Can people be taught to act more altruistically?
Newly published research, measuring both brain activity
and behavior, suggests the answer just may be yes.
âOur findings support the possibility that compassion
and altruism can be viewed as trainable skills rather
than stable traits,â a research team led by Richard J. Davidson
and Helen Weng of the University of Wisconsin-Madison writes
in the journal Psychological Science.
Specifically, they report that taking a course in compassion
leads to increased engagement of certain neural systems,
which prompts higher levels of altruistic behavior.
Brain scans revealed âa pattern of neural changesâ in
those who received compassion training.
The researchers describe an experiment featuring 41 people,
none of whom had any experience with meditation or cognitive behavioral therapy. All participated in a two-week training
program that required them to follow guided audio instructions
for 30 minutes each day.
Half received âcompassion training,â in which they âpracticed cultivating feelings of compassion for different targets
(a loved one, the self, a stranger, and a difficult person)â.
The others received âreappraisal training,â in which they
âpracticed reinterpreting personally stressful eventsâ with
the goal of lessening their negative emotional reaction.
At the beginning and again at the end of the two weeks,
participantsâ brains were scanned as they employed their
assigned strategy (compassion or reappraisal) while they
viewed a series of images. Many of the pictures depicted
people suffering, such as a burn victim and a crying child.
Finally, at the end of the two weeks, all took part in an
Internet âredistribution game,â in which they witnessed
unfair behavior and had an opportunity to partially rectify it.
They watched as a person given $10 gave only $1 to a victim
who had no money. They were then told they could spend any
portion of their own $5 allotment to compel the miser to double
the amount he or she gave the victim.
Those who received the compassion training spent nearly twice
as much of their own money to try to rectify the unfairness:
$1.14, as opposed to 62 cents for those who had taken the
emotional reappraisal strategy. âThis demonstrates that purely
mental training in compassion can result in observable altruistic changes toward a victim,â the researchers write.
The brain scans revealed âa pattern of neural changesâ in those
who had received compassion training, including âneural systems implicated in understanding the suffering of other people,
executive and emotional control, and reward processing.â
âIf the signal of other peopleâs suffering is indeed increased
by compassion training,â the researchers write, this apparently compels them to âapproach rather than avoid suffering, in order
to engage in pro-social behavior.â
The researchers also found neural changes in members of the
other group, but the effect was quite different: In their case, greater changes in certain key regions of the brain were linked
with less willingness to give money.
Davidson, Weng and their colleagues point out these participants
were trained to reduce personal stress and negative emotions,
and speculate they may have achieved that goal by ignoring or dismissing the problem that was presented to them.
Previous research found compassion-oriented meditation can
produce changes in the brain, but it was performed on Buddhist
monks who were veterans of this practice. This study finds a
mere two weeks of training can produce measurable results.
So if you long to be a warmer, more caring person (which, not incidentally, is good for your health), this research presents
good news: At least to some extent, the choice is yours.
By Tom Jacobs
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