A recent study is shining positive light on how to nurture the human potential for kindness and compassion. Future applications could include helping kids to reduce school bullying or aiding people with antisocial behavior problems.
Compassion can be defined as caring enough for those who are suffering to do something to help. Researchers at the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds at the Waisman Center of the University of Wisconsin-Madison found that training adults in compassion through meditation resulted in more altruistic behavior and in changes to brain regions related to emotion.
“Our fundamental question was, ʻCan compassion be trained and learned in adults? Can we become more caring if we practice that mindset?ʼ” said Helen Weng, a graduate student in clinical psychology and lead author of the paper, in a University of Wisconsin-Madison press release. Study subjects in the compassion group learned the traditional Buddhist “loving-kindness” meditation, while control group members learned cognitive reappraisal, a technique to reframe thoughts more positively.
Subjects who experienced compassion training not only behaved more altruistically when choosing whether to help someone who had been treated unfairly; they also showed changes in brain activity (visible in MRI scans) when viewing images depicting human suffering.
“The fact that alterations in brain function were observed after just . . . 7 hours of training is remarkable,” said UW-Madison psychology and psychiatry professor Richard J. Davidson, founder and chair of the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds and senior author of the article. This finding suggests that loving-kindness meditation could be used in settings where more-compassionate behavior is encouraged, such as in schools.
To obtain a copy of the compassion and appraisal training methods used in the study, go to http://investigatinghealthyminds.org/compassion.html. The study appeared in Psychological Science (2013; doi: 10.1177/0956797612469537).