Can compassion be trained like a muscle? Behavioral and neural evidence for the cultivation of compassion

Helen Weng, Andrew Fox, Alexander Shackman, Diane Stodola, Jessica Caldwell, Matthew Olson, Gregory Rogers, and Richard J. Davidson, University of Wisconsin-Madison             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?  My colleagues and I found that after only two weeks of online training, participants who practiced compassion meditation every day behaved more altruistically towards strangers compared to a comparison group taught an emotion regulation strategy derived from cognitive therapy. In addition, the people taught compassion who were the most altruistic showed the most changes in the way their brains responded to images of people 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.               Compassion is an emotional response of caring and wanting to help when encountering another person’s suffering, and compassion meditation is an ancient contemplative practice to strengthen feelings of compassion towards different kinds of people.  With practice, it is thought that compassion can be enhanced and this will increase the likelihood of helping behavior – not only during the meditation practice, but out in the real world when interacting with others.  In this study, participants were taught to generate compassion for a variety of people including someone they love, themselves, a stranger, and someone they actively had conflict with (a “difficult personâ€).  This can be compared to weight training, where the compassion “muscle†is strengthened by practicing with people of increasing difficulty, like increasing weights over time.               Research has shown that expert compassion meditation practitioners (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 only 7 hours (30 minutes daily for two weeks) of practice?  Can these people change in both altruistic behavior and the way their brains respond to suffering?  We recruited participants with no prior meditation experience and randomly assigned them to learn compassion training or reappraisal training (an emotion regulation technique to re-interpret negative events to decrease negative emotions).  Both groups trained for two weeks by listening to guided audio instructions over the Internet.               The real test of whether compassion could be trained was to see if people would be willing to be more altruistic towards strangers — spending their own money to help people they had never met. After l  earning the training, participants played an economic exchange game where 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.  They watched as one player (called the “Dictatorâ€) shared an unfair amount of money (only $1 out of $10) with the other player (called the “Victimâ€). They then decided how much of their own money to spend (out of $5) in order to equalize the unfair split and redistribute funds from the Dictator to the Victim.  We found that after only 7 hours of practice, people who trained in compassion behaved more generously towards the Victim compared to those trained in reappraisal.  Importantly, behavioral changes occurred with even short amounts of practice!             We then asked whether changes in altruistic behavior could be associated with changes in the way the brain responds to human suffering.  To assess changes in functional brain activation, participants were scanned with functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) both before and after training.  In the scanner, they viewed pictures of people suffering (such as seeing a crying child or a physical injury) and employed their assigned training strategy.  The compassion group generated feelings of compassion while silently repeating phrases such as, “May you be free from suffering.  May you have joy and ease.â€Â  The reappraisal group re-interpreted the meaning of the images to decrease negative emotions (e.g., “This person will make a full recovery from the injury.â€)  Changes in brain activation were correlated with variation in altruistic responses, and we found that the compassion participants who were the most altruistic towards the Victim were the ones who showed the greatest changes in brain activation towards suffering.  In other words, the more participants changed in the way their brains responded to suffering after practicing compassion, the more likely they were able to help a stranger in need.             In the most altruistic participants, activation was increased in the inferior parietal cortex (IPC), a region involved in empathy and understanding others.  This may reflect that compassion training increases detection of others’ suffering through neural circuitry involved in empathic resonance and sharing others’ experiences.  This increased detection of suffering may provide an emotion regulation challenge to respond with caring and helping (as opposed to feeling aversion, disgust, fear etc.).  We investigated whether the IPC was communicating with regions involved in emotion regulation.  We found that the most altruistic participants who showed the greatest IPC changes also showed the greatest changes in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC), a region implicated in emotion regulation and cognitive control.  Finally, through connectivity analyses, we also found that the most altruistic participants showed the greatest communication between the DLPFC and the nucleus accumbens, a region implicated in positive emotions and reward processing.  Compassion training may therefore transform neural responses to human suffering by increasing detection of suffering, and emotion regulation circuitry to enhance the reward value of caring for others’ suffering.  These emotional changes may then subsequently lead to greater motivation to help those who are suffering.

