Experimental Evidence of the Efficacy of Hispaalus

Scientific American just (June 24,2013) put up a podcast titled “Teaching People To Be Nice” by Christie Nicholson on their “Mind & Brain :: 60 Second Mind” series. To quote (in full):

Can you train someone to be a nicer person? A recent study using meditation techniques shows that it might be possible. (The research is published in the journal Psychological Science.)

One group of subjects learned to practice what’s called “compassionate meditation” by focusing on a specific person while repeating a phrase like, “May you be free from suffering.” The subjects concentrated on five different people: A loved one, a friend, themselves, a stranger and then someone they were in conflict with. Another group of subjects performed general positive thinking. Both groups did the exercise 30 minutes a day for two weeks.

Then everyone was asked to spend money to help a fictional character who had been treated unfairly.

And the subjects who did compassionate meditation were more likely to spend their money to help than those who trained to just think more positively. The researchers also did brain scans of those who behaved most altruistically, before and after training. And people who were most altruistic after training showed the biggest increases in activity in brain areas involved in empathy and positive emotion. So empathy appears to be like a muscle—it can be built up by exercise that causes actual physiological changes.

Nothing Rav Yisrael Salanter didn’t already say when he spoke of learning mussar texts behispa’alus. But it’s nice to see Western Civ finally provide the experimental data to back him up, a mere 150 years later.

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  1. LenMinNJ says:

    That “compassionate meditation” form is called “Metta” and comes from the Buddhist mindfulness/insight/wisdom meditation world (also known as “vipassana”), which is the dominant source for mindfulness education in the US.

    I think it differs from what we Jews would do in the last step: “…and then someone they were in conflict with.” I don’t think that Shmuel Ha-navi would’ve practiced that meditation with Agag, whom he beheaded after Shaul Ha-mellekh spared his life. Having compassion for certain individuals and nations (e.g., Amalek) can be misplaced and wrong. Our Buddhist friends would disagree.

    While other religions can sometimes teach us something valuable, we must be mindful (!) of incorrect influences creeping into the Jewish world.

    And if you have a source for Rav Salanter saying that Jews should do this, I would very much appreciate it if you would post it.

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