Brief Guided Meditations Improve Empathy
By John M. de Castro, Ph.D.
“Empathy is the understanding and sharing of someone else’s feelings. It’s not to be confused with compassion, which is a feeling of concern for others that we feel we need to act on. Empathy goes that step further; by putting yourself in the place of someone else, you are appreciating how they feel, even if they’re experiencing something you’ve never encountered.” – Mindfulness Works
Humans are social animals. This is a great asset for the species as the effort of the individual is amplified by cooperation. In primitive times, this cooperation was essential for survival. But in modern times it is also essential, not for survival but rather for making a living and for the happiness of the individual. Mindfulness has been found to increase prosocial emotions such as compassion, and empathy and prosocial behaviors such as altruism.
It is not clear, however, exactly how meditation training improves empathy. Is it due to increased mindfulness or perhaps by the suggestion embedded in the measurements to be mindful of others. In today’s Research News article “How does brief guided mindfulness meditation enhance empathic concern in novice meditators?: A pilot test of the suggestion hypothesis vs. the mindfulness hypothesis.” (See summary below or view the full text of the study at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7352088/) Miyahara and colleagues performed 2 studies of the effects of meditation on empathy.
In study 1 they recruited meditation naïve college students and randomly assigned them to listen to and practice brief (8 minute) recorded guided meditations of either breath following and body scan or compassion meditation. They were measured before and after the meditation for mindfulness, compassionate love, helping intention and empathy. They found that both meditations significantly increased all of the measures with no significant differences between meditation types. Study 2 was very similar to study 1 except there we no recorded guided meditations. They found that there were no significant changes in any of the measures from the first to the second measurement.
These results demonstrate that brief mindfulness meditations, regardless of whether they are breath and body meditations or compassion meditation produce increases in empathy and prosocial intentions in college students. The effects were not due to repeated measures. Hence, the suggestions for empathy and prosocial intentions embedded in the measurement instruments were not responsible for the changes, thus eliminating this alternative explanation for the effects. These results, then, suggest that it is improvements in mindfulness that result from brief meditation that are responsible for increased empathy.
So, brief guided meditations improve empathy.
“Mindfulness and empathy are linked through their shared relationship with stress. While mindfulness decreases stress, stress weakens empathy.” – Matthew Brensilver
CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies
This and other Contemplative Studies posts are also available on Google+ https://plus.google.com/106784388191201299496/posts and on Twitter @MindfulResearch
Miyahara, M., Wilson, R., Pocock, T., Kano, T., & Fukuhara, H. (2020). How does brief guided mindfulness meditation enhance empathic concern in novice meditators?: A pilot test of the suggestion hypothesis vs. the mindfulness hypothesis. Current Psychology (New Brunswick, N.j.), 1–12. Advance online publication. https://doi.org/10.1007/s12144-020-00881-3
Despite the widespread popularity of mindfulness meditation for its various benefits, the mechanism underlying the meditation process has rarely been explored. Here, we present two preliminary studies designed to test alternative hypotheses: whether the effect of brief guided mindfulness meditation on empathic concern arises from verbal suggestion (suggestion hypothesis) or as a byproduct of an induced mindfulness state (mindfulness hypothesis). Study 1 was a pilot randomized control trial of sitting (breath-and-body) meditation vs. compassion meditation that provided preliminary support for the mindfulness hypothesis. Study 2 was set up to rule out the possibility that the meditation effects observed in Study 1 were the effects of repeated measures. An inactive control group of participants underwent the repeated measures of empathic concern with no meditation in between. The pre-post comparison demonstrated no significant changes in the measures. Thus, the results of two studies supported the mindfulness hypothesis. Limitations of the present study and future research directions are discussed.