Why An Attentive Brain Makes You a More Empathetic Person


Oct 30, 2017

Meditation does wonders for your own life experience. It can make food taste better, it can help you perform better under the pressure of competition, it can open up creative pathways in your brain you didn’t know you had, and the list goes on from there. It’s no surprise that by focusing your attention on your own breathing and your own thoughts, as meditation teaches you to do, you feel more in touch with your inward feelings. Mindfulness gives you a better sense of yourself, and that’s great.

But the benefits of meditation aren’t limited to our own perceptions and our unique realities. Numerous studies have demonstrated that mindfulness training helps us step into the worldviews of others and make us more empathetic. And the key to unlocking that part of our brains is the improved attention span given to us by meditation training.

As much as we’d like to believe we’re always in tune with the feelings of our friends and loved ones, it turns out that properly identifying emotions in others is harder than we think. For one, people aren’t always up front about what’s really going on, meaning our job can become reading the subtle nuances in others’ expressions, non-verbal behavior and tone in order to get at the underlying feeling.

We also, in our natural desire to relate to others, look for opportunities in conversation to compare and contrast with our experiences. A friend is telling you about a hard day at work, so your brain starts thinking of a similar story from your past. We mean well when we do this, but in searching for common ground we can let our own ego get in the way of truly listening.

When we’re mindful, we can see a friend in distress and view it only for how it affects them, not how it reflects on us. We’re less inclined to try and “fix” a problem or get solutions-oriented if the situation doesn’t call for that – we’re more patient listeners simply because we’re attentive to the message and the emotions behind it.   The other side of that is also true – we can celebrate the success of someone else without ascribing our own failures to it or minimizing it in comparison to our victories.

Other research into the correlation between meditation and compassion allays the fear of some that too much empathy could become uncomfortable – after all, we don’t always want to take on the same stress and pain of others. Remember, meditation does wonders for our own pain by changing how we perceive it. Injury or illness exist as they are, not as we’ve added additional stigma or worry. The same concept applies to others – mindful brains recognize a problem and are attuned to the best solution without wallowing in distress.

The implications for how mindfulness can shape our relationships with other people are perhaps far greater than any other aspect of meditation. In a world that’s increasingly impatient, self-centered and emotionally inhibited, those who learn how to pay attention to others will open up communication and be the empathetic forces for change.

Harvard neuroscientist: Meditation not only reduces stress, here’s how it changes your brain
Harvard neuroscientist: Meditation not only reduces stress, here’s how it changes your brain

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How Meditation Can Reshape Our Brains: Sara Lazar at TEDxCambridge 2011
How Meditation Can Reshape Our Brains: Sara Lazar at TEDxCambridge 2011

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A Stanford expert explains how meditation helped the Thai boys survive
A Stanford expert explains how meditation helped the Thai boys survive

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