Previous emotion regulation studies (Ochsner et al., 2004, Urry et al., 2006) have used reappraisal as a strategy to investigate neural mechanisms of down-regulating negative emotion. Compassion may also be viewed as a regulatory strategy to cope with negative emotion, which may differ in neural mechanism and positive behavioral outcomes. In a pilot study, we investigate how compassion may regulate negative emotion by comparing it to reappraisal in an emotion regulation fMRI paradigm. Participants were trained in compassion meditation or reappraisal via guided audio training daily for 2 weeks. They completed questionnaires measuring positive and negative attributes before and after training. Participants completed an emotion regulation fMRI paradigm post-training, employing either training or attending to negative or neutral social pictures. They also rated each picture for valence, arousal, desire to approach, and desire to withdraw. We assessed ecological altruistic behavior by administering a donation task. Participants trained in compassion increased in self-reported positive emotions (F=4.731, p=.000) and self-compassion (F=4.127, p=.001) compared to reappraisal. Preliminary neuroimaging results show that compassion to negative social pictures increases activity in bilateral insula, left cingulate gyrus (t=2.131, p<05), bilateral caudate, and left precentral gyrus compared to reappraisal (t=3.29, p<0.01). Right insula activation in the compassion group is significantly correlated with increases in self-compassion pre- to post-training (r=.91) and donation amount (r=.70). Within the compassion group, compassion increases activity in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex as well as left amygdala (t = 2.131, p<.05) compared to the attend condition. Amygdala activation is positively correlated with increases in purpose in life (r=.69). The compassion group reports greater desire to help (t=2.90, p<.01) compared to reappraisal, but no differences in valence, arousal, or desire to withdraw. Neural activity during compassion may reflect increased interoception, emotional stimuli processing, cognitive effort, and increased behavioral activation to help. Although negative emotion processing may be “increased”, these increases are associated with positive behavioral outcomes. Compassion may increase the desire to help suffering without increasing negative emotion or arousal, and neural activity in compassion may predict ecological altruistic behavior.

Helen Weng, PhD

University of California, San Francisco

Helen Y. Weng, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist and neuroscientist, and her research focuses on the neural mechanisms of how meditation practices may improve social behavior and mental health. Her … MORE

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