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Buddhists are right: meditation makes you kinder, scientists find

April 2, 2013
Courtesy of the Association for Psychological Science
and World Science staff

It seems sci­ence has backed up the Bud­dhist no­tion that medita­t­ion makes you more com­pas­sion­ate.

Medita­t­ion—the prac­tice of tak­ing time out for qui­et con­templa­t­ion, in or­der to re­lax or de­vel­op spir­i­tu­al­ly—is a key fea­ture of many East­ern re­li­gious tra­di­tions.

Sci­en­tists have pre­vi­ously found that medita­t­ion ben­e­fits the brain and body, but a new study by Da­vid De­Steno of North­east­ern Uni­vers­ity in Bos­ton and col­leagues ex­am­ined its im­pact on kind­ness. They found that peo­ple who medi­tate are more apt to be­come that help­ful stran­ger who steps for­ward in a situ­ation when no one else will. 

The study, to ap­pear in the jour­nal Psy­cho­log­i­cal Sci­ence, in­vit­ed par­ti­ci­pants to com­plete eight-week train­ings in two types of medita­t­ion.

Af­ter the ses­sions, they were put to the test. Sit­ting in a staged wait­ing room with three chairs were two ac­tors. With one emp­ty chair left, the par­ti­ci­pant sat down and waited to be called. An­oth­er ac­tor us­ing crutches and seem­ingly in great pain would then en­ter the room. As she did, the ac­tors in the chair would ig­nore her by fid­dling with their phones or open­ing a book.

The re­search­ers watched wheth­er peo­ple who had done the medita­t­ion would be more like­ly to offer help to the “in­jured” per­son. It turned out they did: half of them helped, com­pared to only 15 per­cent of non-meditating par­ti­ci­pants, the sci­en­tists said. The re­sult held for both medita­t­ion groups, De­Steno added.

“The truly sur­pris­ing as­pect of this find­ing is that medita­t­ion made peo­ple will­ing to act vir­tu­ous – to help an­oth­er who was suf­fer­ing – even in the face of a norm not to do so,” De­Steno said. “The fact that the oth­er ac­tors were ig­nor­ing the pain cre­ates as ‘by­stander effect’ that nor­mally tends to re­duce help­ing. Peo­ple of­ten won­der ‘Why should I help some­one if no one else is?’”


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It seems science has backed up the Buddhist notion that meditation makes you more compassionate. Meditation—the practice of taking time out for quiet contemplation, in order to relax or develop spiritually—is a key feature of many Eastern religious traditions. Scientists have previously found that meditation benefits the brain and body, but a new study by David DeSteno of Northeastern University in Boston and colleagues examined its impact on kindness. The study, to appear in the journal Psychological Science, invited participants to complete eight-week trainings in two types of meditation. After the sessions, they were put to the test. Sitting in a staged waiting room with three chairs were two actors. With one empty chair left, the participant sat down and waited to be called. Another actor using crutches and seemingly in great pain would then enter the room. As she did, the actors in the chair would ignore her by fiddling with their phones or opening a book. The researchers watched whether people who had done the meditation would be more apt to help out the “suffering” person. It turned out they did: half of them helped, compared to only 15 percent of non-meditating participant, the scientists said. The result held for both meditation groups, DeSteno said. “The truly surprising aspect of this finding is that meditation made people willing to act virtuous – to help another who was suffering – even in the face of a norm not to do so,” DeSteno said, “The fact that the other actors were ignoring the pain creates as ‘bystander-effect’ that normally tends to reduce helping. People often wonder ‘Why should I help someone if no one else is?’” scientists find