Until fairly recently, the brain was perceived as a more or less fixed structure that created connections during our childhood and then remain relatively unchanged until it starts deteriorating with old age. However, over the last ten years the term “neuroplasticity” —the capacity of the brain to change through experience — has become a hot topic in neuroscience, in psychology, and even in popular culture, especially after the publication of The Brain that Changes Itself by Norman Doidge. All of a sudden everybody became interested in rewiring their brains.
Research in neuroplasticity, however, has mainly focused on how the brain changes through cognitive and behavioral training. But what about emotions? Is it possible to generate positive changes in the emotional centers of the brain through emotional training? And more specifically, is it possible to train positive and pro-social emotions such as compassion and altruistic love so that they become more available in our emotional repertoire?
A team of researchers headed by Tania Singer from the Max Planck Institute in Leipzig, Germany addressed this question in a research report published in the June 2012 edition of Cerebral Cortex. To find out whether compassion training has an effect on brain functions and emotions, they measured brain activation in adult participants using brain imaging (fMRI), along with self-reports of positive and negative emotions and empathy, before and after a 6-hour loving-kindness and compassion meditation training. The brain images were recorded while people were presented with video clips portraying people suffering in real life situations.
As the researchers had predicted, the video clips activated the anterior insula and anterior medial cingulate cortex of the participants’ brains—areas associated with empathy for pain. What was different after the short compassion training was that parts of the brain that are associated with reward and pleasant emotions, such as love, care, and affiliation, also lit up. These are the same areas that become activated when you eat a delicious chocolate or see a beautiful smile, namely the medial orbitofrontal cortex, ventral tegmental area, putamen, and pallidum. Being with suffering was no longer a purely negative experience. This does not mean that the compassion training erased the participants´ acknowledgement and resonance with the images of suffering. In fact, the empathic areas of their brains still responded, and they still felt emotions that were coherent with the images, so their awareness of what was happening was clearly still present. Rather, the suffering was no longer the whole story; there was also space for warmth and positive feelings toward the people in the video clips. The ability to feel warmth toward a person who is experiencing suffering is a core element of compassion.
Singer´s findings have very concrete implications for our daily lives. For instance, imagine that you are going through a hard time and you are feeling particularly sad. What would be more helpful, the company of a friend who could resonate with your pain but get totally sucked into your sadness and end up just as distressed? Or the company of a friend who is able to feel your sadness, but can still stay composed and maintain a certain level of positive emotions? Most probably, the second friend will be more likely to accept and transform your pain. What if you were on the other side of this equation? What if you were giving emotional support to someone suffering? The compassionate response helps you recruit your psychological, neurological and spiritual resources to effectively help without burning out.
There is a common belief that meditation is about spacing out or escaping reality. Singer´s research suggests that it is quite the opposite for the meditation participants still connect with the other person’s suffering, and they actually connect with it in a more constructive way. When our minds are scattered or lost in thought— much of the day for many of us—our brains are in a state that neuroscientists call “the default network”. In this state, instead of connecting fully and freshly with what is happening right now, we tend to project or impose our preconceived ideas onto other people and situations, which leads us to react out of habit patterns instead of responding in an open and constructive way.
The mental space and clarity that meditation generates allows the emergence of what Thupten Jinpa, the Tibetan scholar and developer of Stanford´s compassion cultivation training, calls tsewa—a Tibetan term that refers to a basic sense of caring, a quality of tenderness, or a “quivering of the heart” concerning the welfare of others. According to this tradition, tsewa, in its seed form, is felt toward close others, but it can be expanded to all beings. This urge to expand the circle of care is not only a Buddhist idea. It is increasingly becoming a point of convergence between different philosophical and religious traditions, social and ecological movements, and, last but not least, science.
About the Author
Gonzalo Brito is a Chilean clinical psychologist who has worked with diverse populations in Peru and Chile, integrating western psychological approaches with local traditional medicine, meditation, and yoga. As a certified yoga teacher and MBSR instructor, he has included these practices into his clinical work and workshops for health care professionals and educators over the last eight years. As a Ph.D. candidate, his main focus is on compassion cultivation practices and their benefits at the individual and relational levels. Gonzalo recently graduated from CCARE’s Compassion Cultivation Training program. He is currently teaching CCT in Chile and researching the impact of the first adaptation of CCT to a Spanish-speaking country. Gonzalo is a founding member of Red Mindfulness (www.redmindfulness.org), a Spanish-speaking network that focuses on bringing contemplative practices and insights into education, work, and society at large.