Can you train your brain to be more compassionate?

We found changes in regions associated with empathy, emotion regulation and reward processing.

Helen Weng
17 June 2015

It takes strength to be gentle and kind. Credit: Shutterstock.

At high school, I was of the only racial minorities. I was bullied for this, leaving me feeling disconnected and isolated. To cope, I became obsessed with sad music like The Smiths, who were one of my favourite bands. 

One Morrissey lyric became a mantra for me: “It's so easy to laugh. It's so easy to hate. It takes strength to be gentle and kind.”

Through music, I found a framework in which to feel and hold my pain. I listened in a meditative way until the feelings of sadness and pain turned into connection, beauty, and ultimately joy. 

I had a choice in how to respond to teasing. I could choose kindness and compassion, for myself and others. I could try to connect to the harassers in a genuine way rather than slinging words back, and I could comfort myself instead of repeating the cycle of shame and dehumanization.

One word I used to label the space I had found was transformation, another word was compassion. Reading books on Buddhist philosophy, I learned compassion could be trained, that we could become more connected to others and that this would lead to greater well-being.

Compassion is an emotional response to someone's suffering that is caring and concerned. It leads to a desire to relieve that person's suffering. This is not always a natural response. People can have a variety of responses to others' suffering – avoidance, fear, discomfort, sometimes even enjoyment. 

But can compassion be learned through practice?

As a graduate student I designed and conducted a study testing this exact hypothesis: that we can become more compassionate through practicing meditation, and that this will result in more kind acts towards others. I hypothesized this wouldn't take extreme amounts of practice. 

As part of the study, people from the Madison, Wisconsin community practiced just 30 minutes a day for two weeks, like a new exercise regime.

Guided by an online meditation, the participants practiced compassion for different kinds of people: a loved one, themselves, a stranger, and someone they actually had conflict with: the “difficult” person. They practiced imagining a time when each person had suffered, and noticed the emotions that arose and what it felt like in their bodies. They were instructed to “sit” with the feelings, and notice them non-judgmentally.

They then practiced wishing that the other person's suffering was relieved, and repeated compassion-generating phrases such as, “May you be free from suffering. May you have joy and ease.”

The control group learned a technique called cognitive reappraisal, where they practiced thinking about a stressful situation in a new way to decrease negative emotional responses. They used techniques such as thinking about the situation from a friend or family member's perspective, imagining a year had passed with everything going well, and coming up with a way to reinterpret the situation. This is one of the core skills of cognitive behavioral therapy, which is found to be effective with many types of mental health issues such as depression and anxiety. 

We tested our hypothesis – that practicing compassion through meditation would result in more helping behaviour in real life - by having participants consent to a separate study where they play an economic exchange game with strangers over the Internet. In the Redistribution Game, participants witnessed an unfair economic exchange between two players, and had the opportunity to spend their own money to redistribute money from the unfair player to the player with less money. 

After practicing compassion meditation for just two weeks, the participants ended up spending almost twice the amount of money compared to the control group (a statistically significant difference). Practicing compassion in their minds actually resulted in more altruistic behavior towards a stranger.

We wanted to see what emotional changes in the brain contributed to the changes in altruistic behavior. We scanned the participants’ brains using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), and had them view images of others suffering (physical injury, emotional pain) before and after the two weeks of training. The compassion group was asked to generate compassion towards the people in the images, and the reappraisal group was asked to reinterpret the meaning of the pictures to decrease negative emotions. We found that in the compassion group, the more they spent in the Redistribution Game, the more their brain activity had changed in response to people's suffering. Changing their minds internally had indeed changed the outside world.

We found changes in regions associated with empathy, emotion regulation and reward processing. One region that changed was the inferior parietal cortex, which is associated with the “mirror neuron network”, and activated in response to your own experiences as well as others'.

This suggests that through learning compassion, people became more sensitive to other people's suffering. The purpose is to not simply feel another's pain, but to transform your own response in order to help the other person. We also found changes in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and nucleus accumbens, which are respectively involved in emotion regulation and positive emotions. This suggests that emotional habits can be transformed into something more positive – an emotional connection and caring.

As Morrissey sang, “It takes strength to be gentle and kind.” It takes awareness, commitment, and practice to change habits of mind into something more beneficial for yourself and others. Learning any new skill requires attention, effort, and persistence, and this is often associated with activity in the prefrontal cortex. It takes strength to open yourself up to another's suffering, to hold it and understand it, and to have the desire to relieve it through appropriate means.

Through my work as a clinical psychologist, I have witnessed first-hand the power of compassion. I learned to actively listen and respond to people’s stories in a way that allowed their authentic voices to arise. What emerged from empowering their voices was an experience of transformation that was no longer just a private moment of listening to sad music.

I transformed sadness into joy with other people, and this has changed me in turn.

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