Here’s How Practicing Kindness Alters Your Brain

For most people, being kind and generally helping others is a great way to boost your mood and get some good karma points. However, the mechanisms of actually being kind have been left in the dark throughout history. Being compassionate and empathetic is thought to be a personality trait that some seem to have naturally, and others not so much. The ability to ignore suffering and turn a blind eye toward those in need is just as commonplace as compassion and yet, causes more suffering to those around. With that being said, what if we could “grow” compassion in those who don’t currently possess the quality? According to researchers, you can now do just that.

So, can we train ourselves to care more? Researchers of the topic proclaim that compassion is teachable. With enough training and practice, the feeling of love, care and sympathy can become natural to those who previously had hard exteriors. Up until recently, the areas of the brain contributing to this caring emotion were mysterious. Now, the puzzle is being solved, leading scientists to find neurological changes when practicing kindness occurs.

Recently a new overview of brain studies published in Neuro Image has found, for the first time, what kindness looks like in the brain. The scientists behind the study found that there are two distinct types of kindness, and they show up in the brain in two very different ways.

The scientists took a look at 36 different studies of kindness in total, in which 1,150 separate participants had their brains scanned as they did something generous, thought about altruism, or some other action that triggered the “kindness” aspects of the brain. During the study the researchers divided the studies into the types of kindness on display. Type one is “strategic” kindness, where an individual would perform an act of generosity for somebody else with the hope that they’ll receive something back in return. The second type is “altruistic”, where an individual would do good with no intent of receiving an reward, so in other words, doing a good deed just for the feel-good factor.

Altruistic and strategic kindness, according to the brain scans, activate different segments of the brain. When you’re being strategic, the striatal regions of the brain, which give feelings of reward, light up, and you get a rush of positive feelings. These are more commonly recognised as the “feel-good” feelings. Although, when you’re being generous without wanting anything in return, the brain also gives you feelings of reward, except from other areas in the brain. Altruism lights up a whole spectrum of the brain and uses the striatal areas too, but it also activates the subgenual anterior cingulate cortex, which is connected to our moods, making us feel happy. The combination of each factor produces a very different (literal) glow of happiness and wellbeing to strategic kindness. Giving out of generosity, it turns out has a much different effect on the brain than to using kindness as a transaction, and the feelings you get afterward certainly reflect that. The scientists also discovered in the study that the two types of kindness do technically “overlap” in the brain.

“If after a long day helping a friend move house, they hand you money, you could end up feeling undervalued and less likely to help again,” the scientists wrote in their press release. “A hug and kind words, however, might spark a warm glow and make you feel appreciated.”

So now that there’s a clear understanding of how kindness impacts your brain, how can you train someone to “grow” compassion? According to the University of Wisconsin-Madison, studies showed that those who went through the Buddhist meditation techniques gave more to help others than those who only received cognitive reappraisal training. If it’s compassion that you’re trying to have more of, meditation techniques might just be your answer.

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