From a neuroscientific standpoint, what are the most effective ways to develop empathy, love and compassion for others? For example, in the Buddhist lore there are some meditations targeted at cultivating these emotions, such as metta (loving-kindness) and karuna (compassion), but I admit my complete ignorance regarding the current position of Neuroscience with respect to these techniques (or any other techniques for that matter).


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I'm including some relevant papers below, but one important thing to note abot this whole compassion/Buddhism/neuroscience discussion is that neuroscience may not necessarily have the most to say about developing empathy/love/compassion (ELC), especially as compared to "real-world," social psychological, or behavioral measures linking prosocial behavior to certain practices like mindfulness/metta/etc.

What do I mean by that? Consider: let's say we throw people in an fMRI and demonstrate, quasi-experimentally, that increased BOLD response in area K of the brain predicts increased ELC.

Let's then say that we then have a sample group engage in metta practices for six months, and afterward they demonstrate increased ELC (as measured, perhaps, by scales, charity donations, patience--whatever!). If we then threw those people in an fMRI and they didn't demonstrate increased BOLD response in area K, we wouldn't really be able to say that they don't have increased ELC, just because the "neuroscience" doesn't suggest so. All of our applied measures of ELC--sending money to charity, being more patient with their kids, etc.--would still suggest that they effectively built ELC.

So, neuroscience can support existing associations between certain practices and ELC, but it would be difficult to use neuroscience as the independent arbiter of any causal links between ELC and certain practices.

But, to your question: you may find these papers and discussions helpful:

Klimecki et al., Differential pattern of functional brain plasticity after compassion and empathy training; https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4040103/

  • From the abstract: "In response to videos depicting human suffering, empathy training, but not memory training (control group), increased negative affect and brain activations in anterior insula and anterior midcingulate cortex—brain regions previously associated with empathy for pain. In contrast, subsequent compassion training could reverse the increase in negative effect ... We conclude that training compassion may reflect a new coping strategy to overcome empathic distress and strengthen resilience."

  • Note that one implication of the distinction between empathy/compassion training is that empathy training may incline us to feel self-concern in the presence of others suffering, which is distinct from the other-directed concern associated with compassion training. I could, from a theoretical perspective, feel complete empathy for your pain but have no motivation to alleviate it; in contrast, to feel compassion is, in some ways, to be concerned with or care about alleviating your suffering. The Buddhist monk Mathieu Ricard has explored this distinction: http://www.matthieuricard.org/en/blog/posts/empathy-and-the-cultivation-of-compassion


A discussion of recent findings on the neuroscience of compassion from UCB's Greater Good research center: https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/three_insights_from_the_frontiers_of_the_mind

  • In sum: yes, meditation training can augment activity in brain areas associated with a whole host of positive traits/emotions--compassion, connectedness, etc. Note again though that demonstrating increased activity in a brain area previously associated with a positive thing is not necessarily the same as causing an increase in that positive thing. Neuroscience has a far ways to go before we can off-the-cuff describe all geographic brain activity in terms of its real-world and experiential consequences.


Also, here's the "recommended reading" all in one PDF from a 2016 seminar at Harvard Med School on meditation practice and neuroscience. Not all of it is directly related to compassion, but the sum takeaway (for me, at least), is that yes, mindfulness can cause (not just predict) reductions in stress, increases in positive affect, and increases in compassion. (The inter-correlations between some of those measures--like self-compassion and how we treat others--can make exact causal chains hard to suss out, but I believe the overall pattern of results is strong). https://hms.harvard.edu/sites/default/files/assets/Harvard%20Now%20and%20Zen%20Reading%20Materials.pdf


Stevens and Woodruff's book, The Neuroscience of Empathy, Compassion, and Self-Compassion; https://www.elsevier.com/books/the-neuroscience-of-empathy-compassion-and-self-compassion/stevens/978-0-12-809837-0

  • To be honest, I haven't read this, but it's a recent edition of their book, and they're both respected psychologists at Northern Arizona State University. If you're looking for a longer exploration of all the recent literature on compassion and neuroscience, this may be up your alley.


Additional papers on compassion training:

Weng et al. (https://centerhealthyminds.org/assets/files-publications/WengCompassionAssociationForPsychologicalScience.pdf)

  • "Compassion trainees were instructed to evoke feelings of compassion while silently repeating compassion-generating phrases." (NOTE: these trainees also engaged in a version of metta practice, so that clouds the non-meditative results).

  • Results: more altruistic behavior post-compassion training, more activation in brain areas associated with compassion (that's a broad way to put that, apologies--I'm not a neuroscience specialist).

Jazaieri et al. (https://link.springer.com/content/pdf/10.1007%2Fs10902-012-9373-z.pdf)

  • Participants did "Compassion Cultivation Training," described as such: "Each class includes: (a) pedagogical instruction with active group discussion, (b) a guided group meditation, (c) interactive practical exercises related to the specific step of the week...and (d) exercises designed to prime feelings of open-heartedness or connection to others, either through reading poetry or through reflecting on inspiring stories.

  • So, unfortunately, the CCT does involve some metta/meditative practices and thus doesn't serve as a perfect comparison to meditative practice--but it includes other exercises as well, perhaps suggesting that even the non-meditative activities contribute to the cultivation of ELC.

  • Results: "...CCT resulted in significant improvement in [compassion]. Specifically, CCT completers reported reductions in fear of compassion (for others, from others, and for self) and an increase in self-compassion. These findings suggest that not only is the absence of compassion worth investigating but also one’s fear of compassion..."

Again, both of those papers utilize some meditative practices as part of their compassion training, rendering it difficult to parse out exactly what features of the training best served to increase compassion. However, it seems reasonable to assume that, at a minimum, the non-meditative aspects of the compassion training in each case at least did not hurt participants' compassion, and probably enhanced it.

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    $\begingroup$ Thanks @qjacob for the clarifications and the links provided. However, in addition to the links, would you mind providing a short summary or takeway of those links? I quickly skimmed the links and it seems that meditation is a recurrent topic. So is it meditation THE WAY to develop empathy, love and compassion? $\endgroup$
    – xwb
    Apr 2, 2018 at 18:58
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    $\begingroup$ Sure, @xwb. I wouldn't say that it's the way to develop ELC, but it certainly seems to be a way to do this. I'll add summaries to my initial answer elaborating on that point. $\endgroup$
    – qjacob
    Apr 2, 2018 at 22:09
  • $\begingroup$ Thank you @qjacob for this cogent summary. It is helping me immensely. $\endgroup$
    – Lindy
    Apr 22, 2020 at 12:03

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