Culture & Lifestyle / Be Kind: Yes, You Can Train Your Brain To Be More Compassionate!

Be Kind: Yes, You Can Train Your Brain To Be More Compassionate!

Culture & Lifestyle Aug 20, 2019

Showing compassion isn’t just a feel good gesture. Science has shown that it also impacts your brain for the better. Check out what science says and how you too can train your brain to be more compassionate! 

With international violence and political turmoil, it seems we cannot turn out the news without hearing of another avoidable tragedy. Many of us wonder, what can we do to help? One thing is practice compassion. Science is showing that compassion is a trainable Emotional Intelligence (EQ) (much like we can learn violence and hate, we can learn compassion and love) and due to the emerging neuroscience, prestigious schools such as Stanford University have started programs based on its training.

I recently took the 8-week Compassion Cultivating Training (CCT) course and I’m still soaking in its benefits. No time for a class? Read on to learn how training ourselves on cultivating compassion can lead to positive changes in ourselves which we can then spread to broader communities.

What is compassion? How does it differ from empathy?

Compassion is generally defined as a positive emotion in which the pain of others is understood and met with caring, kindness, understanding and a willingness to help. Often tied and related to emotions like empathy and altruism, compassion differs because it includes desire to take action.

Take for example concerns around global climate change and its impact on future generations. Empathy involves feeling bad for those who are and will be negatively affected by concerns such as the quality of air due to carbon emissions. Compassion involves feeling bad but also wanting to help (for example, the over 1 million volunteers who broke records planting 220 million trees in India in one day acted in compassion to each other, the Earth and future generations).


Yes, You Can Train Your Brain To Be More Compassionate
Showing Compassion Can Do Wonders For Your Brain: We’re never too young to act with compassion as demonstrated by Indian school children who joined the tree-planting initiative in 2019.  Photo Credit: (Rajesh Kumar Singh)


What Are The Benefits Of Focusing On Compassion?

Because every time we turn on the news, it’s a heartbreaking story. While a rare few are celebrated billionaires flaunting lavish parties on social media, others struggle to get clean drinking water. Take India for example where the poverty rate is still approximately 28% (though it has made huge progress the past ten years).

With an increase in gun violence, mass shootings, immigration challenges and environmental catastrophizes, the time to act is now. Though we aren’t suggesting compassion is the sole solution, it certainly can help be the driver of change. History has shown time and time again that courageous acts of kindness, compassion and love can lead to healing and societal improvements.

Evolving past being an emotion, compassion is being recognized as an attitude and/or trainable personality trait. It is a tool that helps people navigate through challenges and difficult situations because it can be applied to the self; for example, allowing yourself to cry or feel sadness during a stressful situation (instead of judging or labeling yourself as weak) is an act of self-compassion. Compassion helps us be present with our suffering, strengthens our resilience, increases the kindness we show to ourselves and others and can improve our ability to pay attention.

How Does Compassion Impact The Brain?

Unfortunately for any skeptics (or cynics) out there that want to write compassion off as a soft, touchy-feely or even weak emotion (and fortunately for the rest of us), neuroscience is showing how powerful compassion truly is.

When we experience feelings of compassion, our brains secrete oxytocin (the “bonding hormone” leading areas of our brain linked to feelings of pleasure, joy, care-giving and empathy to light up and it slows down our heart-rate.

One study showed that compassion training also assists in helping to regulate emotions and can increase activity in neural networks involved in understanding the suffering of others.

That being said, through training, we can increase how our brains respond to situations (happening to ourselves and others). We can change the brain through changing our mind and integrating compassion training will hopefully lead to a more calm and caring world.


Yes, You Can Train Your Brain To Be More Compassionate
Yes, You Can Train Your Brain To Be More Compassionate: I had the joy of meeting Thupten Jinpa, Ph.D. at A Mindful Society Conference in 2016 Photo Credit: Rachna Sethi 


How Can We Learn More About Compassion? 

For those wishing to learn more about compassion, the great news is there’s tons of resources!

Stanford University is one of the leading educational institutions that has The Center for Compassion And Altruism Research and Education and developed a Compassion Cultivating Training (CCT) program. Having taken the 8-week CCT course in Toronto in July 2019 with Mindful Momentum, we can attest to the wonderful insight and practices the class teaches; it involves meditations, journaling, theory and discussion and our instructor Laurisa kept our cohort motivated through mid-week check-ins and gentle guidance.

Not interested or un-able to take the CCT course? Berkeley University also has great resources available online that can help increase knowledge around compassion available here.

Tons of books on the topic are also available, one of our favorites (and used in the CCT course) is Thupten Jinpa’s (principal translator to his Holiness the Dali Lama since 1985) “A Fearless Heart, how the courage to be compassionate can change our lives.” If you prefer video/audio learning, a copy of Thupten’s talk on the subject at Google is available here.


Main Image Photo Credit: 

Rachna Sethi

Rachna Sethi


Rachna (@mindfullyyours)is a graduate of the Applied Mindfulness Meditation program from the University of Toronto, a certified Educator with two bachelor degrees and a diploma in Art Therapy. She's dedicated to living with a compassionate approach. Committed to helping people integrate Mindfulness...