Have you ever wondered if someone with even the hardest exterior could learn sensitivity and love? A new study shows that we can be trained to feel compassion for others just like we learn many other skills.
Researchers at the University of Wiscons in Madison discovered human kindness is teachable, and what’s more – it can change how the brain works, making acts of kindness in others and ourselves more commonplace.
We’ve been told through the ages that we need to develop compassion for our fellow humans and other sentient creatures on this planet, but that emotional state has been difficult to pin down scientifically. Motivating altruistic behavior in people was a big puzzle – until now.
Researchers at the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds at the Waisman Center of the University of Wisconsin-Madison has proven that adults can be trained to be more compassionate. It is one of the first studies of its kind to prove that training given to adults in compassionate behavior results in more frequent bouts of altruistic behavior, and changes in our neural systems that address compassion do in fact transpire.
The full report is published online in the journal Psychological Science.
Helen Weng, a graduate student in clinical psychology and lead author of the paper answered a fundamental question about whether or not we can train compassion into people.
“Our evidence points to yes.”
In the study, the investigators trained young adults to engage in compassion meditation, an ancient Buddhist technique to increase feelings of empathy and compassion for people who are stressed and suffering.
Participants envisioned a time when someone has suffered and then practiced wishing that his or her suffering was relieved. They repeated phrases to help them focus on these compassionate feelings such as, “May you be free from suffering. May you have joy and ease.”
The participants in the study started with those that might be easiest to imagine being freed form their suffering – close family members, or a dear friend. They then practiced expanding these compassionate feelings to a complete stranger, and even themselves. Finally, they were trained how to extend these feelings to a ‘difficult person’ in their lives.
Weng explained the training:
“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.”
In addition to this training, the control group was also taught in learned cognitive reappraisal, a technique where people learn to reframe their thoughts to feel less negative. Additionally, they listened to guided instructions on how to do this over the Internet for 30 minutes a day for two weeks.
“We wanted to investigate whether people could begin to change their emotional habits in a relatively short period of time,” said Weng.
The true test of people’s enhanced altruistic behavior was conducted to see if they would be kind or compassionate to people they never met.
The research team then tested participants by asking them to play a game in which they were given the opportunity to spend their own money to respond to someone in need (called the “Redistribution Game”). They played the game over the Internet with two anonymous players, the “Dictator” and the “Victim.”
“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,” Weng explained. “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?”
The study measured changes in brain responses using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) before and after ‘compassion’ training. 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 conclusion researchers came to by looking at brain scans at the end of the training was that people were the most compassionate when viewing human suffering, and then actively sending empathy to those individuals.
The study abstract concluded:
“These results suggest that compassion can be cultivated with training and that greater altruistic behavior may emerge from increased engagement of neural systems implicated in understanding the suffering of other people, executive and emotional control, and reward processing.”
There was increased activity observed in the inferior parietal cortex, a region involved in empathy and understanding others. Compassion training also increased activity in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex. This activity was connected to better communication with the nucleus accumbens, brain regions involved in emotion regulation and positive emotions – so when people actively sought to lessen the suffering of others, they were rewarded neurologically.
“People seem to become more sensitive to other people’s suffering, but this is challenging emotionally. They learn to regulate their emotions so that they approach people’s suffering with caring and wanting to help rather than turning away. It’s kind of like weight training … we found that people can actually build up their compassion ‘muscle’ and respond to others’ suffering with care and a desire to help”
Want to try this out for yourself? Watch this short video now, and observe your own compassionate response. We can ‘learn’ to be more empathetic to others, and practicing random acts of kindness even rewards key brain centers so that we want to do it more often.