Research

Compassion meditation boosts neural basis for empathy

Compassion can’t be taught directly but the skills that underlie compassion can be developed with practice.

This intriguing randomised-controlled study showed that even adults with no experience of meditation could increase their ability to interpret the facial expressions of others using a meditation protocol, known as Cognitively-Based Compassion Training (CBCT).

Study participants were healthy adults without prior meditation experience. Thirteen participants randomized to CBCT meditation completed regular weekly training sessions and at-home practice for eight weeks. Eight randomized control subjects did not meditate, but instead completed health discussion classes that covered mind-body subjects like the effects of exercise and stress on well-being.

To test empathic accuracy before and following CBCT, all participants received fMRI brain scans while completing a modified version of the Reading the Mind in the Eyes Test (RMET). The RMET consists of black-and-white photographs that show just the eye region of people making various expressions. Those being tested must judge what the person in the photograph is thinking or feeling.

Eight out of the 13 participants in the CBCT meditation group improved their RMET scores by an average of 4.6 percent, while the control participants showed no increase, and in the majority of cases, a decrease in correct answers for the RMET.

The meditators, in comparison to those in the control group, also had significant increases in neural activity in areas of the brain important for empathy, including the inferior frontal gyrus and dorsomedial prefrontal cortex. These changes in brain activity accounted for changes in the empathic accuracy scores of the participants.

“These findings raise the intriguing possibility that CBCT may have enhanced empathic abilities by increasing activity in parts of the brain that are of central importance for our ability to recognize the emotional states of others,” Raison says. “An important next step will be to evaluate the effects of CBCT on diverse populations that may particularly benefit from enhanced empathic accuracy, such as those suffering from high-functioning autism or severe depression.”

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Image “Meditation” by Mitchell Joyce

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