Dr. Helen Weng’s Groundbreaking Research on Compassion Meditation

Osher Center researcher Helen Weng, PhD, is the lead author of a promising new study, “Visual Attention to Suffering After Compassion Training Is Associated With Decreased Amygdala Responses,” which was recently published in in the journal Frontiers in Psychology. This study was conducted while Dr. Weng was at the Center for Healthy Minds (CHM) at the University of Madison, Wisconsin, where Richard Davidson, PhD, the founder of CHM, served as senior author.

The primary research question for this study was, “What if, just like strengthening a muscle, we could train ourselves to be more compassionate and calm in the face of others’ suffering?

Participants were randomized to learning compassion meditation or cognitive reappraisal training, and their visual attention and brain responses to suffering were measured with eye-tracking technology and functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). The study found that as little as two weeks of compassion meditation training, which was designed to intentionally cultivate positive wishes towards people who were suffering, may reduce the level of distress a person feels when witnessing someone else’s suffering. They think it may improve one’s ability and likelihood to respond with compassion towards others when one’s own distress is dampened.

“Your eyes are a window into what you care about,” Dr. Weng says. “We wanted to know: Does looking more at suffering in the mind’s eye translate into looking more at suffering out in the real world, and can this be done with less distress? We found from learning compassion meditation, the people who were able to look more at suffering also were able to have less brain activity in areas that usually signal distress – the amygdala, insula, and orbitofrontal cortex. This may show that it is possible to learn to be more calm and balanced in the face of suffering from practicing compassion meditation.”

The study has been receiving a lot of press, including the following articles:

Print Friendly, PDF & Email