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Study Shows the Brain Can Be Trained in Compassion with Meditation

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Researchers at the Centre for Investigating Healthy Minds at the Waisman Center of the University of Wisconsin-Madison examined whether training adults in compassion can result in greater altruistic behavior and related changes in neural systems underlying compassion, according to a Business Standard report.

In the study published in Psychological Science, the investigators trained young adults to engage in compassion meditation, an ancient Buddhist technique to increase caring feelings for people who are suffering, by envisioning a time when someone suffered and then practicing wishing his or her suffering was relieved, according to the report.

Participants practiced with different categories of people, first starting with a loved one, then moving to themselves and then a stranger. Finally, they practiced compassion for someone they actively had conflict with called the “difficult person,” such as a troublesome coworker or roommate, the report stated.

“It’s kind of like weight training. Using this systematic approach, we found that people can actually build up their compassion ‘muscle’ and respond to others’ suffering with care and a desire to help,” Helen Weng, lead author of the study and a graduate student in clinical psychology said in the report.

Compassion training was compared to a control group that learned cognitive reappraisal, a technique where people learn to reframe their thoughts to feel less negative.

“We found that people trained in compassion were more likely to spend their own money altruistically to help someone who was treated unfairly than those who were trained in cognitive reappraisal,” Weng said.

The study measured changes in brain responses using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) before and after training, and researchers found those who were the most altruistic after compassion training were the ones who showed the most brain changes when viewing human suffering.

Specifically, they found activity was increased in the inferior parietal cortex, a region involved in empathy and understanding others, as well as increased activity in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and the extent to which it communicated with the nucleus accumbens – brain regions involved in emotion regulation and positive emotions.

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