From time to time, I get science articles on my feed about the feels. It doesn’t necessarily hit me in the feels, but it’s about what goes on in our minds when the feels are hit. Now that I’ve gotten the pre-requisite Millennial internet language out of the way, let’s get a bit more scientific.
Personally, I don’t know how you pick up on other people’s emotions, especially if you’re the kind of person that often need to be reminded to “feel the room” before saying something that’s going to rile people up, even if you didn’t really mean it. ‘Feeling the room’ or ‘picking up on vibes’ sounds kind of like a woo-woo concept, but practically it means scan the room for people’s expressions, body language, mannerisms, what’s they’re saying, what they’re doing, and use those cues to figure out how to behave. In other words, ‘feeling the room’ means gathering data with your senses (often sight and hearing), registering that data in your brain, then act accordingly. The first half of that sentence means that neuroscientists can hook your brain up to a functional MRI (fMRI) and see what lights up in your head when reacting to something in your environment. In the case of this week’s Featured Article, that something is the suffering of others.
According to the authors’ literature review, compassion is something that can be cultivated and trained through certain activities, such as compassion meditation (link goes to the lead author’s project site), but what about how we pay attention to the suffering of others? Weng et al. suggest that this is often a visual process: we see not only that a person is suffering, but also how much. Are they sighing a lot? Staring into the middle distance? Eyes closed? Not really looking at our direction or anywhere in general? Crying? From there we figure out how to act. Their previous research on compassion meditation training showed some good results on improving social behavior, but does it also affect the brain’s biology? The authors wanted to specifically investigate what happens to the amygdala, the parts of the brain often associated with processing emotions and decision-making, as one undergoes compassion training. They suggested that the amygdala may be activated in times of distress, especially if one sees that suffering is occurring, but its activation may trigger ‘aversive processing’ – one sees suffering, one doesn’t want to get involved. You’ve experienced this in some way, especially if you’re the kind of person who feels awkward when there’s a generally down mood. Don’t worry, you’re in good company.
Fifty-six participants underwent compassion or reappraisal training for two weeks and had fMRIs taken before and after each session. Each group was similar in age, gender makeup, and empathy, as measured by a test that Weng et al. gave to each participant (if you want the specific test, check the Featured Article – it’s Open Access). Each fMRI task involved each participant seeing images of human suffering or non-suffering. In addition, the authors also used eye-tracking data to see what exactly the participants were looking at in each image. They also measured altruistic behavior through the “Redistribution Game,” which looks at how participants deal with unfair treatment.
So what did the authors find? Putting together all of the results (and a lot of statistics that, in the spirit of being casual, I won’t include here but you could read the Featured Article if you’re so inclined), they found that there was a relationship between the visual attention given by the compassion-trained participants to the human suffering images and decreased activity in the amygdala, which you can take to say that they weren’t avoiding being eye-to-eye with suffering. The compassion training people even had more prosocial (read: ‘good guy’) responses in the redistribution test. Thus, the authors suggest that compassion training helps people with supporting others’ suffering head on because the training may be rewiring their brain to not be so averse to others’ suffering, to see it for what it is – literally – instead of reframing and seeing it as something else.
We do have to note a comment that the authors do make – their results also suggest that visual attention to suffering was changed because of engaging in compassion, regardless of training, if you weren’t looking at what was lighting up in the brain. This supports what they mentioned in their literature review: compassion has a lot to do with visual cues, contexts, and just using your eyes. It’s been said that the eyes are the windows to the soul, but perhaps it’s more like the windows of the soul. After all, if one can see through the window into your soul, shouldn’t your soul be able to look out through the window as well? Perhaps in that way, your soul can see out to others, reach out to others, and help them heal when they just might need you the most.
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Featured Article: Weng HY, Lapate RC, Stodola DE, Rogers GM, Davidson RJ. (2018). Visual attention to suffering after compassion training is associated with decreased amygdala responses. Frontiers in Psychology 9:771. DOI: 10.3389/fpsyg.2018.00771
Featured Image: Public Domain (Author: Free-Photos, 2014)