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Brain Can Learn to be Compassionate, Study Reports

Update Date: May 23, 2013 11:43 AM EDT

Compassion is an emotion that is linked to empathy and altruism. People who are generally less compassionate exhibit behaviors that could be considered cold and unsympathetic. In a new study, researchers aimed to answer the question of whether or not compassion could be taught. The researchers from the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds at the Waisman Center of the University of Wisconsin-Madison discovered that the brain is capable of learning how to be more compassionate.

"Our fundamental question was, 'Can compassion be trained and learned in adults? Can we become more caring if we practice that mindset?" Helen Weng, the study's lead author and a graduate student in clinical psychology, said. "Our evidence points to yes."

The research team recruited young adults and trained some of them in compassionate meditation, which is an ancient Buddhist technique that helps people learn how to care for others that are suffering. The other group that acted as the control group was trained in cognitive reappraisal, which trained the brain to avoid negative thoughts. The Buddhist technique requires the individual to remember a time when someone they knew was suffering, and in that situation, the individual was required to want and wish that the other person found relief. The people trained in this technique were first required to envision a loved one suffering, then a friend, a stranger, and finally, someone they disliked. They repeated phrases, such as 'may you have joy and ease,' to improve their feelings of compassion.

The two groups were placed in a setting where the researchers could measure whether or not compassion led to more altruistic behaviors. The participants played a game that would require them to spend their own money for another person in need. The individual was able to decide whether or not he/she wanted to share money after watching a dictator player share an unfair amount with a victim player. The game, titled the Redistribution game" took place on a computer.  

"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 were trained in cognitive reappraisal," Weng said, reported by Medical Xpress. "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."

The researchers measured brain responses with functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) before and after the training. During the imaging process, the participants were presented with images of human suffering. The researchers discovered that people who became more altruistic after the training also had more brain changes, specifically in the inferior parietal cortex, which is a part of the brain that is responsible for empathy.

The findings were published in Psychological Science.

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