CBCT as a Research Protocol
In 2005-2006, Dr. Lobsang Tenzin Negi began the development of one of the first research protocols used to systematically and rigorously study the effects of compassion on both physiological and behavioral levels. Originally created as a response to increasing mental distress in Emory College students as evidenced by several suicides during the 2003-2004 academic year, Cognitively-Based Compassion Training (CBCT) is based on the Tibetan Buddhist lojong tradition—a set of meditative practices that are designed to bring about ‘thought transformation.’ CBCT renders this mind training methodology into a contemporary form appropriate for use by individuals of any, or no, faith tradition.
The underlying assumption is that compassion is a capacity that can be developed and expanded, and that self-centered thinking and behavior cause suffering for self and others, while other-centered thoughts, emotions, and behaviors ultimately benefit all. CBCT works to promote a deep sense of endearment for others through a process that begins with the stabilization of the practitioner’s mental activity, and then progresses to the cultivation of a sense of closeness or connectedness to others, while also developing insight into the causes of suffering.
An initial study with Emory undergraduates showed an unequivocal correlation between the practice of CBCT and the prevention and reduction of depression levels as evidenced by reduced neuroendocrine, inflammatory and behavioral responses to psychosocial stress (Pace et al. 2008). A subsequent study with children in the Atlanta foster care system further demonstrated a reduction in inflammatory markers after the practice of CBCT (Pace et al. 2012). With these promising results, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) funded a five-year longitudinal study. Data from this study is still being analyzed, but the first publications show strong correlations between the practice of CBCT and enhanced empathic accuracy (Mascaro et.al. 2012) as well as measurable physical change in brain structures (Desbordes et.al 2012 and forthcoming).
In Spring Semester 2014, the Dean of Emory School of Medicine, Dr. Chris Larsen, invited Dr. Negi to offer a CBCT Foundation course to stakeholders in the medical school including deans, department heads, mentors, and others. The course was well attended and the enthusiastic reception led to the launch of a pilot project with the School of Medicine on September 15, 2014. CBCT is being taught to a cohort of second year medical students with the intent to see if it lowers stress levels, improves resiliency, and helps to create more mindful and compassionate caregivers. The accompanying longitudinal study involves faculty from the Department of Psychiatry as well as neuroscientists from Biological Anthropology, in addition to Dr. Negi as Principal Contemplative Investigator.
Later in 2014, ETP will begin an additional study with nurses working in neonatal intensive care to see if CBCT improves workplace civility, and in early 2015, a study examining the effect of CBCT on the relationships between urban experts and rural doctors engaged in telemedicine will be implemented at the Brain Institute of the Albert Einstein Research Hospital in São Paulo, Brazil. Other recently completed, on-going, and scheduled studies using the CBCT protocol include the effects of compassion meditation on breast cancer survivors (University of Arizona), veterans suffering from PTSD (University of California San Diego and Emory), HIV+ individuals, attempted suicide patients (both at Grady Memorial Hospital, Atlanta), elementary school teachers (Life University), and parents of autistic children (Marcus Center for Autism).
Pace, T.W., Negi L.T., Adame, D.D., Cole, S.P., Sivilli, T.I., Brown, T.D., et al. (2008). Effect of compassion meditation on neuroendocrine, innate immune and behavioral responses to psychosocial stress. Psychoneuroendocrinology 34 (1) 87-98.
Pace, T.W.W., et al., Engagement with Cognitively-Based Compassion Training is associated with reduced salivary C-reactive protein from before to after training in foster care program adolescents. Psychoneuroendocrinology (2012).
Mascaro, J.S., Rilling, J.K., Negi, L.T., and Raison, C.L., (2012) Compassion meditation enhances empathic accuracy and related neural activity. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience.
Desbordes, G., Negi, L.T., Pace, T.W., Wallace, B.A., Raison, C.L., and Schwartz, E.L., (2012) Effects of mindful-attention and compassion meditation training on amygdala response to emotional stimuli in an ordinary, non-meditative state. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience.