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Updated: June 27, 2013 00:31 IST

Training the brain to care

Shubashree Desikan
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Compassion and altruism are trainable skills. File photo: K. Murali Kumar
Compassion and altruism are trainable skills. File photo: K. Murali Kumar

Compassion and altruism are phenomena that are of as much interest to scientists as they are to philosophers. Perhaps compassion, which leads humans to carry out altruistic acts for the benefit of not only kin but also other members of the species, evolved to increase the survival of the species. Now there is a psychological study, published recently in Psychological Science journal which says that compassion can be cultivated; this in turn can lead to altruistic behaviour.

At first count this may not appear to be a dramatic result but rather as in the case of people who practise meditation to calm their minds. However there is more to it. The researchers, Helen Y. Weng et al., have observed in those individuals who were subjected to systematic compassion training, an altered activation in brain regions which are known to be involved in social cognition and emotion regulation, such as the inferior parietal cortex and dorsolateral prefrontal cortex.

In the experiment, forty-one individuals were chosen and given either compassion training (showing empathy for another person who was suffering) or re-appraisal training (reinterpreting situations to lessen one’s own mental suffering) for two weeks. Each of these 41 individuals was trained separately. After the training, both sets of people were given an altruistic task to do, namely a redistribution game: Using anonymous online interactions, participants witnessed a dictator (who had $10) give a very small amount of money ($1) to a victim. They were given a choice of parting with any amount of their own endowment ($5) to the victim on condition that the dictator parts with twice that amount to the victim. They were paid the amount remaining in their endowment after the game was over. Participants were told they were playing with live players and the results of only those people who believed this were considered in the study. The compassion trainees were seen to spend 1.84 times more money for the cause of the suffering victim than the reappraisal trainees. Which demonstrated that a “purely mental training in compassion can result in observable altruistic changes toward a victim…”

These findings support the view that compassion and altruism are trainable skills. It is not far-fetched then to explore whether such compassion-related trainings can be done to benefit groups of people alarmingly lacking in compassion such as psychopaths.

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