Many of us know that if we want to become more physically healthy, we can exercise. What if we want to improve our emotional health? Are there ways to train emotional "muscles" such as compassion? Would such training improve our lives?
Compassion meditation is an ancient contemplative practice to strengthen feelings of compassion towards different kinds of people. The feeling of compassion itself is the emotional response of caring and wanting to help when encountering a person’s suffering.
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.
When we embarked on our study several years ago, earlier research had shown that expert compassion meditation practitioners who have accumulated over 10,000 hours of practice show greater neural responses to suffering compared to control participants. We also wondered, what about people like you and me? Can people from the general population also cultivate compassion with much less practice?
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 30-minute guided compassion meditation, participants practiced compassion for themselves, a loved one, a stranger, and a difficult person in their lives (see full script here). Participants were told to observe the thoughts and feelings that arise as they imagine a time that each person has suffered. The goal is to give participants practice at tolerating their reactions, rather than avoiding them or getting too wrapped up in them. The next part involves actively wishing others compassion—or wishing their suffering is relieved. Participants repeated phrases such as, "May you be free from suffering. May you have joy and ease." They were instructed to pay attention to sensations in the body, particularly around the heart (this is called "interoception").
In the session, the compassion we feel for the loved one is used as a kind of home base to then attempt to extend similar levels of compassion to the other people. It’s rare in our everyday lives that we truly contemplate the suffering of strangers or of people we may dislike.
The real test of whether compassion could be learned was if people would behave more altruistically towards strangers, by doing things like spending their own money to help people they had never met. After the trainings, participants played an economic exchange game in which they had the opportunity to spend their own money to help an anonymous person in need. After only the seven hours of practice, people who trained in compassion behaved more generously compared to the other group.
Importantly, these differences in altruistic behavior were also linked to physical changes in the brain. We scanned the participants with functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) both before and after meditation training. In the scanner, they viewed pictures of people suffering (such as seeing a crying child or a person with a physical injury) and employed their assigned training strategy. The compassion group generated feelings of compassion while silently repeating the phrases they learned, such as, "May you be free from suffering. May you have joy and ease." The reappraisal group used their training to re-interpret the meaning of the images to decrease negative emotions, such as saying to themselves, "This person will make a full recovery from the injury."
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.
These findings provide early evidence that compassion is a trainable skill rather than a stable trait. This work could be applied to many settings where improved relationships and communication can be beneficial including health care, education, and business.
After the experiment, we’ve made these trainings available for free to the general public. As of April 2014, over 3,700 people have downloaded the compassion meditation training in over 60 countries (see map above).
People from the general population have reported beneficial effects such as, "I feel after practicing compassion meditation, I can monitor my emotions better. I can sympathize with other people better and I get upset with them less often." People also felt better about themselves. One person said: "After compassion training, I feel far greater kindness and self-acceptance towards myself. The harsh self-critic is gradually unraveling." Some struggled, especially with the difficult person in their lives. That’s to be expected, and it may be helpful to consult therapists, teachers, or mentors to help navigate them.
We hope that by providing the public with scientific knowledge and tools, people can be empowered to make changes that can benefit themselves and their communities. To try the trainings, visit the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds website.