Three Insights from the Cutting Edge of Compassion Research

Three Insights from the Cutting Edge of Compassion Research

By Emiliana R. Simon-Thomas | September 7, 2012 | 5 comments

A recent gathering of compassion researchers reveals new discoveries about how and why humans help each other.

Several weeks ago, a who’s who of thinkers and researchers convened at a conference in the mountain town of Telluride, Colorado, to explore the science of compassion. Their 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.

The conference—called The Science of Compassion: Origins, Measures and Interventions—encouraged rich cross-disciplinary collaboration and promised to accelerate the pace and progress of scientific inquiry into compassion. (The conference was organized by Stanford’sCenter for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education; the GGSC was a co-sponsor.) Here are three key insights I took away from the four days of discussion.

1. Compassion is push-pull

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, hostility) are not monopolizing the spotlight.

In the other direction, having a genetic disposition and life history that’s led to a strong sense of social support, trust, and safety around people puts your “self-preservation” impulses at ease and opens the door for you to feel compassion.

How, then, can we relax vigilant, self-preservation systems so that our compassionate biology can more readily get into gear? University of Wisconsin researcher Helen Weng suggests the secret lies in the brain’s frontal lobes, which her studies show do a better job of calming alert signals from the amygdala (the brain’s almond shaped threat detector) when people complete a brief course in compassion.

This means that we can actually train our brains for compassion. When Charles Raison, another presenter, and his colleagues at Emory University also evaluated the effects of a compassion training course, they found lower stress hormones in the blood and saliva of people who spent the most time doing the compassion exercises.

But what’s in compassion training, one might ask? How does it boost the frontal lobes and attenuate stress hormones? Read on…

2. Compassion hinges upon mindfulness

The regular practice of mindfulness—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 University, CCARE, the Max Planck Institute in Leipzig, Germany, a consortium of clinicians in the United Kingdom, and, of course, 2,000 years of Buddhist tradition.

The opposite of mindfulness is sometimes referred to as “mindwandering”—reflexively thinking about what has happened, might have happened, or could or should happen. This very common non-mindful habit has been shown by Harvard researchers Matthew Killingsworth and Daniel Gilbert to decrease happiness. Judson Brewer, a psychiatrist at Yale University, has shown that mindwandering involves a predictable brain area (the posterior cingulate cortex), and that people can phase out activation in this brain area by practicing mindfulness.

Compassion, data suggest, comes 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. (For more on the links between compassion and mindfulness, stay tuned for details about the GGSC’s conference on the relationship between the two, to be held in March of 2013.)

3. Brains like helping the group more than helping the self

Studies using optogenetics, a technique for making populations of living brain cells fire, and fMRI, which measures how much oxygen neurons are using, show that the brain’s pleasure systems also play an important role in compassion.

For example, extending compassion toward others biases the brain to glean more positive information from the world, something called the “carryover effect.” Compassionate action—such as giving some of one’s own earnings to charity—also activates pleasure circuits, which some people call “the warm glow.”

In the words of Dr. Jamil Zaki, a professor of psychology at Stanford, “humans are the champions of kindness.” But why? Zaki’s brain imaging data shows that being kind to others registers in the brain as more like eating chocolate than like fulfilling an obligation to do what’s right (e.g., eating brussel sprouts). Brains find it more valuable to do what’s in the interest of the group than to do what’s most profitable to the self.


In his keynote address, Richie Davidson, the director of the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds at the University of Wisconsin, highlighted the legacy of philosophical thought—now corroborated by a growing body of research—suggesting that compassion is both fundamental and beneficial to human survival. Davidson advocated that academia—and all workplaces, for that matter—provide facilities and paid time for training compassion. When he shared a photo of the Tibetan-Buddhist-inspired onsite meditation facility at his center and discussed their “time off for retreat” policy, the crowd cheered enthusiastically.

While speakers like Davidson might have been academics, their insights can be applied to many domains of life—from marriages and neighborhoods to workplaces and schools—to spread compassion well beyond the mountains of Telluride.


The Power of Failure (An Opportunity for Growth)

Video from KarmaTube


Grab the Reigns! Training the Mind to Find Happiness

--by Joanna Holsten , Original Story, Feb 3, 2012

Until recently, meditation was a very fuzzy concept to me. Growing up in a pretty homogenous, East coast suburb, I never knew anyone who meditated. My understanding consisted of abstract and puzzling instructions, like ‘sit, quiet your mind, and think of nothing.’ “Nothing! Why would you think of nothing?! What a waste of time,” I thought. Hence, meditation wasn’t at the top of my list of things to try.

But I felt a bit stuck in life. While I had many happy parts of my life, I didn’t feel a baseline of contentment. External things would unglue me more easily than I would like, and negative thoughts and emotions would too often creep into my mind. I had no idea how to feel more consistently content, but I thought there must be a way. I tried many things to find a more peaceful state - including sheer willpower, increasing positive experiences or things around me, and other self-help strategies. Some of these things provided small gains, but the results were fleeting.

