Mindfulness Meditation and Empathy


Mindfulness Meditation and Empathy

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Mindfulness Meditation and Empathy

Meditation has been around for thousands of years and has been proven to have many benefits. Meditation has been known for reducing stress, increasing self-awareness, improving negative moods and creativity, and much more. There are many types of meditation. The six most popular are: mindfulness, spiritual, focused, movement, mantra, and trascendental. At first our research team wanted to test if a simple guided meditation would positively affect one’s mood but after some more brainstorming, a new question formed. Can mindfulness meditation improve cognitive skills? More specifically, can it improve empathy?

The university of Berkley in California defines mindfulness as maintaining a moment-by-moment awareness of our thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, and surrounding environment. Mindfulness meditation involves just that, paying attention to the present moment. It’s not so much about clearing one’s mind but about becoming more aware of our thoughts, emotions, and surroundings. Empathy is defined as the ability to understand and share the feelings of another (Oxford Languages 2020). Cognitive empathy is knowing how others may feel. Emotional empathy is the ability of sharing the emotions others are feeling. Lastly, compassionate empathy is the combination of cognitive and emotional empathy and being moved to respond.

To date, there has been little research on how mindfulness meditation affects empathy. However, there are some intriguing studies that suggest empathy could be increased through the practice of meditation. The study that inspired our research examined if a short five-minute mindfulness meditation would increase empathy. Although the results did not support the hypothesis the researchers did find increased prosocial behavior in the participants who were autistic (Ridderinkhof et al., 2017). In a similar study researchers examined if a short five-minute mindfulness meditation would improve people’s mind-reading skills or in other words the ability to read cues, body language, and emotions. The results showed that the meditation did improve both empathy and one’s ability to mind-read (Tan et al., 2014). Two additional articles concluded that Loving-Kindness Meditation (LKM) and Compassion Meditation(CM) also successfully improved empathy. Bibeau et al. (2016) concluded that LKM  and CM have shown positive impacts on a number of empathy-related variables such as altruism, positive regard, prosocial behavior, interpersonal relationships, as well as affective empathy and empathic accuracy. LKM and CM appear to have a positive effect on psychological functioning even after a relatively short period of training time (Hofmann et al., 2011). From a neurological standpoint, a study used fMRI scans on participants practicing compassion-meditation and found that the neuronal processes associated with empathic responses were being affected (Lutz et al., 2019). Another study concluded that 30 minutes of daily meditation increased the density of the grey matter in the area of the brain associated with empathy (Hölzel et al.,2010). With this research in mind our group hypothesized that a short ten-minute mindfulness meditation exercise will immediately increase empathy in our participants.

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