Research from the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds at the Waisman Center of the University of Wisconsin-Madison shows that adults can be trained to be compassionate.

In the study, published in Psychological Science, Helen Weng and colleagues trained young adults to engage in compassion meditation - an ancient Buddhist technique - to increase compassionate feelings for suffering individuals.

"Can we become more caring if we practice that mindset?" said Weng, a graduate student in clinical psychology and lead author of the paper.

According to Weng, the compassion technique resembles weight training. Like a muscle of the body, Weng said, participants can build up their compassion.

Participants in the study were told to envision a time when someone suffered, then follow this by wishing the suffering to be relieved, repeating phrases to help them focus on compassion. Participants first focused on loved ones, essentially friends or family members to whom they would naturally feel compassionate, eventually moving on to more troublesome or conflicted relationships like a difficult coworker or roommate.

Compassion training was compared to a control group that learned cognitive reappraisal, a technique in which people learn to replace negative thoughts with more positive ones. Both groups listened to guided audio instructions over the Internet for 30 minutes a day for two weeks.

"We wanted to investigate whether people could begin to change their emotional habits in a relatively short period of time," said Weng.

What about participants' feelings toward complete strangers?

Here, participants were asked to play a game. Coined the "Redistribution Game," it allowed participants the opportunity to spend their own money to respond to someone in need. Participants played the game over the Internet with two anonymous players, known as the "Dictator" and the "Victim."

Participants first observed the Dictator give an unfair amount of money ($1 out of $10) to the Victim. They then decided how much of their own money to contribute (out of $5) to balance the Dictator's doled out amount.

The outcome? Weng found that people who were trained in compassion had more altruistic tendencies to help someone treated unfairly, compared with people trained in cognitive reappraisal.

Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), Weng and colleagues studied changes in brain responses before and after the training.

Participants called upon their compassion training to view images depicting human suffering - a crying child or a burn victim. A control group was exposed to the same images, and asked to reframe them more positively.

When researchers measured the change in brain activity, they found that the most altruistic participants following compassion training were the people who showed the most brain changes when viewing human suffering.

These findings leave researchers hopeful for future applications of this type of training.

"Compassion and kindness training in schools can help children learn to be attuned to their own emotions as well as those of others, which may decrease bullying, " said Richard J. Davidson, founder and chair of the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds. "Compassion training also may benefit people who have social challenges such as social anxiety or antisocial behavior."

Source: Weng H, Fox A, Shackman A, et al. Compassion Training Alters Altruism and Neural Responses to Suffering. Psychological Science. 2013.