New study shows that training adults in a loving-kindness-style “compassion meditation” actually makes them significantly more altruistic toward others.
How to train the compassionate brain was an article from Mindful.org. A new study finds that training in compassion makes us more altruistic.
The first time I ever tried a loving-kindness meditation, I was
overcome by a feeling of complete… futility. Mentally extending
compassion to others and wishing them free from suffering seemed nice
enough, but I had a hard time believing that my idle thoughts could
increase kindness in the real world.
Turns out I was wrong.
A new study, just published online by Psychological Science,
shows that training adults in a loving-kindness-style “compassion
meditation” actually makes them significantly more altruistic toward
The study suggests not only that it’s possible to increase compassion
and altruism in the world, but that we can do so even through
relatively brief training.
What’s more, the study is the first to link these behavioral changes
with measurable changes in brain activity, shedding light on why
compassionate thoughts may actually lead to compassionate deeds. “We
really wanted to show that compassion is a skill that you can work on,
like exercise or learning a musical instrument,” says the study’s lead
author, Helen Weng, who is a graduate student at the University of
Wisconsin, Madison, where she’s affiliated with the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds.
Training to help
In the study, Weng and her colleagues gave participants one of two
trainings. In both trainings, the participants listened to a 30-minute
audio recording on their own once a day for just two weeks.
One was the compassion meditation. The compassion meditation gently
instructed the participants to extend feelings of compassion toward
different people, including themselves, a loved one, a casual
acquaintance, and someone with whom they’d had difficulty.
The researchers call the other audio recording a “reappraisal
training” because it involved recalling a stressful experience and
trying to think about it in a new, less upsetting way, such as by
considering it from another person’s point of view.
Before and immediately after each two-week training, all participants
had their brains scanned in an fMRI machine while they looked at a
series of images, some of which depicted people in pain, such as a burn
victim or a crying child.
Also immediately after the trainings, the participants played an
online game designed to measure their altruistic behavior. In the game,
they were given $5, another player was given $10, and a third player had
no money. (The other “players” were actually computer generated, but
the participants were led to believe they were real people.) Each study
participant first watched as the player with $10 was asked to share some
of his money but gave only $1 to the penniless player, who the
researchers refer to as the “victim.” The participant could then choose
to spend any amount of his $5; whatever he spent would have to be
doubled by the wealthy player and given to the victim. So if the
participant was willing to part with $2, the victim would receive $4
from the other player.
Would people who received the compassion training be more willing to spend their money in order to help a stranger in need?
They were—in fact, they spent nearly twice as much as people who received the reappraisal training, $1.14 vs. $0.62.
Changing the Brain
It’s important to note that, during the game, participants weren’t
instructed to think about anything they’d learned during their training.
Yet that brief daily meditation still seemed to have a strong
carry-over effect on their behavior.
“This demonstrates that purely mental training in compassion can
result in observable altruistic changes toward a victim,” the
researchers write in their paper, “even when individuals are not
explicitly cued to generate compassion.”
And these changes were also reflected in changes to brain activity.
Specifically, when compared with their brain activity before the
training, people who received the compassion training showed increased
activity in neural networks involved in understanding the suffering of
others, regulating emotions, and positive feelings in response to a
reward or goal.
The researchers saw similar brain changes in the reappraisal training
group, but that brain activity didn’t translate into altruistic
behavior. To explain this, the researchers propose how the interaction
between the training, brain activity, and behavior may have differed
between the two groups.
They point out that a heightened sensitivity to suffering causes
people to avoid that suffering because it doesn’t feel good; however,
because the compassion training also seemed to strengthen the brain’s
ability to regulate emotions, people may have been able to sense
suffering without feeling overwhelmed by it. Instead, the care for
others emphasized by the compassion training may have caused them to see
suffering not as a threat to their own well-being but as an opportunity
to reap the psychic rewards from achieving an important goal—namely,
connecting with someone else and making him feel better.
“When your goal is to help another person, then your reward system
will be activated when you’re meeting that goal,” says Weng. By
contrast, the reappraisal group’s goal was to decrease their own
negative emotions, making them less inclined to be altruistic when
confronted with someone else’s pain. “When you’re focused on decreasing
your own negative emotions,” she says, “I think that makes you less
focused on other people.”
Building on previous studies
This study follows prior research documenting the positive effects of other compassion training programs, such as the Compassion Cultivation Training developed at Stanford Univeristy and the Cognitively-Based Compassion Training out of Emory University. A study published earlier this year, also in Psychological Science, suggests that training in mindfulness meditation significantly increases compassionate behavior.
But this new study is noteworthy for several reasons. For one thing,
many of the previous studies have examined trainings that took several
hours a week for at least eight weeks; this study’s compassion training,
by contrast, took just a total of seven hours over two weeks.
Also, prior studies of compassion trainings have mostly looked at
their effects on brain activity, emotional well-being, or physical
health. But this is the first study to both examine “whether training in
compassion will make you more caring and helpful toward others,” says
Weng, and then document how “those changes in behavior are linked to
changes in neural and emotional responding to people suffering.”
Weng says she’s excited by the implication that people can develop
significantly more compassion and altruism, even outside of a training
like the one she helped to create.
“Our findings support the possibility that compassion and altruism
can be viewed as trainable skills rather than as stable traits,” she and
her co-authors write. “This lays the groundwork for future research to
explore whether compassion-related trainings can benefit fields that
depend on altruism and cooperation (e.g., medicine) as well as clinical
subgroups characterized by deficits in compassion, such as psychopaths.”
I was fortunate enough to have started Tai Chi a moving meditation at a very early age. Practising Tai Chi for over 25 years has allowed me to build a solid foundation to support the most important aspect of EQ development, which is attention training.
If you are interested in supporting yourself or helping the teams you
manage, the links below can help you learn more about EQ training.
- What is EQ?
- Emotional Intelligence Training Course
- Learn to meditate with the Just6 App
- Meditation and the Science
- 7 reasons that emotional intelligence is quickly becoming one of the top sought job skills
- The secret to a high salary Emotional intelligence
- How to bring mindfulness into your employee wellness program
- Google ’Search Inside Yourself’