In a number of religious traditions, it is believed that meditation can improve compassion. Now, a study in the journal Psychological Science finds hard evidence to back that claim.
Recent research has already suggested meditation can help individuals lower stress and ease physical disorders such as hypertension or arthritis. The new study extends those beneficial effects to interpersonal harmony and compassion.
Researchers from Northeastern and Harvard universities, led by David DeSteno, Ph.D., invited participants to complete eight-week trainings in two types of meditation. After the sessions, they were put to a test.
For the study, researchers placed two actors in a staged waiting room consisting of three chairs. With one empty chair left, research participants sat down and waited to be called.
Another actor using crutches and appearing to be in great physical pain, would then enter the room. As she did, the actors in the chair would ignore her by fiddling with their phones or opening a book.
The question DeSteno and Paul Condon — a graduate student in DeSteno’s lab who led the study — and their team wanted to answer was whether the subjects who took part in the meditation classes would be more likely to come to the aid of the person in pain, even in the face of everyone else ignoring her.
“We know meditation improves a person’s own physical and psychological well-being,” said Condon. “We wanted to know whether it actually increases compassionate behavior.”
Among the non-meditating participants, only about 15 percent of people acted to help. But among the participants who were in the meditation sessions “we were able to boost that up to 50 percent,” said DeSteno.
This result was true for both meditation groups, showing the effect to be consistent across different forms of meditation.
“The truly surprising aspect of this finding is that meditation made people willing to act virtuous — to help another who was suffering – even in the face of a norm not to do so,” DeSteno said, “The fact that the other actors were ignoring the pain creates as ‘bystander-effect’ that normally tends to reduce helping. People often wonder ‘Why should I help someone if no one else is?’”
Researchers believe the results support Buddhist theology — that meditation will lead you to experience more compassion and love for all sentient beings. But even for non-Buddhists, the findings offer scientific proof for meditation techniques to alter the calculus of the moral mind.
Source: Northeastern University