Compassion and altruism—like athletic and academic skills—appear to be traits that are not fixed. Researchers have confirmed that both compassion and altruism can be cultivated with training and practice. The enhancement of compassion through loving kindness meditation creates changes in brain structure linked to increased altruistic behavior. A new study 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. The report, published by Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, found that training adults in compassion can result in greater altruistic behavior and related changes in neural systems underlying compassion.
Compassion Can Be Cultivated
The fundamental question was, 'Can compassion be trained and learned in adults? Can we become more caring if we practice that mindset?’. The evidence points to yes.
In the study, the investigators trained young adults to engage in compassion meditation using a traditional Buddhist technique of meditation that includes methods designed to develop loving kindness and compassion for oneself and for others.
To increase caring feelings for people who are suffering the compassion meditation participants were trained to increase feelings of sympathy and altruism for people who are suffering by envisioning 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 in the study practiced focused compassion towards four different categories of people. First, they focused on sending compassionate thoughts to a loved one or someone whom they easily felt compassion for, like a friend or family member. Secondly, they practiced compassion and forgiveness towards themselves. Thirdly, they focused on a random stranger or group of people who was suffering. Lastly, they practiced compassion for someone they had a conflict with or would consider a difficult person.
Compassion Training Reshapes the Brain
The study showed changes in brain structure of compassion meditation participants. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) before and after training. In the fMRI scanner, participants viewed images depicting human suffering, such as a crying child or a burn victim, and generated feelings of compassion towards the people using their practiced skills. The control group was exposed to the same images in the fMRI, and were asked to recast the images in a more positive light using cognitive reappraisal.
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 when viewing human suffering. In particular, they found that activity was increased in the inferior parietal cortex, a region involved in empathy and understanding others.
Compassion training also increased activity in the prefrontal cortex and the extent to which it communicated with the nucleus accumbens, brain regions involved in emotion regulation and positive emotions
Previous research studies have shown the link between various types of meditation and changes in brain structure. This study confirms the universal potential to cultivate compassion and altruism at any age. This research shows how compassion can transform people's lives.
The research shows that there are many possible applications of this type of training. 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.