Serial killers and recidivist criminals of all kinds lack empathy.  So do some people with poor social skills. A compassion-based meditation program called Cognitively-Based Compassion Training (CBCT) was recently used to try and improve the ability to read the facial expressions of others

They looked at functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans of brain activity and say the changes were indicative of boosts in empathic accuracy. Although derived from ancient Tibetan Buddhist practices, the CBCT program is secular in content and presentation, according to its creator Lobsang Tenzin Negi, director of the Emory-Tibet Partnership at Emory.

When most people think of meditation, they think of "mindfulness," in which practitioners seek to improve their ability to concentrate and to be non-judgmentally aware of their thoughts and feelings. Proponents claim CBCT incorporates mindfulness elements but it focuses more specifically on training people to analyze and reinterpret their relationships with others. 

Study participants were healthy adults without prior meditation experience. Thirteen participants randomized to CBCT meditation completed regular weekly training sessions and at-home practice for eight weeks. Eight randomized control subjects did not meditate, but instead completed health discussion classes that covered mind-body subjects like the effects of exercise and stress on well-being. To test empathic accuracy before and following CBCT, all participants received fMRI brain scans while completing a modified version of the Reading the Mind in the Eyes Test (RMET). The RMET consists of black-and-white photographs that show just the eye region of people making various expressions. Those being tested must judge what the person in the photograph is thinking or feeling. 

Eight out of the 13 participants in the CBCT meditation group improved their RMET scores by an average of 4.6 percent, while the control participants showed no increase, and in the majority of cases, a decrease in correct answers for the RMET.

"It's an intriguing result, suggesting that a behavioral intervention could enhance a key aspect of empathy," says lead author Jennifer Mascaro, a post-doctoral fellow in anthropology at Emory University. "Previous research has shown that both children and adults who are better at reading the emotional expressions of others have better relationships."

"The idea is that the feelings we have about people can be trained in optimal ways," Negi explains. "CBCT aims to condition one's mind to recognize how we are all inter-dependent, and that everybody desires to be happy and free from suffering at a deep level."

But is that really empathy? The meditators, in comparison to those in the control group, showed significant increases in neural activity in areas of the brain that they claim are important for empathy, including the inferior frontal gyrus and dorsomedial prefrontal cortex. These changes in brain activity as seen by fMRI accounted for changes in the empathic accuracy scores of the participants. 

"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," says
senior author Charles Raison, a psychiatrist at the University of Arizona. "An important next step will be to evaluate the effects of CBCT on diverse populations that may particularly benefit from enhanced empathic accuracy, such as those suffering from high-functioning autism or severe depression."

They hope findings from the current study show that the CBCT style of meditation may have physical and emotional effects relevant to health and well-being. For example, previous research at Emory found that practicing CBCT reduced emotional distress and enhanced physical resilience in response to stress in both healthy young adults and in high-risk adolescents in foster care.

Published in Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience