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A new study finds that adults can be trained to be more compassionate, even towards really annoying people.
In a study involving 56 subjects, US researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison trained young adults to engage in compassion meditation, an ancient Buddhist technique to increase caring feelings for people who are suffering. In the meditation, participants envisioned a time when someone had suffered and then practiced wishing that his or her suffering was relieved. They repeated phrases to help them focus on compassion, such as "May you be free from suffering. May you have joy and ease." Meanwhile, a control group practiced cognitive reappaisal, a technique that teaches people to reframe their thoughts to feel less negative. Subjects in both groups practiced 30 minutes per day for two weeks using audio guides over the Internet. In the test group, participants practiced cultivating compassion with different categories of people, starting with a loved one, then for themselves, and then a stranger. The last phase involved practicing compassion for someone they actively had conflict with, such as a difficult coworker or roommate. "It's kind of like weight training," said lead researcher Helen Weng. "Using this systematic approach, we found that people can actually build up their compassion 'muscle' and respond to others' suffering with care and a desire to help."Both the test and control groups then played an Internet game in which they were given the opportunity to spend their own money to respond to someone in need. Playing with two anonymous players, subjects watched as one player unfairly distributed money to the other ($1 out of $10), with subjects then deciding how much of their own money they would offer to equalize the unfair split. The compassion trainees were much more likely to spend their own money altruistically to help someone who was treated unfairly than the control group, Weng said.Subjects also underwent functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans while viewing images of human suffering, such as a crying child. Those who were the most altruistic in the Internet game also showed the most brain changes when viewing the images, with increased activity in the inferior parietal cortex, a region of the brain involved in empathy. Compassion training also increased activity in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and the extent to which it communicated with the nucleus accumbens, brain regions involved in emotion regulation and positive emotions."People seem to become more sensitive to other people's suffering, but this is challenging emotionally," explained Weng. "They learn to regulate their emotions so that they approach people's suffering with caring and wanting to help rather than turning away."The study, announced Wednesday, is published online in the journal Psychological Science. Assess: http://pss.sagepub.com/content/early/2013/05/20/0956797612469537jw/kc