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Can compassion be trained like a muscle? Behavioral and neural evidence for the cultivation of compassion

Helen Weng, Andrew Fox, Alexander Shackman, Diane Stodola, Jessica Caldwell, Matthew Olson, Gregory Rogers, and Richard J. Davidson, University of Wisconsin-Madison             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?  My colleagues and I found that after only two weeks of online training, participants who practiced compassion meditation every day behaved more altruistically towards strangers compared to a comparison group taught an emotion regulation strategy derived from cognitive therapy. In addition, the people taught compassion who were the most altruistic showed the most changes in the way their brains responded to images of people 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.               Compassion is an emotional response of caring and wanting to help when encountering another person’s suffering, and compassion meditation is an ancient contemplative practice to strengthen feelings of compassion towards different kinds of people.  With practice, it is thought that compassion can be enhanced and this will increase the likelihood of helping behavior – not only during the meditation practice, but out in the real world when interacting with others.  In this study, participants were taught to generate compassion for a variety of people including someone they love, themselves, a stranger, and someone they actively had conflict with (a “difficult personâ€).  This can be compared to weight training, where the compassion “muscle†is strengthened by practicing with people of increasing difficulty, like increasing weights over time.               Research has shown that expert compassion meditation practitioners (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 only 7 hours (30 minutes daily for two weeks) of practice?  Can these people change in both altruistic behavior and the way their brains respond to suffering?  We recruited participants with no prior meditation experience and randomly assigned them to learn compassion training or reappraisal training (an emotion regulation technique to re-interpret negative events to decrease negative emotions).  Both groups trained for two weeks by listening to guided audio instructions over the Internet.               The real test of whether compassion could be trained was to see if people would be willing to be more altruistic towards strangers — spending their own money to help people they had never met. After l  earning the training, participants played an economic exchange game where 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.  They watched as one player (called the “Dictatorâ€) shared an unfair amount of money (only $1 out of $10) with the other player (called the “Victimâ€). They then decided how much of their own money to spend (out of $5) in order to equalize the unfair split and redistribute funds from the Dictator to the Victim.  We found that after only 7 hours of practice, people who trained in compassion behaved more generously towards the Victim compared to those trained in reappraisal.  Importantly, behavioral changes occurred with even short amounts of practice!             We then asked whether changes in altruistic behavior could be associated with changes in the way the brain responds to human suffering.  To assess changes in functional brain activation, participants were scanned with functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) both before and after training.  In the scanner, they viewed pictures of people suffering (such as seeing a crying child or a physical injury) and employed their assigned training strategy.  The compassion group generated feelings of compassion while silently repeating phrases such as, “May you be free from suffering.  May you have joy and ease.â€Â  The reappraisal group re-interpreted the meaning of the images to decrease negative emotions (e.g., “This person will make a full recovery from the injury.â€)  Changes in brain activation were correlated with variation in altruistic responses, and we found that the compassion participants who were the most altruistic towards the Victim were the ones who showed the greatest changes in brain activation towards suffering.  In other words, the more participants changed in the way their brains responded to suffering after practicing compassion, the more likely they were able to help a stranger in need.             In the most altruistic participants, activation was increased in the inferior parietal cortex (IPC), a region involved in empathy and understanding others.  This may reflect that compassion training increases detection of others’ suffering through neural circuitry involved in empathic resonance and sharing others’ experiences.  This increased detection of suffering may provide an emotion regulation challenge to respond with caring and helping (as opposed to feeling aversion, disgust, fear etc.).  We investigated whether the IPC was communicating with regions involved in emotion regulation.  We found that the most altruistic participants who showed the greatest IPC changes also showed the greatest changes in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC), a region implicated in emotion regulation and cognitive control.  Finally, through connectivity analyses, we also found that the most altruistic participants showed the greatest communication between the DLPFC and the nucleus accumbens, a region implicated in positive emotions and reward processing.  Compassion training may therefore transform neural responses to human suffering by increasing detection of suffering, and emotion regulation circuitry to enhance the reward value of caring for others’ suffering.  These emotional changes may then subsequently lead to greater motivation to help those who are suffering.

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