How practicing compassion alters the brain

As tempting as it is to hope that one meditation practice could be a panacea within the mind – meditate, and become more mindful! improve your attention! cure your depression! notice when those around you need help! – I have to admit that I know the brain doesn’t work this way. The skills you practice are the skills you strengthen, and compassion in particular is a skill that requires more than just a general awareness of your environment.

The importance of practicing compassion in order to be more compassionate was driven home by a recent Psychological Science article that carefully matched two forms of meditation. One group of volunteers practiced a form of loving kindness meditation, or wishing good things on first themselves, then a friend, then a stranger, and then someone they actually don’t like much. A single session of loving kindness seems to be enough to help people feel more connected to others, and these volunteers were completed a guided 30-minute session virtually every day (they were allowed to skip three) over a two-week period. The other volunteers followed the same regimen, but practiced “cognitive reappraisal“, a way of looking back at strongly emotional events and trying to see them in a new, more balanced light. Both of these practices would help the individual meditator reduce their own distress, but reappraisal is solely focused on making yourself feel better, while loving kindness is designed you help you feel better about the other people you are sending good thoughts to as well.

Loving kindness mantra, from

Loving kindness mantra, from

Although cognitive reappraisal has its own place in the mental health toolkit, practicing compassion made people more altruistic, ready to right wrongs and enforce fairness even at a cost to themselves. Both the wrongs and the costs were real, if slight, taking place is an online simulation with real monetary stakes of no more than $10. In this online simulation, participants saw a “dictator” in this online world, with a hoard of $10, give a measly $1 to a hapless “victim” who had nothing, and had the option of sacrificing some of their own money to force the dictator to give up more. The participants really would walk away with whatever money they didn’t spend, so they could keep their entire $5; or, they could keep $3, and spend the rest to ensure that both dictator and victim had an equal share of wealth. People who had practiced compassion for two weeks were almost twice as generous, sacrificed $1.14 to help the victim, while those in the reappraisal group were wiling to give up only $0.62 on average.

What is most revealing about this increase in altruism, though, is that how even the more generous compassion trainees and more generous reappraisal trainees reached their generosity was different. In compassion trainees, the more generous also showed more brain activity in the inferior parietal junction (IPJ), a region of the brain that is important for our understanding of how other people feel; the more generous also had stronger connections between the regions of the brain linked to self-control (prefrontal cortex, PFC) and reward (nucleus accumbens, NAcc). Their compassion training may have led to a stronger IPJ response to the unfair split of money, which called on the PFC to regulate some emotional responses away from the reward of keeping the money and toward the reward of feeling good for being generous.

The reappraisal trainees, on the other hand, had no link between IPJ and generosity, suggesting that when they gave more it was for reasons other than greater understanding of what the victim might be feeling (social pressure to not be selfish might be a bigger player). The connections between PFC and NAcc were still in play, but now they were reversed: the less money a person was willing to spend to enforce fairness, the stronger the connections between those brain regions were. After all, these people had spent two weeks getting their PFC involved in lessening their negative emotions, such as guilt, so the better they had gotten at that…the easier it was to squash or reappraise a feeling of guilt as it arose and decide not to give up as much money. These reappraisal trainees had succeeded at training the same self-regulation network of the brain as the compassion trainees, but they trained it to do something very different.

Which suggests to me that I might need to diversity my own meditation practice, which is heavily skewed toward straightforward attention to the breath. As hokey as loving kindness meditation sometimes sounds and feels, wishing those good thoughts to others brings in a unique brain region, and makes sure that the way we train our prefrontal cortex to regulate our emotions is not just about our emotions. True compassion may require more than just noticing that someone needs help, after all; the things that matter are rarely so easy.
Weng HY, Fox AS, Shackman AJ, Stodola DE, Caldwell JZ, Olson MC, Rogers GM, & Davidson RJ (2013). Compassion training alters altruism and neural responses to suffering. Psychological Science, 24 (7), 1171-1180 PMID: 23696200


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