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? Compassion meditation is an ancient contemplative practice to strengthen feelings of compassion towards different kinds of people. The feeling of compassion itself is the emotional response of caring and wanting to help when encountering a person's suffering. With practice, it's thought that compassion can be enhanced and this will increase the likelihood of a person exhibiting helping behavior-not only during the meditation practice, but out in the real world, when interacting with others. In a study my colleagues and I conducted at the University of Wisconsin-Madison's Center for Investigating Healthy Minds (directed by Dr. Richard J. Davidson), participants were taught to generate compassion for different categories of people, including both those they love and "difficult" people in their lives. Doing these kinds of exercises is a little like weight training-the compassion "muscle" is strengthened by practicing with people of increasing difficulty, like increasing weights over time.
After only two weeks of online training, participants in our study who practiced compassion meditation every day behaved more altruistically towards strangers compared to another group taught to simply regulate or control their negative emotions. Not only that, the people who were the most altruistic after receiving compassion training also were the individuals who showed the largest changes in how their brains responded to images of 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. When we embarked on our study several years ago, earlier research had shown that expert compassion meditation practitioners who have accumulated 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 much less practice? We decided to give only seven hours of practice, in 30 minutes daily sessions for two weeks. We wanted to see if these people would change, both in exhibiting altruistic behavior and in the ways their brains responded to suffering. We recruited participants with no prior meditation experience and randomly assigned them to learn either compassion training or reappraisal training, which is an emotion regulation technique that asks people to re-interpret negative events to decrease negative emotions. Both groups trained for two weeks by listening to guided audio instructions over the Internet. ...[Continue reading on Fastcoexist]