It’s possible to become a more compassionate person by training your brain, according to a new study.
Researchers from the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds at the University of Wisconson-Madison’s Waisman Center found that engaging in compassion meditation — where you practice feeling compassion for different groups of people, including yourself — seemed to increase a sense of altruism.
“It’s kind of like weight training,” study researcher Helen Weng, a graduate student in clinical psychology at the university, said in a statement. “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.”
The study, published in the journal Psychological Science, involved having study participants engage in a compassion meditation where they thought about when others have helped them to relieve their own suffering. They repeated compassion mantras, such as “May you be free from suffering. May you have joy and ease.” And they also completed an exercise where they practiced compassion for groups of people including friends, “difficult people” and themselves.
Meanwhile, another group of study participants serving as the control group just learned a technique called cognitive reappraisal, which is when you reappraise your thoughts so that they are less negative.
Researchers conducted brain scans of both these groups, before and after their trainings.
Then,they compared the altruism of the cognitive reappraisal group with the compassion meditation group by having them all play a game that involved donating money to people in need.
The researchers found that the people who did the compassion training and who had the highest levels of altruism were also the ones who experienced the most brain changes in the inferior parietal cortex (involved in empathy) when exposed to others’ suffering.
“The fact that alterations in brain function were observed after just a total of seven hours of training is remarkable,” study researcher Richard J. Davidson, who is a professor at the university and the founder and chair of the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds, said in a statement.
Of course, it shouldn’t be all too surprising that meditation boosts compassion in the brain. Past research — including a study published earlier this year by Harvard and Northeastern university researchers — shows that meditation can help to boost do-good behavior.