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The ability to accurately infer others’ mental states from facial expressions is important for optimal social functioning and is fundamentally impaired in social cognitive disorders such as autism. While pharmacologic interventions have shown promise for enhancing empathic accuracy, little is known about the effects of behavioral interventions on empathic accuracy and related brain activity. This study employed a randomized, controlled and longitudinal design to investigate the effect of a secularized analytical compassion meditation program, cognitive-based compassion training (CBCT), on empathic accuracy. Twenty-one healthy participants received functional MRI scans while completing an empathic accuracy task, the Reading the Mind in the Eyes Test (RMET), both prior to and after completion of either CBCT or a health discussion control group. Upon completion of the study interventions, participants randomized to CBCT and were significantly more likely than control subjects to have increased scores on the RMET and increased neural activity in the inferior frontal gyrus (IFG) and dorsomedial prefrontal cortex (dmPFC). Moreover, changes in dmPFC and IFG activity from baseline to the post-intervention assessment were associated with changes in empathic accuracy. These findings suggest that CBCT may hold promise as a behavioral intervention for enhancing empathic accuracy and the neurobiology supporting it.
Abstract. We explore the role of meditative practice in cultivating experiences of compassion, empathy, and altruism and address an apparent paradox: Meditation often is associated with solitary retreat, if not preoccupation with one's own concerns. How, then, does such a practice promote compassion for others? We propose a two-stage model. The first stage involves disengagement from usual preoccupation with self-reinforcing, self-defeating, or self-indulgent behaviors and reactions; the second involves a focused engagement with a universal human capacity for altruistic experience, love, and compassion. Reference is made to the limited research literature and to clinical applications of loving kindness (metta) meditation in cultivating these processes.
Recent research suggests that lower-class individuals favor explanations of personal and political outcomes that are oriented to features of the external environment. We extended this work by testing the hypothesis that, as a result, individuals of a lower social class are more empathically accurate in judging the emotions of other people. In three studies, lower-class individuals (compared with upper-class individuals) received higher scores on a test of empathic accuracy (Study 1), judged the emotions of an interaction partner more accurately (Study 2), and made more accurate inferences about emotion from static images of muscle movements in the eyes (Study 3). Moreover, the association between social class and empathic accuracy was explained by the tendency for lower-class individuals to explain social events in terms of features of the external environment. The implications of class-based patterns in empathic accuracy for well-being and relationship outcomes are discussed.
The phenomenon of empathy entails the ability to share the affective experiences of others. In recent years social neuroscience made considerable progress in revealing the mechanisms that enable a person to feel what another is feeling. The present review provides an in-depth and critical discussion of these findings. Consistent evidence shows that sharing the emotions of others is associated with activation in neural structures that are also active during the first-hand experience of that emotion. Part of the neural activation shared between self- and other-related experiences seems to be rather automatically activated. However, recent studies also show that empathy is a highly flexible phenomenon, and that vicarious responses are malleable with respect to a number of factors—such as contextual appraisal, the interpersonal relationship between empathizer and other, or the perspective adopted during observation of the other. Future investigations are needed to provide more detailed insights into these factors and their neural underpinnings. Questions such as whether individual differences in empathy can be explained by stable personality traits, whether we can train ourselves to be more empathic, and how empathy relates to prosocial behavior are of utmost relevance for both science and society.
How is spirituality, which refers to the emotional connection to the transcendent, related to compassion and to altruistic behavior towards strangers? Are the effects of spirituality different from those of religiosity, which refers to living according to the rules and rituals of religion? We hypothesized that, even though correlated, spirituality and religiosity would have different associations with compassion and altruistic behavior. The first two studies documented that more spiritual individuals experience greater compassion, and that this effect was specific to spirituality and could not be explained by religiosity. Because compassion has the capacity to motivate people to transcend selfish motives and act in altruistic fashion towards strangers, we reasoned that spirituality (but not religiosity) would predict altruistic behavior and that this link would be explained, in part, by compassion. Indeed, Studies 3, 4, and 5 found that more spiritual individuals behaved more altruistically in economic choice and decision-making tasks, and that the tendency of spiritual individuals to feel greater compassion mediated the relationship between spirituality and altruistic behavior. In contrast, more religious participants did not consistently feel more compassion nor behave more altruistically. Together, these findings help clarify why spirituality produces more prosocial behavior.
Who benefits most from making sacrifices for others? The current study provides one answer to this question by demonstrating the intrinsic benefits of sacrifice for people who are highly motivated to respond to a specific romantic partner's needs noncontingently, a phenomenon termed communal strength. In a 14-day daily-experience study of 69 romantic couples, communal strength was positively associated with positive emotions during the sacrifice itself, with feeling appreciated by the partner for the sacrifice, and with feelings of relationship satisfaction on the day of the sacrifice. Furthermore, feelings of authenticity for the sacrifice mediated these associations. Several alternative hypotheses were ruled out: The effects were not due to individuals higher in communal strength making qualitatively different kinds of sacrifices, being more positive in general, or being involved in happier relationships. Implications for research and theory on communal relationships and positive emotions are discussed.