Neuroscience Shows How Training In Compassion Meditation Makes Us More Altruistic
Many people might be skeptical to think that we can make the world a better place by practicing what is known as “loving-kindness meditation.” How could sitting in a meditative position and extending feelings of compassion to others, wishing them free from suffering, and sending positive thoughts and energy their way possibly work? Well, a new study recently published by Psychological Science proves that it is not only possible, it is profoundly effective. The following is an excerpt from a story posted by the team at The Greater Good Science Center: Science For A Meaningful Life:
“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 others. 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.
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.'”