Matthew Brensilver, PhD

Mindfulness and Empathy

How mindfulness training helps build a foundational social and emotional skill

I wanted to reflect  a bit on empathy and mindfulness. Humans are social beings and positive relationships are important for our happiness. Empathy is a capacity that allows us to understand the minds of others and to resonate emotionally with those states.1 empathy-1Empathy forms a cornerstone of social cooperation.

As you probably have heard, mindfulness has been linked to a range of positive effects and is being integrated into medicine,2 mental health3 and education.4 Here, I address two important questions:

First, what’s the relationship between mindfulness and empathy?

Second, can mindfulness training enhance empathy?

These are especially important questions if you’re an educator, as the development of empathy in children is an important goal.

Mindfulness as Self-Empathy

You’re probably familiar with the saying, “to stand in someone else’s shoes.” That is an aspect of empathy. However, before we stand in someone else’s shoes, we first need to know what it’s like to stand in our own shoes! With mindfulness, we learn to truly stand in our own shoes. From this perspective, mindfulness is a practice of selfempathy. This kind of self-awareness allows us to develop empathic connections to others.5 As we experience the landscape of our inner life with more detail and richness, our ability to understand the inner lives of others expands.

Stress as Barrier to Empathy

Mindfulness and empathy are linked through their shared relationship with stress. While mindfulness decreases stress,6 stress weakens empathy.7 When our attention is pooled up in our own stress, it’s as if there is less real estate for the concerns of others. After a long stressful day, perhaps you’ve noticed that you’re probably less receptive to a letter, for example, asking for donations to a good cause. It should come as no surprise that mindfulness programs that reduce stress also enhance empathy.8,9

Empathy & Mindfulness – Neurobiology & Recent Research

There are some intriguing results from brain studies of empathy and meditation practice. Tania Singer – one of the leading scientists exploring empathy in the brain – has highlighted the anterior insula and the cingulate cortex as brain-2key brain regions for empathic responses.10 An important study recently examined the impact of meditation practice on brain structure. The results highlighted several brain regions impacted by meditative practice: the anterior cingulate and the insula were among the impacted regions.11

Recent research has examined the relationship between mindfulness and empathy directly. In one study, participants either spent five minutes doing mindfulness practice or five minutes being distracted.12 After those five minutes, participants took a test where they saw photographs of people’s eyes and were asked to identify the emotion that person was feeling. They also completed a writing assignment that assessed their level of empathy. Remarkably, after only five minutes of mindfulness practice, the mindfulness group dramatically out-performed the distraction group at detecting the correct emotion in the photographs. The mindfulness group was also judged to be more empathic.

Does Mindfulness Training Help Turn Empathy Into Meaningful Action?

empathy-3These findings are really interesting, but they leave an important question unanswered. Does enhanced empathy lead to more kindness and prosocial behavior? After all, if empathy doesn’t change how we behave in the world, its value is diminished. There is evidence that mindfulness makes people more kind. For example, mindfulness is related to lower levels of aggression,13,14 and compassion practices often taught alongside mindfulness enhance social connection and altruistic behavior.15,16,17

To assess the link between mindfulness and kindness, one research team devised a very cool study.18 Here is what they did:

  • There were two groups – one mindfulness group and one cognitive training group.
  • The mindfulness group received three weeks of online mindfulness instruction.
  • The cognitive training group received three weeks of online training too, but their training did not include mindfulness.
  • At the end of the three weeks, the researchers asked the participants to come to the research office to complete the study. But that was actually a set-up! Prior to a participant’s arrival, two unknown people from the research team (confederates) pretended to be waiting in the lobby. There were three chairs and the confederates were sitting in two of them. When the real research participant arrived, they sat in the remaining chair. So, there were no chairs left.
  • A minute later, a third confederate arrived. The third confederate had crutches and a walking boot. (She didn’t actually have a broken foot but that was part of the study). The person with the ‘broken’ foot, who visibly winced while walking, stopped just as she arrived at the chairs. She audibly sighed in discomfort, and leaned back against a wall.
  • To assess kindness, the research team measured whether the participant offered their seat to the person with the broken foot to relieve her pain.

So, guess what happened? Good news! The mindfulness group gave up their chair at more than twice the rate as the individuals who got the cognitive training.  A previous study including face-to-face mindfulness instructions reached similar conclusions.19 Findings such as these testify to the fact that as we pay attention to our breath, our body, our lives, in this simple and gentle way, a natural consequence is the opening of the heart.empathy-4

Conclusion

The scientific investigation of mindfulness, empathy and kindness is just beginning. Important questions remain. For example, Singer and her colleagues distinguish empathic distress from compassion.20 While empathic distress is associated with negative emotion and burnout, compassion actually feels good and is associated with health and prosocial behavior.  Crucially, most of the data discussed are from adults. Understanding the role of mindfulness and empathy at different developmental stages is an important area for future study. Childhood and adolescence may be a critical time for the cultivation of mindfulness, empathy and kindness.21

It’s an interesting time to see what light science will shine on the development of the heart. Stay tuned!


