If we could wake up one day with the superpower of our choice, mind reading would top the list. (Okay, maybe flying, but let’s be realistic here.) The problems it would solve! The misunderstandings it could prevent! And now, new research brings that wish within reach.
According to a new study published in Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, a form of meditation known as cognitive-based compassion training (CBCT) could be your ticket to being able to read others better.
First, the skinny on CBCT: Instead of focusing on breath and awareness—like you do with mindfulness meditation—compassion meditation involves contemplating specific things, like your affection for other people, in an effort to refocus your attitudes toward the people you interact with on daily basis, says study co-author Jennifer S. Mascaro, a postdoctoral fellow in the anthropology department at Emory University.
To see how CBCT can affect people’s empathy and our ability to read each other, Mascaro and her colleagues divided a small group of study participants into two groups: Half participated in an eight-week CBCT training course, while the other attended a weekly health discussion group. All participants were given MRI scans before and after their courses, and during the scans, they were shown photos of people's eyes and asked to discern the emotion of the person in the pics.
The results? Those who’d completed the CBCT course showed the most improvement on the photo test. Plus, their MRI scans revealed increased activity in two areas of the brain associated with empathy.
Try this exercise in compassion meditation to help you connect—and better read—the people around you:
1. First, settle your mind. Begin by breathing mindfully. Then pay attention to how you’re feeling and what you’re thinking. You may notice that your thoughts and emotions change moment by moment, which reflect how our views aren’t fixed—and that we have the ability to change.
2. Next, become more aware. Bring to mind three people: a close friend, someone you don’t know very well, and a person you’re having trouble with. Imagine these three people standing before you, and notice how you feel toward each of them. Try to connect with them on a deeper level by trying to recognize that all three of these people are like you in wanting happiness, and that they, too, are vulnerable to stress and suffering. Take a moment to sit with this recognition.
3. Finally, cultivate your affection. Once you recognize the similarities in others, you can strengthen your positive feelings toward them. Start to notice that everything you depend on for survival—including food and shelter—depends on the effort and kindness of others. By shifting your perspective in this way, you can come to develop a deeper sense of gratitude toward other people, which strengthens your affection and empathy.