After moving to California, I started to meet people who practiced meditation. Something was different about their disposition. They seemed calm at their core, and imbued with a kind of grounded optimism. Sensing that this might be what I was missing, I asked about their experiences with meditation. They described their discovery of meditation as a pivotal experience in their life. “Maybe this is not such a waste of time after all,” I thought. I find that when people describe experiences as life-altering, even if I don’t understand why, I must learn more. Similar curiosities led me to study aboard in college and volunteer in Africa. People said these experiences would change me. Maybe they even described how, but I didn’t fully understand until I went myself.

Still unsure about exactly what meditation was, I dove in. I registered for a 10-day silent meditation retreat. While this was still months away, I realized that I should start learning about what I signed myself up for. What is meditation? I asked the friend that recommended the retreat and about how to prepare. She suggested a book, Turning the Mind into an Ally, by Sakyong Mipham (2003). I didn’t get too far into the book before realizing that it was a very concrete and practical explanation of meditation. It explained that the mind was like a wild horse and you were on its back. Without awareness of this arrangement, let alone training, the wild horse/the mind would go wherever it wanted to go, and you had no choice but to come along for the ride. My mind would lead me through negative thought patterns and harmful emotions in response to relatively minor stimuli, and I was just an oblivious passenger trying to hold on.

As the book explained it, the promise of meditation was that with consistent practice you could learn to lead the wild steed. You could form a mutual relationship with the horse, but you have to patiently come to know it, and work with it to overcome engrained patterns. Like a wild horse, my mind was responding to circumstances and experiencing thoughts and emotions based on patterns I was often unaware of. Sometimes I grasped these patterns on an intellectual level, but the understanding didn’t necessarily provide me with practical tools to recondition my responses. For example, when someone would express anger toward me, I felt scared, internalized the situation to develop negative self-concepts, or struck back defensively. But this pattern, could be just that, a pattern. I didn’t have to respond that way. I could lead my mind to different reactions. I didn’t have to just remain powerless on top of the wild horse. 

The actual practice of meditation includes sitting silently with proper positioning and focusing your attention. This book directed me to focus my attention on breath. Anytime a thought or emotion would come up that was not breath, I would recognize that I was thinking or feeling something else and then return my mind back to breath. It was hard for me to believe that something this simple would help me, but I was determined to try it.
At first, I sat on a couch cushion in the middle of my living room, and meditated for 5 minutes using my kitchen timer. At the beginning, I experienced what the book referred to as a “waterfall” of thoughts. Having never tried to focus my mind on something so simple as respiration, so many thoughts poured down on me: “What am I going to have for lunch?” “What if this doesn’t work?” “I should do a load of laundry.” In these instances, the wild horse takes off. Then you have to grab the reigns, and lead the horse back to the path: your breath. The important thing is to commit to doing this, and not leave your seat until the timer goes off, otherwise the horse is in control instead of the rider.
In meditation, you practice noticing your feeling and thoughts. You train in redirecting your mind rather than allowing it to be swept away. The more you practice, the more you break down the old patterns and establish new ones, improving your ability to redirect when stronger and stronger thoughts and emotions come along. It is not about purging all your desires and thoughts, but learning to react differently to them, leading to a more peaceful existence.

Every other day I would add another 5 minutes to my total time. To build these skills and develop strength in leading the horse, I would have to practice regularly. Weight lifting was used as another helpful metaphor in the book; you can’t expect to walk into a gym, be able to lift the largest weight, and walk out all finished with your training. In the same way you can’t expect to meditate for a week and be able to handle your strongest emotions with peace.

I noticed some immediate positive effects in my everyday life. I was able to recognize emotions more easily than before and at least be aware of them. After more practice, I was able to gain space from the emotions in certain situations. I realized that I had a choice in where to place my mind even when I was not meditating. I was able to remain calmer through difficult situations - arguments with my partner, critiques of my professional work, and small rejections from friends. With further practice, I am learning a lot more about myself and how I want to live in the world.
There are many types of meditation. This is my novice interpretation of only one – mindful breathing. There is lots of nuance I have not captured here. I am just beginning to learn, and I wanted to share how I first came to understand meditation and why it was important in my life, before I deepen my practice and lose the perspective of an initially skeptical and then wide-eyed and amazed beginner.

This article is posted here with permission from the author. Joanna Holsten blogs at "Let's Live Nice,"which documents her journey towards a more critically compassionate life, exploring ideas and actions for a world with less suffering and more happiness.


