A new study shows that adults can be trained to be more compassionate — and in a relatively short time.
Researchers at the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds at the University of Wisconsin-Madison say that the seven-hour training resulted in greater altruistic behavior, as well as changes in neural systems underlying compassion.
“Our fundamental question was, ‘Can compassion be trained and learned in adults? Can we become more caring if we practice that mindset?’” said Helen Weng, a graduate student in clinical psychology and lead author of the paper. “Our evidence points to yes.”
In the study, the researchers trained young adults in compassion meditation, an ancient Buddhist technique to increase caring feelings for people who are suffering.
Participants were asked to envision a time when someone has suffered and then practice wishing that the suffering was relieved. They repeated phrases to help them focus, such as, “May you be free from suffering. May you have joy and ease.”
The participants practiced with different categories of people, first starting with a loved one, such as a friend or family member who they easily felt compassion for.
Next they practiced compassion on themselves, then on a stranger. Lastly, they were asked to practice compassion for a “difficult person,” someone they actively had trouble with, such as a coworker or roommate.
“It’s kind of like weight training,” Weng said. “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 compassion training was compared to a control group that learned cognitive reappraisal, a technique where people learn to reframe their thoughts to feel less negative, the researcher explained. Both groups listened to guided audio instructions over the Internet for 30 minutes a day for two weeks.
“We wanted to investigate whether people could begin to change their emotional habits in a relatively short period of time,” she said.
According to Weng, the real test of the success of compassion training was to see if people would be willing to be more altruistic — even helping people they had never met.
The researchers tested this by asking the participants to play the “Redistribution Game,” in which they were given the opportunity to spend their own money to help someone in need.
The game was played over the Internet with two anonymous players: The “Dictator” and the “Victim.” The participants watched as the Dictator shared only $1 out of $10 with the Victim. They then were asked how much of their own money they would spend 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 said.
The researchers also wanted to see what changed inside the brains of people who gave more to someone in need.
They measured changes in brain responses using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) before and after training.
In the MRI scanner, participants viewed images depicting human suffering, such as a crying child or a burn victim, and then were asked to generate feelings of compassion towards these people using their newly-learned skills.
The control group was exposed to the same images, and asked to recast them in a more positive light.
When the researchers measured how much brain activity had changed from the beginning to the end of the training, they found that the people who were the most altruistic after compassion training were the ones who showed the most brain changes when viewing human suffering.
Activity was increased in the inferior parietal cortex, a region involved in empathy and understanding others, researchers said.
Compassion training also increased activity in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and its communication with the nucleus accumbens. These brain regions are involved in emotion regulation and positive emotions.
“People seem to become more sensitive to other people’s suffering, but this is challenging emotionally,” Weng explained. “They learn to regulate their emotions so that they approach people’s suffering with caring and wanting to help rather than turning away.”
There are many possible applications of compassion training, according to Dr. Richard J. Davidson, founder and chair of the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds and senior author of the article.
“Compassion and kindness training in schools can help children learn to be attuned to their own emotions, as well as those of others, which may decrease bullying,” he said. “Compassion training also may benefit people who have social challenges such as social anxiety or antisocial behavior.”
Weng said she is also excited about how compassion training can help the general population.
“We studied the effects of this training with healthy participants, which demonstrated that this can help the average person,” she said.
“I would love for more people to access the training and try it for a week or two — what changes do they see in their own lives?”
Both compassion and reappraisal training are available on the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds’ website.
The study was published in the journal Psychological Science.
Source: University of Wisconsin-Madison