Study Finds Meditation Increases Compassionate Responses to Suffering
After 8 weeks of meditation practice, people were 3 times more likely to give up their seat for a woman using crutches compared to people who didn’t meditate.
The research paper: http://www.socialemotions.org/page5/files/Condon.etal.2013.pdf
I found it interesting that the numbers were so low in both cases: only 16% of non-meditators gave up their seat, compared to 50% of meditators. I’d like to think that if I was in a waiting room where every seat was taken, and a woman walked in with crutches and looked like she was in pain, I’d give her my seat! But that’s the bystander effect (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bystander_effect) in practice: the more bystanders there are, the less likely it is that anyone will help.
Now, I’ve always thought of meditation as a way to manage your own personal stresses. Or, following the Buddhist tradition, it’s a way to end suffering caused by desire. But I never thought of meditation as a way to end other people’s suffering! Why would meditation make you more compassionate? Is it simply because it puts you in a better mood, which in turn makes you nicer to others? Or does meditation affect compassion more directly?
The NY Times article mentions another study that found “even relatively brief training in meditative techniques can alter neural functioning in brain areas associated with empathic understanding of others’ distress”. (That paper can be found here: http://brainimaging.waisman.wisc.edu/publications/2013/WengCompassionPsychSci.pdf) More and more studies have found that mental skills like attention and willpower improve with conscious practice, just as if they’re muscles that need to be exercised. So, intuitively, it makes sense that compassion might work the same way. But that’s just a guess; there’s clearly a lot more research that needs to be done before we can really say we understand how compassion works!
Does anyone else here meditate? Have you noticed yourself becoming any more compassionate?
Photo by Beni Ishaque Luthor