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The instruction unfolds in the following order:. Another contemplative program that incorporates analytic strategies is compassionate mind training CMT and its more encompassing psychotherapeutic application, Compassion-Focused Therapy CFT; Gilbert, A clinically informed practice constructed as a therapeutic tool, CFT incorporates a Buddhist understanding of compassion alongside the cultivation of emotion regulation skills and the augmentation of secure attachment Gilbert, , with the idea that by instilling feelings of safety and decreasing negative emotions, the patient will grow their compassion, and in turn, their well-being Gilbert, a.

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However, it is important to note that CFT incorporates a wide array of practices to maximize its therapeutic potential for a thorough description, see Gilbert, b. Interestingly, CFT entrusts the therapist to model the components of compassion in a way that imparts those skills on their patient Gilbert, , and an intriguing hypothesis is that the therapist benefits alongside the patient. While several studies attest to the efficacy of CFT Gale et al. Such research would improve our understanding of the active ingredients in each practice at the same time that it would prove a powerful tool for testing basic scientific models such as the one presented below.

Intriguingly, the aforementioned practices also have a common foundational thread, which is a fundamental realization that empathy and compassion are malleable and can be cultivated and optimized. In fact, while the third section of CBCT, Cultivating Self-Compassion , can be easily misunderstood as something akin to self-esteem, the teachings and practices are in actuality designed to help practitioners reflect on their innate ability to cultivate and shape their mind.

This research suggests that one of the active ingredients in compassion meditation may be simply, but repeatedly, empowering practitioners with the understanding that empathy and compassion are traits that can be cultivated. If this is the case, we would expect to see similar effects on neural systems regardless of the practice, just as we might find that compassion meditation has a similar effect to other experimental inductions or interventions that engender beliefs in the malleability of empathy and compassion.

Following the western scientific definition of empathy above, an empathic response is thought to have two crucial constituents: 1 an affective dimension that involves a shared affective experience, and 2 a cognitive dimension that includes the ability to understand or have some degree of conscious awareness that the affective experience is evoked by another. If either constituent is missing, the feeling becomes something else entirely. Should the cognitive piece be missing, the observer is instead experiencing emotional contagion or simulation.

Should the affective dimension be absent, the observer is using their theory of mind or perspective-taking skills. Together these constituents combine to form a fully empathic response de Vignemont and Singer, ; Eisenberg and Eggum, In addition to these core processes, empathy may require a self-other distinction and emotion regulation.

All of these processes take place in, and are influenced by, a neuromodulatory milieu that, as we will see, takes cues from the environment and may serve as a powerful target for contemplative practices.

Each of these three levels of neural influence and their possible control by meditation practices will be elaborated, but it is important to remember that this model is offered for heuristic purposes, with the acknowledgment that these processes and neural systems are multifaceted and likely influence one another in complex ways that are yet undiscovered. It should also be noted, as many have before, that prosocial behavior does not necessarily rely on each or even any of these components De Waal, ; Preston and Hofelich, ; Decety and Cowell, , just as compassion can likely occur in the absence of empathy, as will be discussed in more detail below.

With these caveats in mind, we will detail the neural systems that contribute to empathy and compassion. Proposed model linking core neural processes, active amidst a neuromodulatory backdrop, leading to empathy, compassion, and prosocial behavior. Though not consistently activated by many of the empathy-for-pain tasks utilized by functional neuroimagers Fan et al.

The first evidence supporting its importance for empathy came from studies of psychopaths, whose deficits in empathy form a core symptom of their disorder and who consistently have altered amygdala structure and function Rilling et al. Some have argued that the importance of the amygdala in this context stems from its role in detecting the salience of, and learning about, social information based on sensory cues Blair, , which may be critically involved in the affective dimension of empathy Hurlemann et al.

As such, neural activity related to motor simulation supports the ability to read emotional facial expressions Carr et al. In our longitudinal investigation of CBCT, we found that those randomized to meditation, compared to a health education control group, had enhanced scores on an empathic accuracy task.

