Research reported in the July issue of Psychological Science (a publication of the Association for Psychological Science) supports the contention that compassion can indeed be trained. Furthermore the research demonstrated that such training may actually affect neural systems in our brains that are related to our being more concerned with the welfare of others. Helen Weng and her co-authors concluded, “our findings support the possibility that compassion and altruism can be viewed as trainable skills rather than as stable traits” (p. 1179).
So how do you train compassion? In the study led by Weng and Richard Davidson, participants listened to a 30-minute guided meditation. They meditated with a script designed to develop compassionate thinking. The meditation involved doing imaging exercises (e.g., picturing different people in your mind) and reciting phrases (such as “May you be free from this suffering”). Participants did this each day for two weeks. Weng and her colleagues described this as “like training the compassion muscle, starting with the lightest weight of a loved one and working up to a heavier weight of a difficult person” (from supplemental material on-line available to APS members). The meditation was adopted from Sharon Salzberg’s Lovingkindness Meditation: Learning to Love through Insight Meditation (1997). Such meditations are derived from Buddhist tradition. More information, an audio file, and an example script can be found on-line at the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds, Waisman Center, University of Wisconsin-Madison.
My take-away: I tried the meditation used in this study. I can see how this particular meditation, or similar, could result in changes in behavior. And the benefits of meditation in stress reduction are well documented. Meditation is already part of several MBA programs and companies. Training compassionate behaviors is an interesting, promising area of research. But I would like to see a variety of effective training methods.
Weng, H. Y., Fox, A. S., Shackman, A. J., Stodola, D. E., Caldwell, J. Z. K., Olson, M. C., Rogers, G. M., & Davidson, R. J. (2013). Compassion training alters altruism and neural responses to suffering. Psychological Science, 24(7), 1171-1180.
Modification of image by Harald Hobbit. http://www.flickr.com/photos/haraldhobbit/6203801807/