Openness and Vulnerability

by Bob Wentworth

NVC trainers sometime talk about how connecting, empowering and healing it can be to allow ourselves to be vulnerable. And social psychologist Brené Brown says her research shows that being vulnerable is an important key to happiness and well-being. Yet, the dictionary defines vulnerable as "susceptible to attack or harm." Is that really what is being advocated? Are we being advised to indiscriminately open ourselves to being attacked or hurt? I don't think so. It might be more accurate to say that being open about one's inner experience, in ways that from a war-mentatlity mindset might be interpreted as creating vulnerability, can often offer major benefits. But, the point of this openness is not to make one unsafe or to invite attack. In fact, it makes sense to develop discernment around when such openness is likely to beneficial and safe, and to develop alternative strategies for keeping oneself safe that do not rely on hiding our inner truths. Safety is a desirable goal. Yet concealment is limited in its ability to create safety. Human connection through openness is often a powerful strategy for achieving safety, and has additional benefits.

Often, we conceal aspects of our inner experience because we are ashamed of them. We fear that they render us unworthy and unlovable, make it likely that others will reject us. When we hide these aspects of ourselves, we are affirming we believe the story that we are defective and unworthy, and this intensifies our suffering. When we choose to reveal these aspects of ourselves, we are endorsing (or at least checking out) a different story, a story that we are human and lovable exactly the way we are. If we are judicious about where we share our wounding, we are likely to be received in a way that offers external support to this story of acceptability and lovability. If our inner commitment to this alternative story is shaky, the actual experience of offering up "shameful" parts of ourselves and having it be received with acceptance can be deeply healing. Concealment intended to protect us from attack may be revealed as also having blocked the possibility of experiencing healing. But achieving healing does depend on discernment about what contexts offer some likelihood for this outcome.

While being open about our inner experience plays an important role in healing, it can also serve other purposes:

  • It models the possibility that others might choose to be open.
  • It can help shift an assumption that a war metaphor is the appropriate model for understanding what is happening in an interpersonal exchange.
  • It can offer others a basis for understanding us, seeing our humanity, and feeling sympathetic to our desires.
  • It can surface the information people need to find strategies that will really address everyone's needs.
  • It can touch wounded places in others, bringing what was hidden into awareness, in a way that offers them companionship and healing.

To me, openness is not about increasing the likelihood of attack or hurt. Rather, it's a powerful tool for empowerment, for creating connection with others, for shifting the tenor of a conversation to address what really matters, and for countering the shaming stories that cause so much suffering. Yet, whether openness will have beneficial effects does depend on the context and the way we express ourselves. It takes discernment to know when and how to use openness to achieve these beneficial ends.

I invite you to experiment with being more open. And to do so judiciously, so that you have alternate strategies for safety (e.g., an empathy buddy on call) so that you can take care of yourself if things don't go as you hope. With practice, you're likely to feel less and less need for concealment, and more and more liberation, having found ways of being safe in the world while expressing what matters to you.

(If this essay moves or nurtures you in some way, I'd love to receive your feedback. - Bob - Nov. 27, 2011)

You can read more articles from Bob.


If You Really Pay Attention, by Paula Underwood

When I was a little bitty kiddy, about five, my Dad began a process anytime somebody came and said something to us, my dad would say, "You remember what he said, honey girl?" I would tell my father what the person said until I got so good at it that I could repeat verbatim even long presentations of what the person had said.

And he did this all the time.

Finally, one day there was this old gentleman, Richard Thompson. I still remember his name, he lived across the street. And every time my Dad started to mow the lawn, there came Mr. Thompson. And so I would stand out there.

Dad says, "You might come and listen to this man, honey girl. He's pretty interesting." And so I listened to him, and then my dad would say, "What did you hear him say?" And I would tell him.

Well, eventually I was repeating all the stories he liked to share with my Dad verbatim. I knew them all by heart.

And my Dad says, "You're getting pretty good at that. But did you hear his heart?" And I thought, what? So I went around for days with my ear to people's chest trying to hear their hearts.

Finally my Dad created another learning situation for me by asking my mother to read an article from the newspaper. He says "Well, I guess if you want to understand that article, you have to read between the lines."

I thought, "Oh, read between the lines. Hear between the words."

So the next time I listened to Mr. Thompson's stories, I tried to listen between the words. My Dad said, "I know you know his story, but did you hear his heart?" And I said, "Yes. He is very lonely and comes and shares his memories with you again and again because he's asking you to keep him company in his memories."

It just came out of me. In other words, my heart echoed his heart.

And when you can listen at that level, then you can hear not only the people. If you really pay attention, you can hear what the Universe is saying.

--Paula Underwood, clan mother of the Turtle clan, Iroquois nation´╗┐

Published at on Sep 21, 2009

Rodger Sorrow writes, "I was touched, moved and inspired by this story.  What an inspirational description of empathy.  What a powerful and simple way for me to check in with myself during conversations or conflict and ask, "Do I hear this person's heart?  Do I hear what the Universe is wanting to tell me! I believe the Universe is speaking to all of us.  Now is the time to listen."