A second component of empathy is often referred to as affective simulation, a process of matching limbic system activity with that of the target. Consistently, both the perception auditory and visual and contemplation of the suffering of another elicits activation in the anterior mid-cingulate cortex aMCC , as well as bilateral AI and ventral frontal operculum, particularly on the right side Lamm et al.

Importantly, these results were found using different paradigms, with one study inducing empathy in subjects by leading them to believe others were being excluded in a ball-tossing game Masten et al. In both cases, the finding that altruistic behavior was predicted by AI activity supports the idea that affective simulation is, at least in some cases, causal to compassion and prosocial behavior. Mentalizing consistently activates the medial and dorsomedial prefrontal cortex and the temporoparietal junction TPJ , systems that are thought to subserve relatively controlled, reflective cognition Lieberman, These neural regions are also activated by a diverse array of empathy-inducing tasks Lamm et al.

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Given the analytical nature of CBCT, it is worth speculating that training augments regions of the brain important for mentalizing. Consistent with this, our longitudinal study found that enhanced empathic accuracy scores were in part related to enhanced activity in the dorsomedial PFC Mascaro et al.

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An intriguing hypothesis is that these results reflect early effects of CBCT, and that with more extensive practice would come changes in the affective and motivational systems thought to subserve compassion, and described more fully below. Research from social and developmental psychology has convincingly demonstrated a difference, both in subjective feeling and in resultant behavior, between empathy and the related but distinct experience of personal distress Batson et al.

It involves feeling distressed by the state of the other. However, there was a negative relationship between self-focused distress child turns away from victim, interpreted as avoidance of the distressing stimuli and prosocial behavior Trommsdorff et al. Interestingly, Buddhist contemplative accounts are consistent with this idea:.


Visions of Compassion

But such a feeling may actually lead instead to righteous indignation and the vengeful wish to exact retribution on the one who has made the other person unhappy. On the other hand, in the cultivation of compassion, empathetic sadness or grief acts instead as fuel for the warmth of compassion. Taken together, these data suggest that becoming mired in personal distress is distinct from empathy and impairs prosocial behavior. Defined as the initiation of new, or modulation of ongoing, emotional responses, emotion regulation varies in method and speed of processing from changes in attention to more cognitive reappraisal strategies Ochsner and Gross, For example, simply shifting attention toward or away from social cues can up- or down-regulate empathic processes Zaki, , a regulatory process that arguably involves the amygdala, in some cases relying on it Todd et al.

One testable hypothesis is that individuals motivated toward a compassionate response by meditation modulate their attention toward a suffering other in such a way to hover in a sweet spot, empathic but not over-aroused. In addition to attention-shifting, cognitive reappraisal may modulate empathy by altering emotional responding. Zaki presents a detailed model of empathy-specific appraisals that are influenced by approach and avoidance motivations to determine empathy across contexts. In general, cognitive strategies activate the lateral Ochsner et al.

Interestingly, cognitive reappraisal strategies involving prefrontal regions are generally linked with reduced activation of the amygdala e. While emotion regulation is often hypothesized as an integral outcome of mindfulness meditation e. Importantly, the positive spiral of increased vagal tone was mediated by increased feelings of social connectivity. While the researchers assessed vagal tone at rest, an interesting next step would be to examine whether these gains in vagal tone are evident during an empathy-inducing situation.

Weng et al. Those randomized to LKM had increased neural activity while viewing photographs of others suffering in an area of the putative mirror-neuron system inferior parietal lobe and in a brain region important for emotion regulation [dorsolateral PFC dlPFC ], and they exhibited more altruism during an economic game outside of the scanner. Functional connectivity between the dlPFC and the nucleus accumbens NA predicted greater altruistic behavior, a finding the authors interpreted as consistent with the idea that LKM enhances altruism by augmenting emotion regulation in the face of suffering.

For example, van Kleef et al. Nearly two decades of research from social psychology shows that excessive overlap between self and other may render the perceiver mired in personally oriented distress that, rather than leading to prosocial behavior, leads to disengagement from the victim Batson et al.

