Civility is a Skill ­– and Meditation Can Help

When it comes to civility, the cards have been stacked against us lately. We sense it in our social groups and public spaces. Smart phones are out-competing human connection in restaurants and living rooms. Dialogue at our highest national stages in media and politics are often lacking basic consideration and respect.

But the good news is your brain is on your side, and it’s always been.

As a neuroscientist who studies the brain and how it affects positive qualities of mind like kindness and compassion, I’m intrigued by our predicament today and how it differs from our innate tendencies toward human goodness and connection.

In our new book “Altered Traits: Science Reveals How Meditation Changes Your Mind, Brain, and Body,” Daniel Goleman and I review the evidence of what practices like meditation can do, where they fall short, and what mysteries still elude scientific understanding (for now at least).

Civility, an outward expression of the norms of kindness and respect, represents one of the most perplexing problems: If qualities like kindness and compassion are innate, why are so many of us not embodying them, and how can we reconnect with them using simple meditation practices? In other words, how can people come to treat those different from them with the same kindness and care they would treat a family member or friend?

Our biology clearly predisposes us to connection with others. This begins with the care bestowed by the mother on her offspring and generalizes to the caregiving we see toward the young in humans. We have also evolved to live in groups and benefit from the sharing and connection conferred by social groups. Our problems arise when we treat those who are different from us (the “out-group”) differently than we treat those in our “in-group.”

Scientists have devised clever procedures to make inferences about such out-group biases that do not depend upon “self-reports.” Often when we are asked about bias toward an out-group, we deny any such bias exists, yet in the more subtle objective measures of implicit bias, evidence of its presence is powerfully evident.

In our book, Dan Goleman and I review the best scientific evidence on the impact of different forms of meditation, and we show that as little as six weeks of modest practice (20 minutes/day, five days/week) of a simple loving-kindness meditation is sufficient to reduce objective measures of implicit bias.

The reduction of implicit bias toward out-groups is a key ingredient of civility, and these findings are part of a growing body of scientific evidence that we believe support the view that civility can be indeed be learned. And we believe that it is relatively easy to learn with the right strategies because humans come into the world with an early preference for kind and warm-hearted interactions compared with those that are selfish and aggressive.

To reconnect with kind, altruistic behaviors while counteracting bias, practices like secular forms of meditation are helpful. As a neuroscientist who studies plasticity, the ability of the brain to change in response to experience, I consider meditation to be especially powerful given the fact that our brains change based on our experiences, and that they can be trained and actually rewired for the better.

To understand how such meditation can affect the brain and behavior, our lab at the Center for Healthy Minds at the University of Wisconsin–Madison studied the impact of practicing just seven hours of compassion practice in a relatively short period of time on changes in the brain and behavior compared to a control group that did not do the practice. Afterward, we looked at each person’s willingness to help another. We found that just this small amount of practice over the course of two weeks was sufficient to induce a change in the brain and to produce increased kindness toward others.

This leads us to a critical point that is missing when we talk about meditation and mindfulness in the mainstream. Meditation isn’t primarily about improving oneself — its original framework invokes the intention that practicing meditation is actually for the benefit of others.

This came full circle for me recently when I had the honor of visiting Botswana in southern Africa for a meeting on the African concept of “Ubuntu”—“I am because we are,” a concept meant to reflect the sense of interconnectedness that underlies traditional African culture. This concept might well be applied in our national context to remind us of our profound interconnectedness with others.

Knowing that the brain can change in response to training and experience, I offer up a simple challenge: Let’s commit to intentionally cultivating civility to heal the deep divisions that tear us apart. Let’s expand our in-group to include those who may not be quite as similar or familiar to us. All human beings share the same basic wish to be happy and free of suffering. Let’s recognize this universal truth as we commit to increase civility.