Imagine that you are walking in a street in a cold winter night, you suddenly see a baby lying on a street crying out loud… Do you notice that uneasy feeling inside you, wanting to grab and cuddle the baby? Well, that feeling is compassion.
Compassion is described as an emotional response of caring for and wanting to help those who are suffering (Batson, 1991). It differs from empathy in the way it includes also a motivation to help and relieve the suffering of others. Today, compassion is one of the most crucial topics in our society.
This article contains:
Why does Compassion Matter?
We are facing the most challenging time of human history. High inequality, exploitation and destruction of nature, global warming, conflicts and poverty are the inevitable problems of our generation. It’s true that our society and social media reinforce constant competition, self-absorption and greediness in us.
This leads us to question who we are as species. Are we egoistic gratification machines trying to exploit others? Or are we something bigger, greater than that? Recent neuroscientific evidence gives us an answer to these questions. It turns out that experiencing other people’s suffering lits up our brain regions related to pain, while helping other people activates the same brain region as experiencing pleasure and reward in us (Greene et al.,2004; Rilling et al., 2002). These results prove that we already have a seed of compassion in our brain, which is vital to human survival.
Can Compassion be Cultivated?
Recent research has shown that with training, compassion can be learned. In compassion meditation, an ancient Buddhist technique, compassion is cultivated toward different people, including loved ones, strangers, and difficult persons, as well as toward the self (Salzberg, 1997).
In this training, practitioners envision a time someone suffers and wishes his or her suffering to be relieved. Scientific studies indicate that compassion training improves one’s psychological and physical well-being, prosocial behavior, positive emotion towards people as well as empathetic accuracy (Pace et al., 2009; Leiberg, et al., 2011; Klimecki, et al., 2012; Mascaro et al., 2013).
These findings lead to the fact that, indeed compassion can be cultivated in our society, and the training can change the way we perceive suffering of others and ourselves, and increase our actions to relieve that suffering.
Effects of Compassion Training on your Brain
So, what’s the impact of compassion training on our brain? The research of Weng and Davidson (2013) shows that only two weeks of training changes how our brain responds to people’s suffering.
According to the result, compassion training group showed increased activity in the inferior parietal cortex, a region involved in empathy and understanding others, comparing to controls. As we know, empathy is an essential ingredient of compassion.
Furthermore, there is also increased activity in dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC) and its connection with nucleus accumbens, brain regions involved in emotion regulation and positive emotions. Which makes total sense, because we are already biologically inclined to be compassionate and cooperative and wiring related brain circuits make us more compassionate.
Can Compassion cause Fatigue?
Compassion fatigue is a condition where a person experiences a lessening of compassion over time. This desensitization is common, as people who work directly with victims of trauma, such as therapists and nurses, experience feelings of hopelessness, sleeplessness, and anxiety (“Compassion Fatigue – Because You Care,” 2007).
A decrease in compassion has detrimental effects on individuals on a professional and personal level, as they become less productive, less focused, and start to feel more self-doubt and inadequacy.
This could explain why we are becoming less shocked looking at disturbing images or why violence in video games are increasing. The over-saturation of shock value has made several people care less. Media outlets that focus on creating controversial articles to make headlines are actually causing widespread compassion fatigue. We are becoming more resistant to help those that are suffering.
Taken together, compassion is deeply rooted in human brain and body. Even scientific studies suggest that cultivating and practicing it in everyday life makes us more compassionate. It takes little imagination to see our individual compassionate behavior can create more loving and understanding society. Indeed, what’s more freeing than getting out of our small egoistic shelter and bring ourselves closer to the ineffable beauty of others?
As a final note, We will leave you with this amazing quote of Albert Einstein,
“A human being is a part of the whole called by us universe, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feeling as something separated from the rest, a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.”
For more information about compassionate brain, we highly recommend this video series with Dr.Rick Hanson.
Batson, C. D. (1991). The altruism question. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.
Greene, J. D. , Cohen J. D. (2004). For the law, neuroscience changes nothing and everything. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London B, (Special Issue on Law and the Brain), 359, 1775-17785
Klimecki, O. M., Leiberg, S., Lamm, C., & Singer, T. (2012). Functional neural plasticity and associated changesin positive affect after compassion training. Cerebral Cortex. Advance online publication. doi:10.1093/cercor/bhs142
Leiberg, S., Klimecki, O., & Singer, T. (2011). Short-term compassion training increases prosocial behavior in a newly developed prosocial game. PLoS ONE, 6(3), e17798. Retrieved from http://www.plosone.org/article/info:doi/10.1371/journal.pone.0017798
Mascaro, J. S., Rilling, J. K., Tenzin Negi, L., & Raison, C. L. (2013). Compassion meditation enhances empathic accuracy and related neural activity. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 8, 48–55
Pace, T. W., Negi, L.T., Adame, D. D., Cole, S. P., Sivilli, T. I., Brown, T. D., Raison, C. L. (2009). Effect of compassion meditation on neuroendocrine, innate immune and behavioral responses to psychosocial stress. Psychoneuroendocrinology, 34, 87–98.
Rilling, James K., David A. Gutman, Thorsten R. Zeh, Giuseppe Pagnoni, Gregory S. Berns, and Clinton D. Kilts. ( 2002). A Neural Basis for Social Cooperation. Neuron 35:395–405.
Salzberg, S. (1997). Lovingkindness: The revolutionary art of happiness. Boston, MA: Shambhala.
Weng, H. Y., Fox, A. S., Shackman, A. J., Stodola, D. E., Caldwell, J. Z. K., Olson, M. C., Rogers, G. M., & Davidson, R. J. (2013). Compassion training alters altruism and neural responses to suffering. (source) Psychological science, 24(7), 1171–1180. doi:10.1177/0956797612469537.