Can you train someone to be a nicer person? A recent study using meditation techniques shows that it might be possible. The research is published in the journal Psychological Science. [Helen Y. Weng et al, Compassion Training Alters Altruism and Neural Responses to Suffering]
One group of subjects learned to practice what’s called “compassionate meditation” by focusing on a specific person while repeating a phrase like, “May you be free from suffering.” The subjects concentrated on five different people: A loved one, a friend, themselves, a stranger and then someone they were in conflict with. Another group of subjects performed general positive thinking. Both groups did the exercise 30 minutes a day for two weeks.
Then everyone was asked to spend money to help a fictional character who had been treated unfairly.
And the subjects who did compassionate meditation were more likely to spend their money to help than those who trained to just think more positively. The researchers also did brain scans of those who behaved most altruistically, before and after training. And people who were most altruistic after training showed the biggest increases in activity in brain areas involved in empathy and positive emotion. So empathy appears to be like a muscle—it can be built up by exercise that causes actual physiological changes.
[The above text is a transcript of this podcast.]