Brain Training Could Make People More Compassionate
May 23, 2013

Brain Training Could Make People More Compassionate

redOrbit Staff & Wire Reports - Your Universe Online

People can actually become more compassionate and charitable with training, claim researchers from the University of Wisconsin-Madison´s Center for Investigating Healthy Minds.

Their report, which appears in the latest edition of the journal Psychological Science, investigates whether or not training an adult to be more caring can result in an increase in altruistic behavior as well as in associated changes in the brain´s neural systems underlying compassion, according to the researchers.

“Our fundamental question was, ℠Can compassion be trained and learned in adults? Can we become more caring if we practice that mindset?´ Our evidence points to yes,” Helen Weng, lead author of the study and a graduate student in clinical psychology at the university, said in a statement. “It´s kind of like weight training."

“Using this systematic approach, we found that people can actually build up their compassion ℠muscle´ and respond to others´ suffering with care and a desire to help,” she added. “We wanted to investigate whether people could begin to change their emotional habits in a relatively short period of time.”

As part of their research, Weng and her colleagues trained a group of young adults to engage in the ancient Buddhist technique of compassion meditation, which is designed to increase caring feelings for those who are suffering. During their meditations, the subjects were instructed to mentally picture a time when someone was going through difficult times, and then practiced wishing that his or her suffering was relieved by repeating compassionate phrases.

Each participant practiced with various different categories of people. They started with someone whom they could easily feel compassion for, such as a friend, family member, or significant other. Next, they practiced compassion for themselves, then for a stranger, and then finally for a troublesome individual with whom they had an underlying conflict, such as an annoying coworker or a bothersome roommate.

“Compassion training was compared to a control group that learned cognitive reappraisal, a technique where people learn to reframe their thoughts to feel less negative. Both groups listened to guided audio instructions over the Internet for 30 minutes per day for two weeks,” the university explained. “The real test of whether compassion could be trained was to see if people would be willing to be more altruistic — even helping people they had never met.”

To test that theory, Weng´s team asked the participants to play something known as the “Redistribution Game,” in which they were given the chance to spend their own money in response to someone who was in need. They played this game over the Internet with two anonymous players, one known as the Dictator and the other identified as the Victim. They watched as the Dictator shared just $1 out of $10 with the Victim, then were asked how much of their own $5 sum they would spend in order to equalize things and redistribute funds.

“We found that people trained in compassion were more likely to spend their own money altruistically to help someone who was treated unfairly than those who were trained in cognitive reappraisal. We wanted to see what changed inside the brains of people who gave more to someone in need. How are they responding to suffering differently now?” Weng said, adding that they measured those changes by taking functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) of the study participants both before and after the training process.

“In the MRI 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, and asked to recast them in a more positive light as in reappraisal,” the university explained. “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.”

They discovered an increased amount of activity in the inferior parietal cortex — a part of the brain which is involved in empathy and understanding other people. Furthermore, compassion training resulted in an increased amount of activity in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and the extent to which it communicated with the nucleus accumbens, regions of the brain associated with the emotion regulation process and positive emotions.

Weng´s team found that compassion is not something that is a fixed property, but can actually be enhanced through practice and training, much like physical fitness and academic aptitude.

Furthermore, according to Richard J. Davidson, senior author of the study and a professor of both psychology and psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin, positive changes in the brain´s function were observed after just seven hours of training — a phenomenon he dubs “remarkable.”

“There are many possible applications of this type of training,” added Davidson. “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.”