Scientific inquiry is the finest example of how individuals who accept certain practices can work to surpass their individual limitations. Paul Bloom. “Against empathy”
The Fetzer Foundation funded a CEB pilot study that took place from September 2002 to May 2003. An integrated 5-week training program was developed following a series of meetings with experts in emotion, psychotherapy and contemplative meditation. In addition, a number of behavioral evaluation measures were selected and modified to capture changes in emotional and interpersonal behavior, without relying exclusively on self-report.
The training and evaluation measures were then pilot-tested on a sample of 15 female schoolteachers. The training integrated lectures, discussions, and practices related to contemplative meditation with those derived from the scientific literature on the awareness and understanding of emotional experience. The format included a 3-hour introductory session, a 2 and1/2-day retreat, a 3-hour follow-up session, and 3 full-day final sessions.
Participants found the integrated training experience quite meaningful. They reported a reduction in negative mood that they believe resulted from an increase in their ability to maintain a calm quality even in the face of adversity. They also reported an increase in awareness of their emotions, their thoughts, and their reactions to others that allowed them to respond in unique and constructive ways. Many participants reported an ability to interact with others in a more compassionate and forgiving way.
Evaluation procedure results supported the participants’ reports. Participants showed a highly significant decrease in depression, anxiety and hostility over the 5-week period. In addition, participants reported a significant increase in affection for others and demonstrated a significant improvement in their ability to detect subtle forms of emotional expression on the face.
On the post-test, participants showed a response pattern that suggested less emotional and physiological reactivity to the stress task compared to their reactivity prior to the training. In other words, the training appeared to protect them from the negative psychological and physiological effects of stress. The next phase of the project will determine if these and other changes continue to be observable when compared against changes demonstrated by a control group that does not receive the training.
The next phase of the CEB project involved a randomized controlled clinical trial, comparing the integrated training to a control condition to determine the efficacy of the training and its impact over a 6-month follow-up period. The aims of the trial were to determine if the CEB training: 1) reduces emotional experiences destructive to others, specifically, hostility, contempt and denigration; 2) reduces emotional experiences destructive to self, specifically, shame, depression and anxiety; 3) promotes empathy and compassion towards intimates and others; and 4) promotes physiological health, as measured by changes in autonomic nervous system activity, neuroendocrine hormone levels, and immune function.
The CEB project recruited women schoolteachers, nurses, and other allied health professionals between the ages of 25 and 60 to participate in the study. Teachers and helping professionals were chosen for two reasons: 1) Their work situations are stressful and can be emotionally draining due to their care-giving roles. These individuals may therefore benefit from training that promotes emotional balance and compassion. 2) The training could have a variety of secondary benefits for the participants’ pupils or clients/patients.
Training took place in a group setting over an 8-week period, including a retreat and some day-long sessions. The training procedures were modeled after those used in the pilot phase. Two trainers led the group sessions: Alan Wallace, co-investigator on the project, a Buddhist scholar, and an expert in meditation training; and Margaret Cullen, a Marriage and Family Therapist, a Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction Instructor, and one with expertise in group interventions including those using psychological and meditation techniques.
The CEB training involves the integration of secularized meditation practices with various techniques drawn from Western psychological science designed to promote the understanding and regulation of emotional life. Training focuses on the following components: attention (including concentration and mindfulness); awareness and understanding of emotions in self and others; skills to handle emotional conflict; empathy training; and compassion training.
All participants were evaluated using psychosocial and biological measures of emotion and social interaction at three points in time: immediately before, immediately after, and six months following the 8-week training period. The trial determined whether the integration of contemplative practice and western techniques for dealing with emotion can reduce destructive emotions and enhance compassion and empathy for others. While self-report measures were included, the project emphasizes quantitative measurement of emotional and interpersonal behavior. As of May 2009, all the data from this study has been analyzed, and the results are very encouraging, demonstrating multiple benefits of this training.
Details on the findings can be found here.