Med­i­ta­tion is asso­ci­ated with a slew of health ben­e­fits including improved mental health, better func­tional cog­ni­tion, and even increased gray matter in the brain. His­tor­i­cally, though, one of the main pur­poses of med­i­ta­tion has been to increase the practitioner’s com­pas­sion toward all sen­tient beings, according to psy­chology pro­fessor David DeSteno.

Nonethe­less, the social impli­ca­tions of med­i­ta­tion have never been sci­en­tif­i­cally studied. “We know med­i­ta­tion improves a person’s own phys­ical and psy­cho­log­ical well-​​being,” said Paul Condon, a grad­uate stu­dent in DeSteno’s lab. “We wanted to know whether it actu­ally increases com­pas­sionate behavior.”

In a new study led by Condon, DeSteno’s team in the Social Emo­tions Group showed that even a brief period of med­i­ta­tion training is indeed enough to boost one’s com­pas­sion toward a suf­fering stranger more than five­fold. The results will soon be pub­lished in the journal Psy­cho­log­ical Sci­ence.

With funding from the Mind and Life Institute, DeSteno’s team recruited more than three dozen indi­vid­uals inter­ested in pur­suing med­i­ta­tion training. Half of them were assigned to the wait list while the other half par­tic­i­pated in an eight-​​week work­shop with an ordained Bud­dhist lama. The med­i­ta­tion group was fur­ther split into two: All were taught tech­niques to calm and focus the mind, but only half engaged in direct dis­cus­sions of com­pas­sion and suffering.

At the end of the eight-​​week ses­sion, par­tic­i­pants were asked to come in for cog­ni­tive testing in the lab, but the real study took place in the waiting room just out­side. Here is the setup: When the test sub­ject arrives, he finds three seats, two of them occu­pied. He sits in the open seat. “Then down the hall comes a person in crutches and a big foot boot who is looking in incred­ible pain,” said DeSteno.

The other two people in the room, who are hired actors for the study, pull out their cell phones and delib­er­ately avoid eye con­tact with the suf­fering invalid (who is also an actor). They do not offer their seat. This, said DeSteno, is called a bystander effect. “If there are other people around who aren’t helping out, then others won’t either,” he explained, noting a social pres­sure not to help.

The study found that about 15 per­cent of the nonmeditators–the wait­listed group–got up and offered their seat to the suf­ferer com­pared to about 50 per­cent of those in both med­i­ta­tion groups–those who engaged in dis­cus­sions about com­pas­sion and those who only par­tic­i­pated in med­i­ta­tion training. The results sug­gest that it was the med­i­ta­tion itself—not the discussions—that accounted for the increase.

Now DeSteno’s team is pur­suing research on the mech­a­nisms behind the observed phe­nom­enon. For instance, it could be related to a height­ened aware­ness of one’s sur­round­ings or an increased sense of empathy. “This is the first evi­dence that the prac­tice of meditation—even for brief periods of time—increases peo­ples’ respon­sive­ness and moti­va­tion to relieve the suf­fering of others,” DeSteno said.