The Athlete's Way

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Can Meditation Make Someone More Compassionate?

Meditation can reshape neural networks linked to compassion.

Researchers have discovered more proof that meditation can reshape neural networks linked to compassion. Compassion is a step beyond empathy because it involves a deeper and more visceral connection to another person’s suffering. Researchers at the University of Rochester Medical Center recently studied how doctors relate to their patients and identified three main elements of compassion: 1) Recognition of suffering. 2) Emotional resonance. 3) An effort to remedy the suffering.

Although meditation and mindfulness are often secular and do not require religious ties, the Buddha might sum up the ideas of loving-kindness meditation (LKM) by saying, “I teach one thing and one only: that is, suffering and the end of suffering.” For Buddha—as for many modern spiritual leaders and secular meditators—the ultimate goal of meditation is to foster compassion and reduce suffering.

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Through meditation you gain a heightened control of mindfulness which opens your eyes to the suffering of people around you. Systematic LKM may actually blur the lines between oneself and others by dissolving the rigid differentiation of suffering between: me, you, us, them, friend, or foe at a neural level.

While doing a basic LKM you go through a checklist of directing compassion to: loved ones, people with whom there is tension, strangers, and yourself. This type of meditation allows you to grasp the interconnectedness between your own suffering and the suffering of others from all arenas of your life.

Compassionate Bedside Manner

A December 2013 study titled “In Search of Compassion: a New Taxonomy of Compassionate Physician Behaviours” was recently published by the journal Health Expectations. The Rochester researchers believe they are the first to systematically pinpoint and catalog compassionate words and actions in doctor-patient conversations. By breaking down the dialogue and studying the context, scientists hope to create a behavioral formula that will guide medical training and education.

"Good to see you. I'm sorry. It sounds like you've had a tough, tough, week." That statement was from a doctor to a patient and used as an example of compassionate behavior as observed by a University of Rochester Medical Center team.

The researchers evaluated tone of voice, body language and overall bedside manner that conveyed tenderness and understanding, and other ways in which doctors gave reassurances or psychology comfort to patients. Researchers also observed non-verbal communication, such as pauses or sighs at appropriate times, as well as speech features and voice quality (tone, pitch, loudness) and other metaphorical language that conveyed certain attitudes and meaning.

"In health care, we believe in being compassionate but the reality is that many of us have a preference for technical and biomedical issues over establishing emotional ties," said senior investigator Ronald Epstein, M.D. His team recruited 23 oncologists from a variety of private and hospital-based oncology clinics. The doctors and their stage III or stage IV cancer patients volunteered to be recorded during routine visits. Researchers then analyzed the 49 audio-recorded encounters that took place between November 2011 and June 2012, and looked for key observable markers of compassion.

Compassion unfolds over time, researchers concluded. During the process, physicians must challenge themselves to stay with a difficult discussion, which opens the door for the patient to admit uncertainty and grieve the loss of normalcy in life. "It became apparent that compassion is not a quality of a single utterance but rather is made up of presence and engagement that suffuses an entire conversation," the study concluded.

The New Pathway: Training Doctors to Be More Compassionate

In the 1980s, both of my parents (who were going through a horrible divorce at the time) worked at Harvard Medical School in very different capacities. My father was the Chief of Neurosurgery at the Beth Israel Deaconess and my mom was part of the team working to create the New Pathway (NP) Curriculum. Among other things, the New Pathway was designed to make doctors more compassionate.

The New Pathway curriculum was designed to improve fluid and emotional intelligence. The program is a problem-based approach to medical education that emphasizes small-group tutorials and self-directed learning, complemented by laboratories, conferences and lectures. The emphasis at the New Pathway is placed on the patient-doctor relationship, and takes into account the broad social context and problems of modern medicine and health care.

Although the New Pathway does not directly emphasize meditation, it is interesting that the concept was incubating at a time when many other people at Harvard and around the world were inspired by Herbert Benson. Benson pioneered the “Relaxation Response” and the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind-Body Medicine that continues to this day at Harvard’s Mass General Hospital.

Can Meditation Make You More Compassionate?

A recent study by Northeastern University's David DeSteno, published in Psychological Science, takes a look at what impacts meditation has on interpersonal harmony and compassion. In this study, a team of researchers from Northeastern University and Harvard University examined the effects meditation would have on compassion and magnanimous behavior.

