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Training in kindness changes your brain... in a good way!
By Jerry Brownstein
Researchers at the University of Wisconsin have discovered that human kindness is teachable; in other words, we can learn to feel compassion for others just like we learn many other skills. This is one of the first studies of its kind to prove that training given to adults in compassionate behaviour actually changes the way our brains work, so that we become “wired” to naturally be more kind and caring.
In this study young adults were trained to engage in compassion meditation, an ancient Buddhist technique that increases feelings of empathy and compassion for people who are stressed and suffering. Participants envisioned a time when someone was suffering, and then practiced wishing that his or her suffering was relieved. They repeated phrases to help them focus on these compassionate feelings such as, “May you be free from suffering. May you have joy and ease.”
Both before and after their ‘compassion training’ the participants viewed images depicting human suffering while their brains’ responses were measured using functional magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). The results clearly showed that after the training there was significantly increased activity in the areas of the brain that are involved in empathy and understanding of others.
Helen Weng, a graduate student in clinical psychology and lead author of the paper explained that, “We wanted to investigate whether people could learn to approach the suffering of others with compassion, rather than turning away. These results suggest that compassion can be cultivated with training. It’s kind of like weight training… we found that people can actually build up their compassion ‘muscle’ and respond to others’ suffering with care and a desire to help.”