Being compassionate is thought to be a personality trait that only some of us have. The ability to ignore suffering and turn a blind eye toward the needy is just as commonplace as compassion and causes more suffering. If only everyone would provide an even level of compassion, the world would be a much better place. With this being said, imagine a way to help “grow” compassion where none exists. Some say this is very possible — even proven and done!
The real question is, “Can we train ourselves to care more?” Researchers at the Univeristy of Wisconsin-Madison proclaim that compassion is teachable. With enough training and practice, the feeling of love, care and sympathy can become natural to those who previously had hard exteriors. Up until recently, the areas of the brain contributing to this caring emotion were mysterious. Now, the puzzle is being solved, leading scientists to find neurological changes when practicing kindness occurs.
Tests of Compassion
Helen Weng, graduate student in clinical psychology echoed what many others are proclaiming: “Yes, we can be trained to be better human beings.”
To prove this, a simple technique was performed with a study group and control group. The study group was tested using ancient Buddhist meditation. Subjects were asked to imagine those who are suffering and think compassionate thoughts toward these individuals. At first, the test subjects were asked to think about their close relatives and friends, who were much easier to imagine and understand. After this, the participants were asked to envision others, further from their personal circle of influence. By the end of the study, they were then asked to think compassionate thoughts toward complete strangers who may be suffering from various issues.
Weng explained that the technique was much like weight training — strengthening the compassionate ‘muscle’. Thoughts that were suggested were, “I wish you peace” and “May you be free from any suffering”— just simple thoughts, really.
During this study, the control group was trained to change their natural way of thinking with reappraisal. Cognitive reappraisal is used to help remove negative ways of thinking and replace them with more positive ones. After the initial tests were performed, this same group listened to reappraisal instructions for 30 minutes a day, for two weeks.
Both the test group and the control group were then further tested in a redistribution exercise. Researchers wanted to see if the participants would spend money to help those in need. A game was played online involving anonymous players, “The Dictator” and “The Victim”.
Studies show that those who went through the Buddhist meditation techniques gave more to help these players than those in the control group, who only received cognitive reappraisal training.
At that point, Weng was curious about what happened inside the brain concerning neurological responses derived from the training. An MRI was used to measure these changes, and during the magnetic imaging, both groups were shown images of people who were suffering and asked to practice being compassionate. Those who actively sent out vibes of love and care (Buddhist meditation) showed a much more active region in the area of the brain that holds true compassion. The control group, those who only trained themselves to have more positive thoughts, had a weaker amount of compassion.
There were other areas of the brain affected by this training: the parietal cortex, an area that governs empathy, and the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for rewarding emotions. It seems that those who actively wished to decrease the suffering of others had a more rewarding effect in the brain.
It seems that there are really no heartless people at all, just those who haven’t practiced kindness enough. The evidence is here! So take heart, if you wish to be more compassionate and just don’t know how, try one small act of kindness at a time.
Researchers have proven that learning compassion is like exercising — the more you do it, the easier it will be. Start with one random act of kindness a day and watch the world change! If you need help, start training!