Compassion training

There are all sort of things that would make the world better. Raising the minimum age for members of “boy bands” by about 15 years could, for instance, only elevate music and the general human experience. Changing the name and focus of the film series Fast and Furious to Slow and Calm would also be a step in the right direction. A few stern words of caution to whatever fashion troll dreamt up the “onesy” would certainly lift the level of the collective unconscious. Perhaps greater than any of these much-needed steps, though, is the need for a rise in levels of basic human compassion. If this seems an impossibly lofty goal to you, then a new study offers hope because it shows that compassion is really a matter of training your brain.

For the study, researchers divided their subjects into two groups. The first group was a control group and was given 30 minutes of training per day, each day for two weeks. The training involved the people learning to reframe their thoughts to make them less negative.

In the second group, subjects again received 30 minutes of training daily for two weeks but in this case the training was in compassion meditation, a Buddhist technique aimed at raising caring feelings for people who are suffering. In the meditation, the subjects visualised a time when someone has suffered and then practised wishing that the person’s suffering had been relieved. They first practised compassion for themselves, then a stranger and then finally for someone with whom they had difficulties (such as a difficult co-worker).

After the two-week period of the training both groups were asked to play a game that involved them redistributing money among fellow participants. It emerged that people had done the compassion meditation training were much more altruistic with their money than the other group.

As a further analysis of what the training had done, the researchers took MRI images of the brains of subjects before and after the two weeks of sessions when they were asked to view images that showed human suffering (like a burn victim or a crying child). The scans showed that in people who had done the compassion meditation training there was increased activity in the inferior parietal cortex, a part of the brain involved in empathy. There was also increased activity in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and it showed increased communication with the nucleus accumbens; these are brain areas that regulate emotion and generate positive emotions.

The researchers concluded that they had shown that compassion is like a muscle; the more you use it, the stronger it becomes. So you can increase your capacity for compassion simply by engaging in compassion. Your compassion capacity is not some pre-set commodity but a skill you can develop. It’s wonderful that a scientific approach has shown this but of course, it’s not really news.

According to Buddhist thought, to achieve enlightenment you must develop two qualities: wisdom and compassion. This is not, as our modern Western thinking might see it though, a combination of opposites. Some might see wisdom as clear, rational thought and compassion as warm, fuzzy emotion. For the Buddhist though, “wisdom” is actually consciousness or insight while “compassion” is actively witnessing the pain of others. The more insight you have, the more you are able to witness the suffering of others which in turn builds insight and so the circle goes. The Buddhist then believes that you build compassion by building insight which you do by practising meditation and gaining self-knowledge. This is pretty much what the new study has found to be true.

How can you make the world a better place? You do it one compassionate thought at a time.

Terry Robson

Terry Robson

Terry Robson is the Editor-in-Chief of WellBeing and the Editor of EatWell.

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