politicians (and others) saying meditation is demonic.

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Davidson’s study (PDF) was published in the journal Psychological Science.