HEALTHY LIVING
10/07/2012 11:50 pm ET | Updated Jan 07, 2013

Meditation Could Improve Empathy, Study Suggests

Meditation could help people to be more empathetic, according to a small new study from Emory University.

The research, published in the journal Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, showed that a meditation program called Cognitively-Based Compassion Training was able to improve people's ability to read emotional expressions on others' faces. Researchers said the meditation program is based on ancient Buddhist practices, but this particular program was secular. It included mindfulness techniques, but mainly involved training people to think about their relationships with other people.

"It's an intriguing result, suggesting that a behavioral intervention could enhance a key aspect of empathy," study researcher Jennifer Mascaro, a post-doctoral fellow at Emory, said in a statement.

The study included 21 people who all underwent fMRI brain scans as they were administered a "Reading the Mind in the Eyes" test to gauge empathy. The test involves looking at black-and-white photographs of different facial expressions -- except the photographs only show the eye region of the face. People taking the test are then asked to say what kind of emotion or thinking is being evoked in each expression.

Then, 13 study participants underwent eight weeks of the meditation training program. The other eight study participants didn't undergo the training program, but participated in classes where there was discussion on topics like how well-being is influenced by factors like exercise.

After the eight weeks, all the study participants completed the "Reading the Mind in the Eyes" test again. The researchers found that people who underwent the meditation training program had a 4.6 percent higher score on the empathy test at the end of the study period. Meanwhile, people who only partook in the discussion classes didn't experience any increase in empathy scores, and some even experienced a decrease in their scores.

The brain scans also revealed that people who took the meditation courses also had increased brain activity in the regions linked with empathy.

Empathy is important, and not only for nurturing interpersonal relationships -- a recent study showed a link between a doctor's empathy and the outcomes of his or her patients.

That study, published in the journal Academic Medicine, showed that the diabetes patients of doctors who scored low on an empathy test were more likely to experience acute metabolic complications associated with their condition, compared with patients of doctors who scored higher on the test.

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