Interdisciplinary perspective on compassion and the effects of compassion training

July 12th Room 3
Olga Klimecki (University of Geneva)

In this interdisciplinary symposium we will explore compassion and the effects of compassion training from the perspective of philisophy, neuroscience, and psychology. The symposium will start with Prof. Julien Deonna who will present a philosophical perspective on compassion, discussing in how far it is an appropriate response to others' suffering. Then, Dr. Sofie Valk will show how a 3-month meditation-based training in socio-affective skills (compassion) changes brain structures important for affective processing. Dr. Marie Bayot will then show what effects mindfulness and compassion training have on parenting. Finally, Patricia Cernadas will present results on the effects of compassion versus reappraisal training on interpersonal conflicts. The symposium will end with a discussion.

Changing negative attitudes with compassion training and reappraisal training in order to promote conflict resolution 

Patricia Cernadas Curotto, David Sander, Eran Halperin & Olga Klimecki

In tense situations, emotions emerge and impact conflict-related issues. Previous studies have suggested that cognitive reappraisal, an emotion regulation strategy, has beneficial impact on conflict resolution. Here we aimed to test if training the feeling of compassion also promotes conflict resolution. More precisely, our goal was to investigate whether a compassion training and a cognitive reappraisal training can decrease negative attitudes and emotions (e.g., schadenfreude) felt towards a difficult person. We expected that compassion training would increase prosocial behaviors and would reduce negative behaviors such as punishment. To test these hypotheses, our participants were randomly assigned to one of the three conditions: compassion training, reappraisal training or a control training. The three interventions were parallel in structure, starting with an information session of 30 min-1h and two courses of 2h30 given by a teacher, followed by 20 min guided audio trainings for a daily practice at home. We measured negative attitudes and emotions to misfortune scenarios involving a difficult person at pre- and post-training tests and punishment behavior towards a third party at post-training. The data will be analyzed and the results will be presented at the meeting.

Where does the brain change when training compassion? 

Sofie Valk

The ReSource study is a 9-month-long mental training program targeting socio-affective (compassion), socio-cognitive (Theory of Mind), and cognitive (attention) skills in three separate 3-month training modules in a large sample of adults. Using MRI-based analyses of cortical structure, we investigated changes in cortical morphology specific to each training module. We observed specific changes in brain structure following each module as a function of training content. Our findings highlight the relationship between module-specific improvement in behavioral skills (attention, compassion, and Theory of Mind), where we found that improvements in each of these skills occurred primarily within regions that also showed task-based activation. These findings highlight that training compassion results in specific changes in brain structure in networks associated with affective processing.

Is compassion in response to suffering always appropriate? 

Julien Deonna

It is customary for philosophers to think of emotions as responding to (real or apparent) positive or negative value properties. Appropriate fear is fear that responds to danger, appropriate anger is anger that responds to offense, appropriate amusement to fun, appropriate shame to degradation, appropriate sadness to loss, and so on. The value property to which a type of emotion unvaryingly correspond –in contrast to the varying particular objects an emotion can have– is called the formal object of the emotion and emotions are appropriate when they respond to the presence of their formal objects. But what, one may ask, is the formal object of compassion? The obvious candidate, suffering, raises immediate worries. Why think that suffering is a value property at all? Isn’t suffering also the object of the sadist’s joy? In this paper, I try to defend against suggestions to the contrary that suffering is a value and that it is the formal object of compassion. One consequence of this is that it is always appropriate to respond to suffering with compassion. I explain why this is the case as well as the significance of the claim and explore the implications this has on the debate surrounding the moral value of compassion. In particular I show how thinking of compassion in this way does not entail that it is always morally appropriate to react to suffering with compassion.

Increasing compassion and empathy: Why and how? 

Marie Bayot, Rebecca Shankland, Isabelle Roskam & Moïra Mikolajczak

Adaptive empathic responding – which is composed of (1) an affective response, (2) the cognitive ability to mentalize another person’s emotional state, (3) an emotion regulation process, and (4) a pro-social behavior – is strongly linked with harmonious and positive relationships. Empathic parenting is key to the child’s well-being and psychosocial development, but may also be impeded by parental stress and parental burnout. Among evidence-based interventions aiming at increasing empathic responding, mindfulness approaches are of particular interest. Indeed, researchers and Buddhist scholars argue that interpersonal changes such as benevolence and empathy should naturally emerge from a diligent practice of non-judgmental present moment awareness, even more so if underlying Buddhist teachings (e.g., compassion, interdependence) are made explicit. In the specific case of mindful parenting, empathy and compassion toward oneself as a parent and toward one’s child are central. Our research examined the impact of mindfulness and compassion-based interventions on intrapersonal and interpersonal functioning outcomes in a community sample as well as in a sample of burned out parents. Results will be presented and discussed in light of type of sample (clinical vs non-clinical), program structure and person and culture-fit.