Seeing someone else in pain or suffering can be very difficult. For many, we experience a sympathetic sense of the pain and suffering within ourselves and it can almost seem healthier to harden the heart and avoid taking it in. The trouble is, that can lead to guilt or feeling dissociated or disconnected and that is not very satisfying either.
Olga Klimecki from the Max Planck Institute, Leipzig, and her colleagues looked at the affects of cultivating compassion when confronted with the distress of others. They found that the principal empathetic response activated the anterior cingulated cortex (ACC) and the anterior insula. These areas underlie the empathetic experience of pain. They are activated during the personal experience of pain, the imagined experience and the empathetic experience of pain. There might be some activity in the mirror neuron system, especially when there was action involved, although this was not mentioned in this study.
After compassion training the neural activation was quite different, including the medial orbitofrontal cortex, putamen, palladium, and ventral tegmental area. These areas are correlated to positive affect, love and affiliation. These form a system that reflects positive affect showing that it is not only possible to maintain a positive ‘brainscape’ even in the face of the suffering of others, it is helpful for the brain of the observer in being able to better cope with the experience and, one would imagine, be more able to be helpful and useful for those that are suffering.
The compassion training involved spending one day with a teacher of kindness meditation. The intention was to create a general sense of prosocial feelings, rather than to prepare them for anything specific. Participants continued the meditative practice during three laboratory tested sessions of 45 minutes and privately at home for an average of 5-6 hours. They were also encouraged to practice the concepts in their daily lives. This indicates the possibility of long term potentiation (LTP) in the neural pathways and associations and perhaps develop some implicit, automatic response behaviour in the basal ganglia, although that is also not discussed in this paper.
One surprising finding was that negative affect was not actually reduced, but this was perceptively altered by the increase in positive affect. It may be that in order to be compassionate we still need to appreciate the suffering of others, and the juxtaposition of positive affect into that environment changes the nature of the way in which the negative affect stimulates other biological activity. Barbara Fredrickson (Broaden and Build Theory) discusses the nature of resilience, strengthening of personal resources and well being in a number of papers over the past 5 years.
The best part of the paper is in the final words of the discussion: Importantly, in comparison to other techniques for increasing positive affect, compassion benefits both, the person who experiences it (through strengthening positive affect) and the recipient of compassion (through fostering prosocial motivation). It seems that neuroscience is providing us the evidence for what we have known – that kindness and compassion builds a better world and a better person AND a better brain.
Klimecki, O.M., Lieberg, S., Lamm, C., & Singer, T. (2013) Functional neural plasticity and associated changes in positive affect after compassion training. Cerebral Cortex 23 (7): 1552-1561