Thursday, May 23, 2013

Teaching the Brain to Be More Kind...It Can Happen

Could you or someone you know stand to be a little more compassionate?

Now there’s a new study that suggests compassion can be developed through training. The study published in the journal Psychological Science focused on training young adults in an ancient Buddhist technique known as “compassion meditation.” People focused on visualizing someone suffering and helping them to alleviate that hurt through repeated phrases focused on ease and joy.

The study group first focused on loved ones and then themselves before moving on to strangers. The last exercise was to apply the practice to someone they considered difficult, such as a coworker or troublesome relative.

“It’s kind of like weight training,” reported Helen Weng, a psychological graduate student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where the study was conducted. “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.”

Next, the same group was trained to become more altruistic, giving more to others instead of themselves. Participants played an Internet-based game with two anonymous players, one a “victim” and the other a “dictator.” Each of the three was given money to spend at will and watched as the dictator player shared very little money with the victim.

“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 in a UW-Madison online article.

Other exercises are explained in the article, all of which point to promising results. Weng said she'd like to expand both the experimental and control groups and provided a link to audio downloads and scripts on the Center for Investigating Health Minds Web site.

So if you or someone you know are lacking an appropriate level of compassion in general or in a specific situation, such as siblings sharing in the care of a loved one with a memory impairment, do know that it’s possible to change the way they think and respond and to become a little less selfish and a little more kind. It just takes training the brain to think differently about others around them.

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