Meditation can increase empathy, study finds

Researchers at Emory University apply cognitive-based compassion training (CBCT) in a study showing how the practice allowed participants to better intuit the emotions of others. 

Can the brain be trained to be more receptive to the needs of others? Researchers are Emory University are asking the question, and answering it, through a form of meditation they developed called cognitive-based compassion training (CBCT).

Emory researchers describe CBCT as a form of “mind training” or “thought transformation.” For the practitioner of CBCT, the objective is to shift thoughts from “me” to “others” in the following eight steps:

 (1) developing attention and stability of mind through focused attention training; (2) cultivating insight into the nature of mental experience; (3) cultivating self-compassion; (4) developing equanimity; (5) developing appreciation and gratitude; (6) developing affection and empathy; (7) realizing aspirational compassion; and (8) realizing active compassion.

Participants in the study were asked to take part in guided instruction and group discussions. Reseachers tested the abilty of the 13 participants to empathize by showing them photographs of facial expressions and asking them to predict the expression—although only revealing enough of the photograph so that the eye region of each individual was shown. Participants then tried to intuit the expression of the individuals while researchers took scans of their brains, both before they started meditation instruction and then after.

The results? After eight weeks of meditation, participants could more acurately intuit the expressions of the individuals in the photographs. The brain scans also demonstrated activity in parts of the brain associated with empathy.

The full study, “Compassion meditation enhances emphatic accuracy and related neural activity,” is published in the journal Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience.