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Enlightening research shows meditation boosts compassion

Meditation is associated with a slew of health benefits including improved mental health, better functional cognition, and even increased gray matter in the brain. Historically, though, one of the main purposes of meditation has been to increase the practitioner’s compassion toward all sentient beings, according to psychology professor David DeSteno.

Nonetheless, the social implications of meditation have never been scientifically studied. “We know meditation improves a person’s own physical and psychological well-being,” said Paul Condon, a graduate student in DeSteno’s lab. “We wanted to know whether it actually increases compassionate behavior.”

In a new study led by Condon, DeSteno’s team in the Social Emotions Group showed that even a brief period of meditation training is indeed enough to boost one’s compassion toward a suffering stranger more than fivefold. The results will soon be published in the journal Psychological Science.

With funding from the Mind and Life Institute, DeSteno’s team recruited more than three dozen individuals interested in pursuing meditation training. Half of them were assigned to the wait list while the other half participated in an eight-week workshop with an ordained Buddhist lama. The meditation group was further split into two: All were taught techniques to calm and focus the mind, but only half engaged in direct discussions of compassion and suffering.

At the end of the eight-week session, participants were asked to come in for cognitive testing in the lab, but the real study took place in the waiting room just outside. Here is the setup: When the test subject arrives, he finds three seats, two of them occupied. He sits in the open seat. “Then down the hall comes a person in crutches and a big foot boot who is looking in incredible pain,” said DeSteno.

The other two people in the room, who are hired actors for the study, pull out their cell phones and deliberately avoid eye contact with the suffering invalid (who is also an actor). They do not offer their seat. This, said DeSteno, is called a bystander effect. “If there are other people around who aren’t helping out, then others won’t either,” he explained, noting a social pressure not to help.

The study found that about 15 percent of the nonmeditators–the waitlisted group–got up and offered their seat to the sufferer compared to about 50 percent of those in both meditation groups–those who engaged in discussions about compassion and those who only participated in meditation training. The results suggest that it was the meditation itself—not the discussions—that accounted for the increase.

Now DeSteno’s team is pursuing research on the mechanisms behind the observed phenomenon. For instance, it could be related to a heightened awareness of one’s surroundings or an increased sense of empathy. “This is the first evidence that the practice of meditation—even for brief periods of time—increases peoples’ responsiveness and motivation to relieve the suffering of others,” DeSteno said.