Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Potentially Positive News for Cultivating Compassion

Just in time for the Christmas season ... some more evidence that it may be possible to teach people to be more compassionate. I looked at this idea in a previous post, and pretty much concluded  (bah, Humbug!) that, as much as I WANTED to believe it was true, the evidence from the studies wasn't strong enough to support that yet.

But I recently saw a "Fast Company" post about research from the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds (CIHM) at the Waisman Center, University of Wisconsin-Madison,  (self-proclaimed on its website to be "a global leader in conducting novel research that has revolutionized how we understand the mind, our emotions, and how to nurture well-being for ourselves and others." They did get a few mentions in my "Science of Happiness" class from Berkeley.) Their study offered new evidence to support the idea that compassion is a trainable skill.

The Fast Company article describes a research project by Helen Weng and others, including lab chief Richard J. Davidson, which concludes:
...compassion can be cultivated with training and that greater altruistic behavior may emerge from increased engagement of neural systems implicated in understanding the suffering of other people, executive and emotional control, and reward processing.
Unfortunately, neither the abstract nor the FastCompany article gives details such as how many people participated in the study. This makes it hard for me to know how enthusiastic I should feel about the research, but the points that emerge from the Fast Company article do make it seem like they covered thoroughly what ground they covered.

The study included participants who received just fourteen 30-minute sessions of online training in compassion over the course of two weeks. (As with the study in my previous blog post on the subject, this included imagining compassion for one's self, then a beloved friend or family member, a neutral stranger, then a disliked person.) These participants were compared to an active control group that received training in "reappraisal training, which is an emotion regulation technique that asks people to re-interpret negative events to decrease negative emotions. "

The compassion training encouraged participants "to observe the thoughts and feelings that arise as they imagine a time that each person has suffered. The goal is to give participants practice at tolerating their reactions, rather than avoiding them or getting too wrapped up in them. The next part involves actively wishing others compassion—or wishing their suffering is relieved. "

All participants underwent MRI brain scans before and after the study and were were assessed for changes in brain regions linked to compassion. They were also assessed for compassion in a computer game in which they could contribute their money to others. According to the FastCompany article,  there was a correlation between brain changes linked to key regions of the brain, as shown in the scans, and altruism in the computer game:
"The participants who were the most altruistic playing the computer game showed the greatest changes in brain activation in response to suffering. In the most altruistic participants, activation increased in the inferior parietal cortex (a region of the brain involved in empathy and understanding others), in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (a region involved in emotional control), and in the nucleus accumbens (a region involved in rewarding emotions). This may reflect that compassion training increases detection of others’ suffering through neural circuitry involved in empathic resonance and sharing others’ experiences. It also suggests that these individuals may have been learning to change their emotional response to a more caring response for the person in need. The participants in the control group either showed no relationship between their brain responses and their altruistic behavior or a negative relationship. "
As would be appropriate for researchers who study compassion, the Wisconsin group will let you download scripts or mp3s of their compassion training sessions if you register here:  http://www.investigatinghealthyminds.org/compassion.html (It's a slightly odd system, in that you need to sign in, for free, and they e-mail you the link to the training 24 hours later.)

 I am going to keep my enthusiasm in check until I can actually see the full study, but in the meantime,  I've downloaded the compassion scripts and I'm going to give it a go this holiday season. It can't hurt, and who knows, maybe, just maybe, it's true -- that compassion CAN be taught (and the teaching of compassion can be scientifically studied and developed)...

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