Consider the following test – you are shown a series of black-and-white photos of human faces, but you can see only their eyes; the rest of their facial expressions and any other “body language” is hidden from your view. Your task is to, for each photo, choose the best word from a group of four words that best describes what the person in the photo is thinking or feeling.
This test, developed by Cambridge psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen, is called “Reading the Mind in the Eyes,” and was developed to help diagnose and treat individuals with Asperger Syndrome (AS) or High-Functioning Autism (HFA). Such individuals have difficulties with empathy, the ability to detect accurately what other people are thinking and feeling. An example from the Web page http://glennrowe.net/baroncohen/faces/eyestest.aspx (where you can take a version of this test) is shown below:
Clearly, individuals with AS or HFA are not the only ones with this difficulty. Many people perform badly when given tests like this that measure their empathy. That is one reason that recent research reported in the journal Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience is exciting. Researchers found that a short training course in meditation techniques increased people’s ability to be empathic, and in fact increased activity in the areas of their brains associated with empathy.
The study, and its surprising results
Conducted by fellows of Emory University and their School Of Medicine’s Emory-Tibet Partnership, the research followed up on previous research that indicated that training in Cognitively-Based Compassion Training (CBCT), which includes the practice of mindfulness meditation, was found to lower emotional distress and improve physical resilience in response to stress. CBCT is a secularized form of meditation practices based on the work of one of the authors of the study, Lobsang Tenzin Negi, and is drawn from the lojong tradition of Tibetan Buddhism. Lojong means “mind training” or “thought transformation,” and is based on the idea that self-centered thinking and behavior causes distress and dis-ease, whereas other-centered, altruistic, or empathic thinking creates benefits to oneself and to others.
CBCT, as used in this study, is an eight-week training in which subjects met for two hours a week. In each session they received training in the practice’s theories, and then practiced the meditation techniques as a group. They were also encouraged to practice on their own at home, using guided CBCT meditation tapes. All subjects took the Reading the Mind in the Eyes test while the researchers “watched” their brains using fMRI technology. Then half of the subjects took the CBCT training, while the other half (the control group) did not. At the end of this period of time, all subjects retook the empathy test, again as researchers performed fMRI scans.
The CBCT group improved their scores on the empathy test by an average of 4.6 percent, while the control group showed either no better performance or (for the majority) a lower performance. The group practicing the meditation techniques also showed significant increases in neural activity in the inferior frontal gyrus and dorsomedial prefrontal cortex, areas of the brain known to be associated with empathy.
Again, mindfulness meditation techniques produce changes in the brain itself
As in previous studies in which fMRI scans have been performed, CBCT training seems to have had the effect of actually changing how the brain works, and which regions of it are most used or utilized. As senior study author Charles Raison puts it, “These findings raise the intriguing possibility that CBCT may have enhanced empathic abilities by increasing activity in parts of the brain that are of central importance for our ability to recognize the emotional states of others.”
Increasing one’s ability to be empathic has significant benefits not just for everyday individuals, but for physicians and therapists as well. A previous study published in the journal Academic Medicine reported that the patients of doctors who scored low on empathy tests were far more likely to develop complications to their diabetes than patients of doctors who scored highly on such tests. Being able to better empathize with their patients not only made them better doctors, it improved the outcome of treatment for their patients.
Even if we are not in the position of treating or caring for others in a professional capacity, we are in the position of interacting with other people every day. Our ability to accurately perceive what they are thinking and feeling determines to some extent how effective and harmonious our relationships with them can be. Thus any techniques that seem to improve our ability to be empathic would probably be useful in improving our overall ability to be a compassionate and caring human being.