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Scientific Meditation Research Shows Improved Empathy & Compassion

Most of us are aware that scientific meditation research demonstrates a large number of benefits that regular meditation practitioners receive, both in the short and long term. Meditation science is growing as more and more studies are released every year on the benefits of mindfulness and other forms of meditation.

What may be slightly less known is the effect of your meditation practice on those around you. There is now a growing amount of scientific research on meditation which shows that it improves empathy and compassion.

If you’re an experienced meditator, you probably don’t need scientific studies to confirm this. Maybe your friends do, though.

Let’s go through some of the science and the methodologies behind it.

In 2013, Paul Condon, of Northeastern University, led a cleverly designed study in Boston to determine whether meditation increases the likelihood of recognizing and responding to a person in need. They used a random sample of 39 people who signed up for an eight week meditation class. None of them had taken such classes before.

20 people actually took the meditation classes, and they were equally divided into two courses – a mindfulness meditation course and a compassion meditation course. The other 19 were told that they were being put on a waiting list.

When the eight weeks were up, participants were invited to the lab to test various cognitive functions. That’s what they were told, anyway. This turned out to be absolute balderdash with overtones of hogwarsh. In other words, for those like me who don’t live in Michigan, rubbish. If you’re an Italian New Yorker, well, never mind.

The real lab was the waiting room of the lab. There were three chairs, and two were occupied by actors. After the participant was seated, a woman walked in with crutches and a boot that indicated a broken foot. She made sure to create some visual and auditory cues communicating pain. The actor then sat down on the floor with her back to the wall.

The two actors in the chairs intentionally ignored the third actor. This reinforced the “bystander effect” so that the unknowing research participant would be less likely to offer his/her chair to the woman. Each participant was given exactly two minutes to pass or fail this test.

Birds forming a heart shape

A mere 16% of the people who did not take the eight week course gave up their seats so that this woman could sit more comfortably. A whopping 50% of study participants who took one of the courses gave up their seats. Both the mindfulness meditation and the compassion meditation students did so in equal numbers.

These numbers were provided by a researcher, David DeSteno, who oversaw the study. The exact words in the actual scientific paper said that the meditation classes “[increased] the odds of acting to relieve another’s pain by more than five times (odds ratio=5.33).” Not sure whether this is a contradiction, but it does disturb my common sense.

The main conclusion of this scientific research is that these types of meditation increased the likelihood that one would notice a person’s pain and respond to it with positive action. What is possibly more important than the conclusion is the questions this meditation study provoked.

Why were the people who had been meditating regularly for two months more likely to notice the situation and respond?

Researchers offered a few hypotheses. One is that meditation allows you to be more attentive and less lost in an endless labyrinth of thought. Another is that meditation causes people to feel more connected to others. It lessens the dichotomy of “us” and “them”.

One popular method in meditation science is functional MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging) scans. Functional MRI measures brain activity in real time. Some studies have shown that brain activity associated with empathy and the ability to perceive and alleviate distress in others is heightened in both short term and long term meditators.

Other research studies demonstrate the cumulative nature of many of the effects of meditation on the brain. This is generally due to the fact that increased activity in any part of the brain generates more synapses that connect the neurons. This means a greater and more efficient flow of communication between brain cells. It would be interesting to see the above experiment repeated with a third group of long term meditators.

About the groups who took two different classes: The conclusion there, of course, is that both types of meditation increase your empathic and compassionate response to suffering. The teacher, a Buddhist Lama, made sure not to emphasize compassion and empathy in the mindfulness class.

Just because the research participants who took the classes responded positively in even numbers, this does not mean that mindfulness and compassion meditation produce this effect equally. The sample size of ten vs ten allowed for a margin of error that is quite large for scientific research. It was quite clear, however, that both had a large effect on the outcome compared to the control group.

Share your thoughts on the science of meditation and research studies regarding improved empathy and compassion in the comments below. Or hell, share your direct experiences as well.

Tom Von Deck author box

Tom Von Deck is a meditation trainer and speaker. Tom specializes in making meditation much much easier for busy and non-busy people from all backgrounds and paths. He is the Mackdaddy of The Deeper Meditation Video Zone and 

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