In addition to this cross-sectional research, Hoffman cites developmental research in support of the same idea. Several studies have found that mirror-self recognition in children predicts later helping behavior during empathic distress Zahn-Waxler et al. To the best of our knowledge kindness-based meditation practices have not been shown to impact the TPJ or to increase the ability to take an other-oriented perspective; however, a recent study by Garrison et al.

In this study, experienced meditators practicing LKM in the fMRI scanner had reduced functional connectivity between nodes of the default mode network thought to be important for self-referential processing Garrison et al. Clarifying the distinction between compassion and empathy may be highlighted as an example of the promise of functional neuroimaging, as recent studies of these discrete affective states reveal distinctly different patterns of brain activation.

In fact, one of the first neuroimaging studies that purported to probe the neural correlates of compassion likely evoked empathy, and as such, the neural response to the empathy-inducing stimuli was characteristic of the core network described above Immordino-Yang et al. However, Kim et al. A more recent study found that activity in the septal nuclei, another area important for reward and motivation, was commonly activated by several different empathy-inducing tasks and predicted helping behaviors Morelli et al.

Interestingly, the research on compassion dovetails with that emerging from the investigation of the neurobiology of the parental brain. Animal models have long implicated both the septal area Francis et al.

Visions of Compassion - Mind & Life Institute

In fact, there is accumulating evidence that LKM alters the reward and motivation system in ways that support compassion. Klimecki et al. After the former, participants had enhanced activity in AI bilaterally and aMCC, whereas compassion training enhanced activity in the ventral striatum and medial orbitofrontal cortex mOFC; Klimecki et al. Research from multiple domains supports the idea that empathy and compassionate behavior are diminished by both acute and chronic states of social disconnection.


For example, experimental induction of social exclusion is linked to a reduction in empathy and less subsequent prosocial behavior toward others DeWall and Baumeister, ; Twenge et al. A related body of literature reports a consistent negative relationship between empathy and depression Cusi et al. In other studies, enhanced signaling in the innate immune system has been shown to further increase feelings of isolation and enhance amygdala responses to threatening social stimuli Inagaki et al.

Taken together, these studies reveal a powerful cycle whereby isolation and depression enhance inflammation, which then further enhance subjective isolation and decrease empathy and compassion. The optimistic outlook on such a negative cycle is that compassion practices may present an equally powerful intervention that targets the cycle at multiple sites by augmenting both subjective feelings of social connectivity and the biological systems that support it Pace et al. If this is true, then we would hypothesize that decreases in inflammation e.

Desbordes et al. Importantly, the increased amygdala activation was associated with reduced levels of depression Desbordes et al. This finding is consistent with studies reporting that CBCT reduces inflammatory biomarkers both at rest and in response to psychosocial stress Pace et al.

Visions of Compassion Western Scientists and Tibetan Buddhists Examine Human Nature

A rapidly burgeoning literature suggests that the oxytocin OT system plays an important role in empathy. Research on OT most recently points to a complex, but generally supportive role for OT in the generation of social emotions and behaviors such as trust, empathy, cooperation, social attention, eye gaze, as well as augmentation of the vagal system and dampening of the innate immune and sympathetic response to psychosocial stress [reviewed in Carter ]. Taken together, these findings suggest that the OT system may be involved in mediating the effects of meditation on prosocial emotions and behavior.

However, to the best of our knowledge there is no current evidence that kindness-based meditation alters the OT system. This may be attributed to the fact that central nervous system levels of OT are notoriously difficult to assay and to the potential limitations of plasma measures, which may not accurately reflect OT levels affecting the brain and behavior Kagerbauer et al.

Unfortunately, a method for directly assessing this possibility in vivo does not currently exist, but another possibility, both intriguing and tractable for investigation, is that individual differences in OT receptor polymorphisms, such as those with known relationships with empathy Rodrigues et al.

At all levels in the process, neural systems are influenced by oxytocin and the pro-inflammatory immune system. Kindness-based meditation practices may influence each of these neural systems; however, to date the most consistent evidence supports the idea that LKM enhances the neural systems important for emotion regulation dlPFC: Weng et al.