Mindfulness meditation is best known for its positive effects on practitioners’ brains and bodies. My research suggests it may also encourage compassion toward others.
Since acting compassionately usually means putting others’ needs ahead of your own, prompting yourself to act with kindness often requires not only vigilance but a bit of willpower. That’s not to say that relying on religious or philosophical guidance to prompt kindness won’t work at times. It will. But any method that depends on constant redirection of selfish urges and top-down monitoring of one’s moral code is apt to fail. Perhaps cultivating compassion situationally—so that it automatically emerges at the sight of others in need—would be more foolproof. As a psychologist interested in moral behavior, I have long wondered if there might be a way to develop precisely this sort of reflexive compassion.
Yet for all the emphasis meditation instructors place on kindness, solid evidence linking mindfulness to compassion has been lacking. By historical accident, the first psychologists to study meditation were experts in neuroanatomy, information processing, and physiology, which, as you might guess, meant that these topics were where they focused their research. The result was a decade’s worth of findings confirming that meditation enhances the functioning of brain and body—findings that continue to appear regularly, and serve as the basis for much of the publicity surrounding meditation. Unfortunately, the question of how meditation might influence social behavior wasn’t, until very recently, on anyone’s radar.
After eight weeks had passed, participants returned to our lab one by one, supposedly to complete measures of attention and memory. In reality, the true experiment occurred in the waiting room, which had three chairs, two of which were already occupied by actors. A few minutes after each participant arrived and took the remaining seat, a third actor appeared, this one on crutches, wearing a boot typically used for a broken foot, and wincing in pain. Upon entering, she leaned against a wall, sighing audibly, as there was nowhere for her to sit. By design, the other actors ignored her. They thumbed through books or scanned their smartphones, paying no mind to her discomfort.
Situations like this—in which other people seem to be ignoring a person in distress—are known to inhibit helping behavior, a phenomenon termed the “bystander effect.” If no one else is helping, why should you? In our study, among participants who didn’t meditate, the bystander effect was on clear display. Only 16 percent of our subjects (or three people out of 19) offered their chair to the actor on crutches. But of those who meditated, half (10 of 20) immediately and spontaneously offered their seat to the woman. It’s important to note that none of the participants had meditated before, and were all equally interested in signing up for the course (even though they knew some might be assigned to a waitlist). The resulting differences, then, didn’t stem from any factors related to a pre-existing interest in or experience with mindfulness. The only difference between the groups was that one meditated for eight weeks and the other didn’t. Nonetheless, eight weeks of meditation proved enough to triple the likelihood of this benevolent behavior, even under conditions known to discourage acts of kindness. And as any research psychologist will tell you, an intervention that can shift human behavior by three-fold holds a lot of promise.
Outside of the waiting room, however, there are people everywhere who need compassion. But there’s only so much to go around. As the Yale psychologist Paul Bloom regularly points out, it’s well established that we feel more empathy for single individuals in pain than for larger numbers of suffering masses. Based on this fact, techniques for building compassion might seem futile. And yet, it’s this very contradiction that helps to explain why meditation may be uniquely suited to fostering compassion.
But recent research by the neuroscientist Tania Singer and the Buddhist monk Matthieu Ricard has shown that meditation-based training reduces activation of the brain networks associated with simulating the feelings of people in distress, in favor of networks associated with feelings of social affiliation. In other words, shared pain rapidly dissipates, but compassion remains.
This finding appears to offers a neuroanatomical basis for something many long-time practitioners of meditation have observed: a lack of compassion fatigue among meditators. As Thupten Jinpa, a Buddhist scholar and long-time translator for the Dalai Lama, told me “meditation-based training enables practitioners to move quickly from feeling the distress of others to acting with compassion to alleviate it.” Put simply, contemplative training appears to teach the mind to move directly from an observation of suffering to benevolent action, without becoming paralyzed by others’ pain.
In short, then, our research suggests that mindfulness’s most profound benefit may not be the one that’s most often touted—adapting to a stressful, competitive, even unkind 24/7 world. Instead, meditation might fundamentally alter how we treat those around us. Corporations, physicians, and policy-makers who now push mindfulness as a technique for self-enhancement and physical wellbeing would do well to focus more on its potential for preventing everything from bullying to domestic violence to callousness and indifference. To see why, one only need look at the impressive results stemming from a meditation program that the Center for Wellness and Achievement Education recently offered in Visitation Valley School—a junior-high school in one of San Francisco’s poorest neighborhoods where violence was a frequent occurrence. After providing instruction and instituting twice-daily meditation periods known a Quiet Time, a noticeable difference began to emerge. Over a four-year period, school records show that suspensions decreased by 79 percent. It’s important to note that unlike the work from my lab, this was not a scientific study designed to control extraneous factors. Accordingly, it’s possible that the decline may have as much to do with the benefits of meditation as it does with a school culture that decided to adopt Quiet Time in the first place. Either way, though, the result is striking and calls for additional study.