Switching on Compassion: News from Neuroscience

There’s lots of compelling information emerging from neuroscience about compassion.
That’s good news because, frankly, we need it.
You see, the really good news is that we’re hard-wired for compassion. Speaking at a conference in Telluride, Colorado, The Science of Compassion: Origins, Measures and Interventions, sponsored by Stanford University Medical School’s Center for Compassion and Altruism Research, Stephen Porges, Ph.D. presented the following conclusions from his research:

  • Compassion is a manifestation of our biological need to engage and bond with others
  • Compassion is a component of our biological quest for “safety” in the proximity of others.


Summarizing the Telluride conference findings, Emiliana  Simon-Thomas, Ph.D.,  Associate Director and a Senior Scientist at CCARE, the Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education at Stanford writes, “The discussions revealed growing consensus that the biological, physical and behavioral properties of compassion – the feeling we get when confronted with suffering , infused with the urge to help – have evolved to help us survive.” 

What We Learn and What We Believe

As scientific consensus about compassion as instinct continues to solidify, humanity’s beliefs about the goodness of others seem to lagging behind the studies.  There’s a wonderful Buddhist teaching story that compares lunch in heaven to lunch in hell. Both places have the same set-up; large dining tables filled with delicious food. However, the forks are too long and it is impossible for the diners to eat with them. Those who dwell in hell live in eternal frustration and hunger at not being able to eat the food.  Those who dwell in heaven, however, simply smile and use the long forks to feed each other. The meaning is simple; the same conditions can be experienced differently based on attitude and perceptions.
The precursor to allowing, experiencing and benefiting from compassion appears to be the conditioning and beliefs we humans bring to the experience.

According to Dacher Keltner, PhD, executive editor of Greater Good magazine and professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, “Humans are selfish. The same goes for so many assertions that follow. Greed is good. Altruism is an illusion. Cooperation is for suckers. Competition is natural, war inevitable.  The bad in human nature is stronger than the good. These claims reflect age-old assumptions about emotions. For millennia, we have regarded the emotions as the font of irrationality, baseness and sin.”  Our conditioning and beliefs can be major blocks to allowing feelings of compassion to arise within us.

Let’s take a look at the photo at the top of this article.  I don’t know who this woman is – one of millions of homeless human beings who, tragically, live on streets all over the world. I specifically chose this photo to ask you a few questions.
Does this photo evoke your compassion If not, why not?  This isn’t a judgment – the photo can trigger lots of feelings and it’s valuable to know what they are. It’s also important to know what your thoughts and beliefs are about this photo – the person and the circumstances.

If I believe this person is lazy – will I experience compassion?
If I believe this person is where she is by choice – will she get my compassion?
If I believe that there is nothing I can do about her plight – will compassion be the primary emotion I experience?
What if I think people like this are ruining our streets and creating unsafe conditions for our families? Compassion – I don’t think so.

For me, this woman’s circumstances trigger a range of strong feelings – compassion being among the most powerful. Some of my emotions can be traced to the two years I spent in one of my first non-profit jobs helping to develop the largest network of shelters for homeless families in New York City.  It saddens and angers me that decades later,the organization still exists and homeless services have been institutionalized and not temporary as I/we believed at the time.

The photo also reminds me of something I experienced in the daily grind of facing hundreds of mothers with children with nowhere to go, “compassion fatigue.” Not a term, I like or use often, but one that many people understand and attribute to their lack of compassion or empathy when reason tells them a situation deserves their compassion.  I never lacked compassion when I worked on this project – but my fatigue, exhaustion, despair, anger, worry and lack of self-care – overwhelmed my internal resources.
Experts in compassion fatigue note that sufferers often believe that resources and support for needs are chronically outweighed by demand. Compassion fatigue can leave people feeling pessimistic, cynical and exhausted. Often the only remedy seems to be to become emotionally detached and numb, not uncommon, especially in the helping professions.

Philip Muskin, MD, a professor of clinical psychiatry at Columbia University Medical Center, has also gone through compassion fatigue. In the course of treating a young man who became more and more depressed, Muskin says, “Nothing I did workedHere was a really talented person with tremendous potential. His suffering became my suffering.”  After trying every medication and therapy he knew of, Muskin felt angry and demoralized, and went to see a therapist himself. “He told me, ‘People send you these patients all the time. It isn’t that you don’t know enough; maybe no one does. Maybe the only way to help this person is to just try to be with him and understand his pain.” 

Switching Off Compassion

 In her Telluride conference summary, Emiliana Simon-Thomas refers to compassion as a push-pull. One critical factor to feeling compassion is the amount of “safety” we feel.  According to Simon-Thomas, “It turns out that feeling safe is a precondition to activating biological systems that promote compassion. In the face of another person’s suffering, the biological mechanisms that drive our nurturing and caregiving can only come online if our more habitual “self-preservation” and “vigilance-to-threat” systems (e.g. fear, distress, anxiety and hostility are not monopolizing the spotlight.”

 In his Telluride presentation, Dr. Porges, professor of Psychiatry and Bioengineering and Director of the Brain-Body Center at the University of Illinois, Chicago, noted that “Compassion requires turning off defenses.”  He further added that “Our physiology blurs our perception of the world with different psychological experiences.”
Judgment and defensiveness, Porges says, turn off the heart connection.

 Switching on Compassion 

If judgment and defensiveness turn off the heart connection as Dr. Porges states, what turns it on?  Compassion researcher Helen Weng  suggests that the secret lies in the brain’s frontal lobes, which her studies show calm down alert signals from the amygdala (the brain’s threat detector).  The practice of mindfulness, in many forms, is increasingly being recognized as an important factor in learning to regulate neuro-physiology.

According to Emiliana Simon-Thomas, “The regular practice of mindfulness – the moment to moment awareness of your body and mind – turns out to be a  common theme across programs for training compassion, including those based at the University of Wisconsin, Emory, the CCare at Stanford, the Max Planck Institute in Leipzig and of course, 2000 years of Buddhist tradition.” “Compassion, as Simon-Thomas concludes from the researchcomes more readily if people can be more openly aware of the present moment as it is occurring, particularly, in the presence of other’s suffering, without reflexive thinking or judgment.”

We can turn on the goodness – when we learn to stay present to what we are feeling in the moment. When we are aware of the beliefs, judgments and assumptions that create a wall of protection from what we perceive are dangers from the outside world, we turn off our habituated defensiveness.
We want closeness – despite the discomfort – when we believe we can help others to ease their suffering.  The research shows that the brain likes helping others (when we let it) even more than helping the self. Called the “carry-over” effect such as giving something of ourselves to others, activates the pleasure circuits of the givers brains.

The neuroscience gospel of good news continues when it comes to compassion.  As Simon-Thomas concludes in her conference summary, “While survival of the fittest may lead to short-term gain, research clearly shows it is survival of the kindest that leads to the long-term survival of a species. It is our ability to stand together as a group, to support each other, to help each other, to communicate for mutual understanding, and to cooperate that has taken our species this far.”
Let’s switch it on more often.

Thanks for reading,
Louise Altman, Partner, Intentional Communication Consultants

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