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Mindful : August 2016
What makes the difference between giving and holding back? It turns out generosity is a skill we can develop, and hard times play a big role. Researchers often find that after several weeks of compassion medi- tation practice, people perform more acts of kindness and caring outside the lab, such as visiting a retirement home or telling a coworker what they appreciate about her. They also report more feelings of compassion toward suffering people. They act more kindly toward strangers. They become less subject to the “bystander effect,” whereby everyone assumes that some- one else will step up and come to the aid of a stranger in need. They more readily offer an exhausted woman a chair, as occurred in a 2015 study at Stanford University’s Center for Com- passion and Altruism Research and Education. Good news, right? I’m skeptical. Scientists, like humans generally, fall into the trap of looking for explanations that suit them best. Meditation may indeed do all that is claimed. But has research really demonstrated that fact? The way these studies are usually conducted, they cannot rule out two alternative explanations for the effects attributed to meditation. One is a placebo response: People who practice compassion meditation might believe it makes them kinder, better peo- ple—and expectation makes it so. The other possible explanation is a desire to please the researchers: If volun- teers guess what effect the scientists Stingy Brain, Generous Brain are looking for, they may consciously or unconsciously produce it. In either case, meditation itself wouldn’t be doing what researchers think it is. These questions were running through my mind when I encountered a 2016 study on compassion medita- tion and generosity by researchers at the University of Colorado, Boulder. In general, in compassion meditation, you focus on suffering individuals, then g roups of suffering people, then all of suffering humanity. In each case, you express the wish that they be free from suffering. It has been a mystery what compassion meditation actually does to produce the compassionate behavior and thoughts. So when Col- orado’s Yoni Ashar and his colleagues set out to “show how compassion meditation changes how we think → Sharon Begley is senior science writer with The Boston Globe Media Group, author of Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain, and coauthor with Richard Davidson of The Emotional Life of Your Brain. 20 mindful August 2016 brain science Illustration by Sébastien Thibault