New research suggest a compassion-based meditation program can significantly improve an individual’s ability to read the emotions of others.
Investigators measured the improvement in empathic accuracy by behavioral testing of study participants and through functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans of brain activity.
“It’s an intriguing result, suggesting that a behavioral intervention could enhance a key aspect of empathy,” said lead author Jennifer Mascaro.
“Previous research has shown that both children and adults who are better at reading the emotional expressions of others have better relationships.”
The meditation protocol, known as Cognitively-Based Compassion Training, or CBCT, was developed at Emory University by study co-author Lobsang Tenzin Negi, director of the Emory-Tibet Partnership. Although the meditation program was derived from ancient Tibetan Buddhist practices, the CBCT program is secular in content and presentation.
The compassionate based meditation practice is different from “mindfulness meditation” in which practitioners seek to improve their ability to concentrate and to be non-judgmentally aware of their thoughts and feelings.
While CBCT includes these mindfulness elements, the practice focuses more specifically on training people to analyze and reinterpret their relationships with others.
“The idea is that the feelings we have about people can be trained in optimal ways,” Negi said. “CBCT aims to condition one’s mind to recognize how we are all inter-dependent, and that everybody desires to be happy and free from suffering at a deep level.”
In the study, 13 healthy adults without prior meditation experience were randomly assigned to either a CBCT group or a control group in which subjects did not meditate. The control group completed health discussion classes that covered mind-body subjects like the effects of exercise and stress on well-being.
To test empathic accuracy before and following CBCT, all participants received fMRI brain scans while completing a modified version of the Reading the Mind in the Eyes Test (RMET).
The RMET consists of black-and-white photographs that show just the eye region of people making various expressions. Those being tested must judge what the person in the photograph is thinking or feeling.
Eight out of the 13 participants in the CBCT meditation group improved their RMET scores by an average of 4.6 percent, while the control participants showed no increase, and in the majority of cases, a decrease in correct answers for the RMET.
fMRI evaluation showed that the CBCT group had significant increases in neural activity in areas of the brain important for empathy, including the inferior frontal gyrus and dorsomedial prefrontal cortex.
Researchers believe these changes in brain activity accounted for changes in the empathic accuracy scores of the participants.
“These findings raise the intriguing possibility that CBCT may have enhanced empathic abilities by increasing activity in parts of the brain that are of central importance for our ability to recognize the emotional states of others,” Raison said.
“An important next step will be to evaluate the effects of CBCT on diverse populations that may particularly benefit from enhanced empathic accuracy, such as those suffering from high-functioning autism or severe depression.”
Researchers believe the study findings support and contribute to a growing body of knowledge that indicates a CBCT style of meditation may have physical and emotional effects relevant to health and well-being.
For example, previous research at Emory found that practicing CBCT reduced emotional distress and enhanced physical resilience in response to stress in both healthy young adults and in high-risk adolescents in foster care.
The study is published in the journal Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience.
Source: Emory University