Train Your Brain to Be More Compassionate

Today’s article by guest writer Helen Weng…

(cc) Caleb Roenigk
(cc) Caleb Roenigk

With practice, it’s thought that compassion can be enhanced and this will increase the likelihood of a person exhibiting helping behavior—not only during the meditation practice, but out in the real world, when interacting with others. In a study my colleagues and I conducted at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Center for Investigating Healthy Minds (directed by Dr. Richard J. Davidson), participants were taught to generate compassion for different categories of people, including both those they love and “difficult” people in their lives. Doing these kinds of exercises is a little like weight training—the compassion “muscle” is strengthened by practicing with people of increasing difficulty, like increasing weights over time.

After only two weeks of online training, participants in our study who practiced compassion meditation every day behaved more altruistically towards strangers compared to another group taught to simply regulate or control their negative emotions. Not only that, the people who were the most altruistic after receiving compassion training also were the individuals who showed the largest changes in how their brains responded to images of suffering. These findings suggest that compassion is a trainable skill, and that practice can actually alter the way our brains perceive suffering and increase our actions to relieve that suffering.

We decided to give only seven hours of practice, in 30 minutes daily sessions for two weeks. We wanted to see if these people would change, both in exhibiting altruistic behavior and in the ways their brains responded to suffering. We recruited participants with no prior meditation experience and randomly assigned them to learn either compassion training or reappraisal training, which is an emotion regulation technique that asks people to re-interpret negative events to decrease negative emotions. Both groups trained for two weeks by listening to guided audio instructions over the Internet.

In the end, there was a correlation between brain activation changes and altruistic response. The participants who were the most altruistic playing the computer game showed the greatest changes in brain activation in response to suffering. In the most altruistic participants, activation increased in the inferior parietal cortex (a region of the brain involved in empathy and understanding others), in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (a region involved in emotional control), and in the nucleus accumbens (a region involved in rewarding emotions). This may reflect that compassion training increases detection of others’ suffering through neural circuitry involved in empathic resonance and sharing others’ experiences. It also suggests that these individuals may have been learning to change their emotional response to a more caring response for the person in need. The participants in the control group either showed no relationship between their brain responses and their altruistic behavior or a negative relationship.

To learn more, you can read the Fast Company article here.


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Snap 2014-10-26 at 17.12.55Helen Weng is a post-doctoral scholar at UCSF’s Osher Center for Integrative Medicine where she’s studying mind-body interventions and relational functioning. She completed her work as a doctoral student in clinical psychology in 2014, conducting research at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Center for Investigating Healthy Minds at the Waisman Center. Her research on compassion training was published in Psychological Science in May 2013 with coauthors Andrew S. Fox, Alexander J. Shackman, Diane E. Stodola, Jessica Z. K. Caldwell, Matthew C. Olson, and Richard J. Davidson. To learn more, visit Center for the Investigating Healthy Minds website.

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