Study shows it is possible for humans to learn to be more compassionate beings

compassion

Meeting anyone who is kind and compassionate is a unique and rare experience it feels like in our world today. It appears that many are missing the personality trait to understand and feel for others when they are suffering. It is simply easier to turn a blind eye to those suffering and worry about personal things not applying to the outside world. Imagine a world however, where people took the time and consideration to truly are and feel for each other. Surely, the world would feel like a better and odd place than we currently know.

If only others could adopt the personality trait of compassion! Well guess what, thanks to new research you can! Recent research has found that it is possible and capable for humans to learn and train their brains to become more compassionate beings. Researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison made this discovery while conducting an experiment. The researchers found that compassion is a teachable trait not strictly dictated by genes. If a subjects was given sufficient training and practice within areas of feeling sympathy, love, and caring, then they can naturally be more compassionate than they had before. Thus, those who struggle to feel and show compassion are now able to, it all comes down to neurological changes within the brain after these “trainings”.

Graduate student, Helen Weng, who studies clinical psychology was excited to carry out the experiment and show that indeed people can be trained to become better human beings. To demonstrate her theory and findings they created a simple experiment with a variable group and a control group. Based on ancient Buddhist meditation, participants were requested to think of people suffering and to think compassionate thoughts for those people. First, they were to think of their close relatives and friends. These groups of people are easier to understand and have feelings for. Then, the subjects were asked to think about other people like acquaintances and coworkers etc. At the end of the experiment they were then asked to imagine compassionate thoughts for strangers and people that may be struggling with different problems. This technique being used Weng explained was very similar to weight training. The test subjects were working their compassionate “muscle” to become better compassionate beings. Suggested thoughts for participants were wishing peace to others, and freedom from suffering.

The control group on the other hand, was trained to change their natural way of thinking with the technique of retrospection. Cognitive reappraisal or retrospection are used to take away bad ways of thinking and instead, replace them with good ways. When the final experiments were over, this control group then listened to instructions given in retrospection form for half an hour each day, for fourteen days. The test group and the control group, both were tested in what is called redistribution exercise. The goal of researchers were to see if the test subjects use money to aid those suffering. An online game was played with anonymous players, called “The Dictator” and “The Victim”.

The experiment showed that the group that practiced Buddhist meditation techniques were more likely to aid these players rather than their counterparts, the control group. After witnessing these results, Weng became curious to what exactly was occurring neurologically within the brain during each groups trainings. Using an MRI, Weng measured the changes during magnetic imaging. Both groups were given pictures of suffering people and asked to practice compassion. The ones who immediately showed signs of love and care (also the ones who practiced the Buddhist Meditation) showed an active region in part of the brain that is responsible for compassion. However, the control group (group that used retrospection training), had less amounts of compassion being shown neurologically.

Other parts of the brain that were affected in the training were the parietal cortex (the area that controls empathy), and the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (responsible for giving emotions). The scans actively demonstrated that those who practiced wishing decreased suffering showed more impactful within the brain.

The conclusion could be made, that there really are no such thing as people who feel no compassion. People just need to practice kindness and exercise their compassion “muscle”. Just like exercise, the more you do it the easier it becomes. Thus, if you wish to be more kind just start with a little kind deed or thought each day and eventually will build! Don’t lose ambition and hope, even the Grinch who stole Christmas grew a heart after all!

Brianna Sheridan
Source: Learning Mind 

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