On compassion and empathy

A friend of mine recently went to see Matthieu Ricard, a French monk, and had a few interesting stories that I wanted to share with you. Matthieu Ricard is the Dali Lama’s official French translator and is often called ‘the happiest man alive.’ He was talking about compassion and altruism in which he shared two experiments that were interesting. One was one of many that neuroscientists did with him and the other was one he and a team of neuroscientists did with preschoolers.

In the first one, the neuroscientists hooked him up to probes to watch his brain activity while he meditated. They told him to do his usual meditation, so he started to do it and then they stopped him, because they were seeing activity in areas of the brain that they weren’t expecting. They asked him what he was meditating about and he said compassion and loving kindness and then they asked him to try to meditate on empathy without the compassion. So, he meditated on empathy for an hour. He said he had just seen a documentary the night before on Romanian orphans, so he was meditating on them with empathy. He said after the hour of meditating on empathy, he got burned out because he felt a feeling of powerlessness.

The neuroscientists then asked him to go meditate on compassion and loving kindness, so he went and did that for an hour also with the Romanian orphans in mind. This time he didn’t get burned out. The experiment and other subsequent ones showed that there are different areas of the brain connected to empathy and different areas to compassion and loving kindness. Matthieu was sharing this story in the context of how professionals like doctors, teachers, social workers and people in their everyday lives get burned out from showing empathy to seeing and experiencing other people’s suffering. He said that in the face of empathy burnout, people want to distance themselves from those suffering but that instead of distancing themselves and becoming cold or numb, if they practice active loving kindness and compassion alongside empathy, it becomes an antidote to the burnout.

He also shared on experiments that have shown actual restructuring of the brain from those who didn’t mediate at baseline to then having cultivated a practice of daily meditation after a certain number of weeks. When he was asked in the talk what does he do when he meditates on compassion and loving kindness, he said that for him, he takes time to imagine people and to allow himself to feel benevolence and an overwhelming love for them, so that it becomes foremost in his mind and he’s able to then practice it more potently toward all throughout his day.

The other experiment was with a group of preschoolers. They came into a classroom for 40 minutes for eight weeks to teach them about mindfulness and meditation. At the end of the eight weeks, the teachers reported improvements in pro-social behavior. They did the experiment again with another group and this time they gave the kids a bunch of stickers and four envelopes. One of the envelopes had a picture of a kid that the preschooler had said is their best friend. The other envelope had a picture of a kid that the preschooler said wasn’t their best friend. The third envelope had a picture of an unknown kid and the fourth had a picture of an unknown sad kid. For the pretest of the experiment, they asked the kids to distribute the stickers in the envelopes and an overwhelming majority went to the first envelope, the friend of the preschooler. At the end of the eight weeks of meditation on compassion and loving kindness, they did a post-test, and this time the preschoolers equally distributed the stickers among all the envelopes.

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