The development of social emotions such as compassion is crucial for successful social interactions as well as for the maintenance of mental and physical health, especially when confronted with distressing life events. Yet, the neural mechanisms supporting the training of these emotions are poorly understood. To study affective plasticity in healthy adults, we measured functional neural and subjective responses to witnessing the distress of others in a newly developed task (Socio-affective Video Task). Participants' initial empathic responses to the task were accompanied by negative affect and activations in the anterior insula and anterior medial cingulate cortex--a core neural network underlying empathy for pain. Whereas participants reacted with negative affect before training, compassion training increased positive affective experiences, even in response to witnessing others in distress. On the neural level, we observed that, compared with a memory control group, compassion training elicited activity in a neural network including the medial orbitofrontal cortex, putamen, pallidum, and ventral tegmental area--brain regions previously associated with positive affect and affiliation. Taken together, these findings suggest that the deliberate cultivation of compassion offers a new coping strategy that fosters positive affect even when confronted with the distress of others.
Keywords: Socio-affective Video Task; affective training; brain; empathy; fMRI.