[Ed. note: YGSSOY is back from vacation, and kicking things off with a guest post from friend and neuroscientist Wendy Hasenkamp. Her topic: the science of compassion meditation.]
We’re living in an unusual age. Our lives are speeding up to keep pace with technology, leading to increased work and social demands. At the same time, the world is becoming ever smaller, and we face the twin benefits and challenges of rubbing elbows with cultures across the globe. Not only are we bombarded continuously by the 24-hour news circuit with stories of war, tragedy and human suffering, but we are also more interconnected with people at home and abroad, some of whom hold vastly different worldviews from our own, leading to potential conflict. The need for connection, kindness and understanding is clear, but it’s hard to remain open and caring when we feel buried by the stresses of daily life. How can we live wisely in the midst of these modern pressures?
One response is offered by a tradition that is thousands of years old, thought it may be more relevant now than ever — compassion meditation. Adapted from Buddhist practices originating in southeast Asia, this set of mental practices begins by stabilizing attention (similar to mindfulness meditation), but it also goes further.
Compassion meditation, as the name suggests, is specifically intended to generate a state of compassion in the practitioner — the feeling of understanding another’s suffering and being motivated to help. The practices are based on the idea that at a fundamental level, all people are similar — we all want to be happy, and to avoid pain and suffering. Once this concept is truly embraced, barriers come crumbling down, and new responses can emerge. Through numerous mental practices, compassion meditation aims to familiarize us with the nature of suffering we all experience, and motivate us to help alleviate that suffering. By repeatedly cultivating this state of compassion, the hope is that the practitioner will form new “mental habits” and demonstrate greater compassionate responses in daily life.
So, does it work? Thousands of years of Buddhist tradition says yes, and now science is examining this process through its own lens. The study of compassion meditation is still in its infancy, but initial findings are intriguing, pointing to possible effects that range from changing our brains to impacting our behavior.
Humans are incredibly social animals. And our brains, it turns out, are wired for interacting with others. Faced with the pain of someone else, two important responses have been studied: empathy and compassion. While they may sound similar, there is actually an important distinction between the two: empathy involves feeling the same emotional state as another person, while compassion involves a feeling of closeness and love for another, and a desire to act to alleviate another’s pain. It’s a subtle, but important difference.
Recent work at the University of Zurich is showing how these mental states are related to distinct neural networks, and associated with different emotional outcomes. To study this, researchers set up two training groups. A control group attended two six-hour workshops designed to improve short-term memory, while another group attended two six-hour workshops on emotional responding — the first trained empathy, and the second trained compassion.
After the first workshop (memory vs. empathy), researchers measured the brain activity of participants while they watched videos of people in distress. In participants trained in empathy, the brain areas that lit up corresponded to a well-known network for processing pain — our own and that of others — that has been associated with empathy. These people also reported a high degree of negative emotion during the videos. This is a natural response; even those not trained in empathy show similar brain activation to the sight of people in distress.
Next, the group trained in empathy underwent their second workshop — this time in compassion meditation, while the control group continued to train in memory techniques. A few days later, researchers showed the participants similar distressing videos, and again examined brain activity to see if anything had changed. Compared to those trained in memory, the brain activity in people who learned compassion meditation shifted from the pain network to a network related to love, affiliation, and positive emotion. In addition, those people now reported feeling much more positively while watching the videos than after the empathy training.
In an interesting confirmation, the brain areas activated after compassion instruction line up very well with the neural activation patterns in a Buddhist monk highly trained in compassion (who, incidentally, is often referred to as the “happiest man alive“).
These results are impressive. After just a few hours of training in compassion, people’s brains showed changes that indicated more loving responses. Such rapid neural changes are also being reported by other groups studying meditation, suggesting that our brain circuitry is more malleable than previously thought.
These neuroscientific studies highlight the important difference between merely having empathy, which can lead to negative emotions and even feelings of helplessness and burnout, versus compassion, which is rooted in loving, affiliative, positive feelings, and fosters a motivation to help. When faced with intense suffering, these findings could have major implications for strategies to overcome empathic distress and strengthen resilience, not to mention promoting helpful action.
While brain changes like these are exciting, the goal of compassion meditation is actually to change the way we live — to change behavior. A few studies have examined these kinds of outcomes by measuring people’s responses in socially based tests.
One study tested people’s ability to infer others’ emotions by looking only at their eyes. Compared to a control group trained in healthy living, those trained in compassion were more likely to improve their accuracy on the test, indicating they were better able to judge the emotions of other people based on subtle cues. In addition, the improvement in scores correlated with increased brain activity in frontal cortical regions known to be involved in empathic accuracy, suggesting neural underpinnings of this change.
Another group used a newly developed video game that tested to see whether players would voluntarily help other unknown players on their way through a maze to reach a monetary reward, at varying degrees of cost to themselves, as well as reciprocity conditions. The study found that helping behavior increased in participants who had received one day of compassion training, but not in participants who had received one day of memory training. Among participants trained in compassion, those who had meditated more outside of the workshop showed greater helping behavior in the least likely scenarios — when it was not possible for the help to be reciprocated. This suggests that even a short training in compassionate motivation could lead to increases in prosocial behavior.
Measuring changes in the lab is one thing, but what about our daily lives? Can compassion meditation change the way we relate to others in the real world?
One recent study used a clever setup to examine this, and found striking results.
Researchers at Northeastern University provided training in both mindfulness and compassion to a group of healthy volunteers over eight weeks, and compared real-world responses to a group of waitlisted participants. In the experiment, a participant would arrive at the lab to take post-training assessments of cognitive function, but be required to wait with others in a room where only one chair sat empty. Unbeknownst to the participant, the scene was actually staged. The real test was: When a woman arrived on crutches, visibly in pain, would the participant give up his or her seat?
Amazingly, the study found that those who had trained in meditation were five times more likely to give up their seat to the woman on crutches than those who had not practiced meditation. This is even more impressive considering the bystander effect — none of the other people in the waiting room offered their seats, setting up a social norm to remain seated and ignore the woman in need. That’s a remarkable effect on real life behavior.
In today’s barrage of text messages, emails, tweets and calendar reminders, I’m excited by the promise these ancient mental “technologies” offer us. Science is showing that we can change the way we relate to others, as well as ourselves, through intentional mind training like meditation.
In a world where the sources of stress seem to just keep piling on, we need all the compassion we can get — for a more harmonious world, and for our own well being.
The Dalai Lama has said, “If you want to make others happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.” Amid the whirlwind of increasing complexity that is our modern life, maybe it really is that simple.
Wendy Hasenkamp, PhD, serves as Senior Scientific Officer at The Mind & Life Institute in Hadley, MA. As a neuroscientist and a contemplative practitioner, she is interested in understanding how subjective experience is represented in the brain, and how the mind and brain can be transformed through experience and practice to enhance flourishing. Her research examines the neural correlates of meditation, with a focus on the shifts between mind wandering and attention. She has also contributed to neuroscience curriculum development, teaching and textbook creation for the Emory Tibet Science Initiative, which aims to integrate science into the Tibetan monastic education system in India.