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The brain and compassion

Did you know that the brain can be trained to show compassion to others? Until recently, little has been scientifically known about the human potential to cultivate compassion. Compassion is the emotional state of caring for people who are suffering in a way that motivates altruistic behavior.

A new study performed by researchers at the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds at the Waisman Center of the University of Wisconsin-Madison shows that adults can be trained to be more compassionate. This study published in the Journal of Psychological Science, investigated whether training adults in compassion can result in greater altruistic behavior and related changes in neural systems underlying compassion. The answer is yes.

In the study, the investigators trained young adults to engage in compassion meditation, an ancient Buddhist technique, to increase caring feelings for people who are suffering. In the meditation, participants envisioned a time when someone has suffered and then practiced wishing that his or her 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.”

Participants practiced with different categories of people, first starting with a loved one, someone whom they easily felt compassion for, like a friend or family member. Then, they practiced compassion for themselves and, then, a stranger. Finally, they practiced compassion for someone they actively had conflict with called the “difficult person,” such as a troublesome coworker or roommate.

According to the researchers, they found that people can actually build up their compassion and respond to anyone who is suffering with care and a desire to help.

The real test of whether compassion could be trained was to see if people would be willing to be more altruistic — even helping people they had never met. 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. Researchers found that people trained in compassion were more likely to spend their own money altruistically to help someone who was treated unfairly.

To verify modifications in participant’s compassionate responses due to learned behavior, the study measured changes in brain responses using functional magnetic resonance imaging before and after training. In the MRI scanner, participants viewed images depicting human suffering, such as a crying child or a burn victim, and generated feelings of compassion toward the people using their practiced skills. The researchers measured how much brain activity had changed from the beginning to the end of the training, and found that the people who were the most altruistic after compassion training were the ones who showed the most brain changes in the appropriate locations when viewing human suffering. People seem to become more sensitive to other people’s suffering, but this is challenging emotionally.

Compassion, like physical and academic skills, appears to be something that is not fixed, but rather can be enhanced with training and practice. “The fact that alterations in brain function were observed after just a total of seven hours of training is remarkable,” explains UW-Madison psychology and psychiatry professor Richard J. Davidson, founder and chair of the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds and senior author of the study.

According to Davidson, the practical applications are far reaching. 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. Compassion training also may benefit people who have social challenges such as social anxiety or antisocial behavior.

Ultimately, people from the general population could benefit from this training.

Bill Chevalier lives in Peterborough.

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