Research finds Meditation can make you more Compassionate

Studies have looked previously at the effect of meditation on the brain and the body. Now a recent study from Northeastern University has taken a look at what possible impacts meditation could have on interpersonal harmony and compassion.

Compassion is the ability to see how it all is. — Ram Dass

Numerous religious traditions have taught that mediation does have a positive effect in this regard, but no scientific proof existed, until now.

To check the effects meditation would have on compassion and virtuous behavior, this study had participants complete eight-week trainings in two types of meditation. After the training came the test.

Testing Compassion

Two actors were placed, sitting in a staged waiting room with three chairs. One empty chair was left, and the participant sat down and waited to be called.

Another actor with crutches, appearing to be in great physical pain, would then enter the room. As he did, the actors in the chair would ignore him by doing something on their smartphones or opening a newspaper.

What David DeSten and Paul Condon, who led the study, wanted to know was whether the people who took part in the meditation classes would be more likely to come to the aid of the person in pain, even when everyone else ignored him.

“We know meditation improves a person’s own physical and psychological wellbeing,” said Condon. “We wanted to know whether it actually increases compassionate behavior.”

With the non-meditating participant control group, only about 15 percent of people acted to help.

However, with the participants who were in the meditation sessions “we were able to boost that up to 50 percent,” said DeSteno.

No By-Stander Effect

That result held true for both meditation type groups thereby showing the effect to be consistent across different forms of meditation.

“The truly surprising aspect of this finding is that meditation made people willing to act virtuous – to help another who was suffering – even in the face of a norm not to do so,” DeSteno said, “The fact that the other actors were ignoring the pain creates as ‘bystander-effect’ that normally tends to reduce helping. People often wonder ‘Why should I help someone if no one else is?’”

The results seem to back up what Buddhist theologians have long believed, that meditation can lead you to experience more compassion and love for all sentient beings. But even for non-Buddhists, the findings offer scientific validation that meditation techniques are able to change the moral calculus of our minds.

Meditation Increases Compassionate Responses to Suffering
Paul Condon, Gaëlle Desbordes, Willa B. Miller, and David DeSteno
Psychological Science, October 2013; vol. 24, 10: pp. 2125-2127

photo: analogophile, Creative Commons License