References

[1] Gonzalez-Liencres, C., Shamay-Tsoory, S. G., & Brüne, M. (2013). Towards a neuroscience of empathy: ontogeny, phylogeny, brain mechanisms, context and psychopathology. Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews, 37(8), 1537-1548.

[2] Ludwig, D. S., & Kabat-Zinn, J. (2008). Mindfulness in medicine. JAMA, 300(11), 1350-1352.

[3] Khoury, B., Lecomte, T., Fortin, G., Masse, M., Therien, P., Bouchard, V., … & Hofmann, S. G. (2013). Mindfulness-based therapy: A comprehensive meta-analysis. Clinical Psychology Review, 33(6), 763-771.

[4] Zenner, C., Herrnleben-Kurz, S., & Walach, H. (2013). Mindfulness-based interventions in schools-a systematic review and meta-analysis. Frontiers in Psychology, 5, 603.

[5] Decety, J., & Jackson, P. L. (2004). The functional architecture of human empathy. Behavioral and cognitive neuroscience reviews, 3(2), 71-100.

[6] Brown, K. W., Creswell, J. D., & Ryan, R. M. (Eds.). (2015). Handbook of mindfulness: Theory, research, and practice. Guilford Publications.

[7] Krasner, M. S., Epstein, R. M., Beckman, H., Suchman, A. L., Chapman, B., Mooney, C. J., & Quill, T. E. (2009). Association of an educational program in mindful communication with burnout, empathy, and attitudes among primary care physicians. JAMA, 302(12), 1284-1293.

[8] Shapiro, S. L., Schwartz, G. E., & Bonner, G. (1998). Effects of mindfulness-based stress reduction on medical and premedical students. Journal of Behavioral Medicine, 21(6), 581-599.

[9] Lamothe, M., Rondeau, É., Malboeuf-Hurtubise, C., Duval, M., & Sultan, S. (2016). Outcomes of MBSR or MBSR-based interventions in health care providers: A systematic review with a focus on empathy and emotional competencies. Complementary Therapies in Medicine, 24, 19-28.

[10] Bernhardt, B. C., & Singer, T. (2012). The eural basis of empathy. Neuroscience, 35(1), 1-23.

[11] Fox, K. C., Nijeboer, S., Dixon, M. L., Floman, J. L., Ellamil, M., Rumak, S. P., … & Christoff, K. (2014). Is meditation associated with altered brain structure? A systematic review and meta-analysis of morphometric neuroimaging in meditation practitioners. Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews, 43, 48-73.

[12] Tan, L. B., Lo, B. C., & Macrae, C. N. (2014). Brief mindfulness meditation improves mental state attribution and empathizing. PloS One, 9(10), e110510.

[13] Fix, R. L., & Fix, S. T. (2013). The effects of mindfulness-based treatments for aggression: A critical review. Aggression and Violent Behavior, 18(2), 219-227.

[14] Denson, T. F. (2015). Four promising psychological interventions for reducing reactive aggression. Current Opinion in Behavioral Sciences, 3, 136-141.

[15] Hofmann, S. G., Grossman, P., & Hinton, D. E. (2011). Loving-kindness and compassion meditation: Potential for psychological interventions. Clinical psychology review, 31(7), 1126-1132.

[16] Hutcherson, C. A., Seppala, E. M., & Gross, J. J. (2008). Loving-kindness meditation increases social connectedness. Emotion, 8(5), 720-724.

[17] Weng, H. Y., Fox, A. S., Shackman, A. J., Stodola, D. E., Caldwell, J. Z., Olson, M. C., … & Davidson, R. J. (2013). Compassion training alters altruism and neural responses to suffering. Psychological science, 24(7), 1171-1180.

[18] Lim, D., Condon, P., & DeSteno, D. (2015). Mindfulness and compassion: an examination of mechanism and scalability. PloS one, 10(2), e0118221.

[19] Condon, P., Desbordes, G., Miller, W. B., & DeSteno, D. (2013). Meditation increases compassionate responses to suffering. Psychological Science, 24(10), 2125-2127.

[20] Singer, T., & Klimecki, O. M. (2014). Empathy and compassion. Current Biology, 24(18), R875-R878.

[21] Eisenberg, N., & Mussen, P. H. (1989). The roots of prosocial behavior in children. Cambridge University Press.

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