This study invited participants to complete an eight-week training in two types of meditation and then tested participants in a real-life situation designed to measure compassionate responses to a stranger's suffering. 

Sitting in a staged waiting room with three chairs were two actors. With one empty chair left, the participant sat down and waited to be called. Another actor using crutches and appearing to be in great physical pain, would then enter the room. As she did, the actors in the chair would ignore her by fiddling with their phones or opening a book.

The question DeSteno and Paul Condon—a graduate student in DeSteno's lab who led the study—and their team wanted to answer was whether the subjects who took part in the meditation classes would be more likely to come to the aid of a person in pain, even when everyone else was ignoring her suffering. "We know meditation improves a person's own physical and psychological wellbeing," said Condon. "We wanted to know whether it actually increases compassionate behavior."

Among the non-meditating participants, only about 15 percent of people acted to help. But among the participants who were in the meditation sessions "we were able to boost that up to 50 percent," said DeSteno. This result was true for both meditation groups thereby showing the effect to be consistent across different forms of meditation.

"The truly surprising aspect of this finding is that meditation made people willing to act virtuous—to help another who was suffering—even in the face of a norm not to do so," DeSteno said, "The fact that the other actors were ignoring the pain creates as 'bystander-effect' that normally tends to reduce helping. People often wonder 'Why should I help someone if no one else is?'"

These results appear to prove what the Buddhist theologians have long believed—meditation can lead you to more compassion, love, and committed to end suffering for oneself and others. Although the researchers don’t know exactly why meditation heightens compassion there are two likely explanations. The first is that meditation and mindfulness improves attention and ability to focus one's attention to specific things in the environment.

The other possibility is that meditation creates neural pathways that allow the meditator to see the interconnectedness of all human suffering regardless of the relationship. Regular loving-kindness meditation builds self-love, compassion and human connection on multiple levels. If you'd like to read more on this, check out my Psychology Today blog post, "Neuroscientists Confirm That Our Loved Ones Become Ourselves."

The psychologist Piercarlo Valdesolo and colleagues found that a feeling of affiliation or connection between two people, even something as subtle as tapping their hands together in synchrony, causes them to feel more compassion for each other when distressed. The increased compassion of meditators, then, might stem directly from meditation’s ability to dissolve the neural barriers that put people in different bins based on ethnicity, religion, ideology etc.

Compassion Can Be Cultivated

In a final study from May 2013 researchers at the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds at the Waisman Center of the University of Wisconsin-Madison shows that adults can be trained to be more compassionate. The report, published by Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, found that training adults in compassion can result in greater altruistic behavior and related changes in neural systems underlying compassion.

"Our fundamental question was, Can compassion be trained and learned in adults? Can we become more caring if we practice that mindset?'" says Helen Weng, lead author of the study and a graduate student in clinical psychology. Adding, "Our evidence points to yes."

In the study, the investigators trained young adults to engage in compassion meditation using a traditional Buddhist technique of meditation that includes methods designed to develop loving kindness and compassion for oneself and for others.

"People seem to become more sensitive to other people's suffering, but this is challenging emotionally. They learn to regulate their emotions so that they approach people's suffering with caring and wanting to help rather than turning away," explains Weng.

To increase caring feelings for people who are suffering the compassion meditation participants were trained to increase feelings of sympathy and altruism for people who are suffering by envisioning a time when someone has suffered and then practiced wishing that his or her suffering was relieved. They repeated phrases to help them focus on compassion such as, "May you be free from suffering. May you have joy and ease."

Participants in the study practiced focused compassion towards four different categories of people. First, they focused on sending compassionate thoughts to a loved one or someone whom they easily felt compassion for, like a friend or family member. Secondly, they practiced compassion for someone they had a conflict or tension with such as an ex-partner, in-law, a backstabbing co-worker, difficult boss... Thirdly, they focused compassion towards a random stranger or group of people who were suffering. Lastly, they practiced compassion and forgiveness towards themselves.

Conclusion: Flex Your Compassion Muscle Every Day

"It's kind of like weight training," Weng says. "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."

If you’d like to read more on this topic, check out my Psychology Today blogs:

Follow me on Twitter @ckbergland for updates on The Athlete’s Way blog posts.

Christopher Bergland is a world-class endurance athlete, coach, author, and political activist.

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