Compassion Training Alters Altruism and Neural Responses to Suffering

August 29, 2017 by School of Medicine Webmaster

Compassion is caring about and wanting to help those who are suffering and can motivate altruistic behavior. In this study, investigators from the University of Wisconsin Center for Investigating Healthy Minds examined whether compassion may be systematically trained by testing whether (a) short-term compassion training increased altruistic behavior and (b) individual differences in altruism were associated with training-induced changes in how the brain responds to suffering. They reported on 41 healthy adult participants who were randomly assigned to receive either compassion training, listening to a compassion meditation daily for two weeks that focused on generating feelings of compassion for different people, or reappraisal training practice, focusing on reinterpreting personally stressful events to decrease negative feelings. All participants had a functional brain MRI scan both before the start of training and after training finished.   They found that those who had compassion training gave more money to a victim encountered outside of the training context and that this increased altruistic behavior was associated with altered activation in brain regions involved in social cognition and emotion regulation. These results suggested that compassion can be cultivated with training and that greater altruistic behavior may emerge from increased engagement of brain systems implicated in understanding the suffering of other people, executive and emotional control, and reward processing.

HY Weng, et al. Psychological Science 2013;24(7):1171–1180.

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