As a teenager in the 1990s, Abby Marsh experienced an accident that shaped the trajectory of her career. Traveling home late one night during a college break, Dr. Marsh swerved abruptly to avoid a dog that had run onto the freeway. Her car spun out of control—fishtailing and then skidding to a stop in the fast lane of an overpass. With no highway shoulders to escape to and no cell phone to call for help, she felt alone and on the verge of panic. Moments later, a man appeared at her passenger side window. 

“You look like you could use some help,” he said, and she really could. Together, and with no obvious benefit to the stranger, they maneuvered her car back to the right side of the freeway, started her engine, and got her safely back on the road home.

“It was the sort of experience that leaves you awed by the human capacity
for compassion and altruism, and it left me eager to better understand it.”

“It was the sort of experience that leaves you awed by the human capacity for compassion and altruism,” says Dr. Marsh, “and it left me eager to better understand it.” The accident led her career down a path of trying to answer a profound question: why is it that people care about the welfare of others? Now, with Mind & Life PEACE Grant funding, she’s on a mission to better understand how contemplative practices can help increase social connectedness and altruism.

In the United States, 73% of adults under the age of 30 believe people “just look out for themselves” and nearly half of young adults are more likely to see others as selfish, exploitative, and untrustworthy, rather than helpful, fair, and trustworthy. “Cynicism about human nature is a really risky phenomenon,” says Dr. Marsh, who’s spent a decade and a half at Georgetown University working to firmly situate research on altruism within the natural sciences, underscoring its place in human nature. 

She’s worked with very altruistic people—kidney donors—to develop a better understanding of altruism by tracing commonalities in those who jump to help in real-world situations. She’s also studied those who are psychopathic, people who seemingly don’t care about others. Researching people at both ends of the altruism spectrum helped Dr. Marsh develop what she calls a “caring continuum.” “Most of us are in the middle,” says Dr. Marsh, but all of us could use a boost. 

In a previous project with research partner Mary Ann Dutton, Dr. Marsh explored loving kindness meditation training as an intervention for helping average people more closely resemble altruistic kidney donors in their behavior and neural responses. Ultimately, their results showed that the intervention didn’t make average people more altruistic. But in that sample, Dr. Marsh found hints of positive effects of loving kindness meditation on reducing feelings of negativity toward others in participants’ social circles. 

In other work, Dr. Marsh’s research with highly altruistic people shows that they experience a stronger sense of connectedness to others. In particular, this demographic demonstrates a stronger emotional connection to strangers and others on the outskirts of their social circles. With her 2021 PEACE grant, Dr. Marsh is investigating whether loving kindness meditation training increases empathy among those in the middle of the caring continuum for those beyond their inner circles, defined as the extent to which a participant simulates a stranger’s experience of pain.

Randomized participants in her study undergo one of two trainings—a loving kindness meditation training with modules created by renowned meditation teacher and author Sharon Salzberg, or a progressive muscle relaxation program used as the control. After finishing their respective training programs, participants come into the lab for brain scanning. In the scanner, participants experience pressure pain stimulation to their thumbnail. The design includes both periods of time where participants receive painful stimulation and time where they’re anticipating painful stimulation, a tone that warns pain is coming. 

This protocol induces three different emotions while imaging the brain: pain (from the pressure pain stimulation), fear (from the anticipatory tone), and relief (in instances where no pain follows the anticipatory tone). Then, via a live video feed, Dr. Marsh turns the tables as participants watch a stranger undergo the same experience—receiving the pain stimulation or receiving the anticipatory stimulation—all while maintaining brain imaging. 

Prior research demonstrates that if the average person observes these emotions in someone they feel close to, like a spouse or good friend, there is a strong overlap between brain activity in both participants. “We think that is empathy happening at the neural level,” Dr. Marsh explains, “your brain is trying to recreate the experience of the other person so you can understand and respond appropriately.” 

In this study, Dr. Marsh measures whether participants attempt to simulate the experience of someone they’ve just met. Altruists—like the kidney donors in her prior research—demonstrate a strong overlap in brain activity with others experiencing pain, even strangers. Dr. Marsh hopes this work will demonstrate how a loving kindness meditation practice increases this phenomenon in average adults to generate feelings of love, kindness, and compassion for strangers.

“We think empathy is the manifestation of
feeling connected to other people.”

“We think empathy is the manifestation of feeling connected to other people,” adds Dr. Marsh, and this simulation is getting inside the brain and observing the manifestation of social closeness among strangers. She aims to show that we can increase empathy through contemplative practices like loving kindness meditation because thus far, finding any intervention that consistently increases empathy has been difficult.

Following recent trends toward cynicism in the United States, Dr. Marsh believes this work will help illuminate our shared humanity and move us toward a more compassionate society. “The issue of loneliness and social disconnectedness is one of the most important problems of the modern era,” says Dr. Marsh. She’s motivated by this project and the use of contemplative practices to help reduce loneliness and help others feel more connected. “Those of us who have the tools to try and reverse these trends are uniquely positioned to help.”

Mind & Life Connections