Why We Care
Where our compassion comes from.
Compassion—the ability to understand and empathize with the pain of others—is a trait that we admire in great leaders and humanitarians, from Lincoln to Gandhi to Mother Theresa. But it's a quality that sometimes seems sadly rare in the human species. In this article, we'll look at the neuroscience of compassion, and how what we imagine as kind-heartedness actually takes place in the brain. We'll explore why compassion developed—and why some people feel it, while others don't. Lastly, we'll discuss recent research and discoveries that may enable more of us to become compassionate.
How Compassion Takes Place in Your Brain
We're actually hard-wired to be concerned about others. When you feel pain from being pinched or burned, for example, the anterior cingulate region of your brain is activated. But the same area also lights up if you see somebody else suffering. Similarly, the amygdala, the brain's threat detector, is roused into action if you see images of someone else in distress, in the same fashion it would be if you were confronted by personal danger. Additionally, when we see someone who is suffering, a very primitive part of our nervous system, the periaqueductal gray in the center of the brain, is also activated. "We don't just see suffering as a threat," University of California-Berkeley psychology professor Dacher Keltner, author of the book The Compassionate Instinct: The Science of Human Goodness, explained in a web essay. "We also instinctively want to alleviate that suffering through nurturance."
Perception that another person is suffering also triggers the vagus nerve, a connection which runs from the base of your brain to other organs such as the lungs, heart, kidneys, liver and intestines. When you see another person suffering, that pathway transmits signals that slow your heart rate, deepen your breathing, and cause your hypothalamus to release a chemical called oxytocin, which in turn stimulates feelings of empathy and concern for others. In his research, Keltner has been able to activate a vagus nerve response in subjects by showing them photos of suffering and distress, or by getting them to talk about a sad experience, such as the death of a grandparent. But interestingly, telling an inspiring story—such as a person who overcame some hardship, perhaps—caused the vagus response as well. "The more you feel compassion, the stronger the vagus nerve response," Keltner wrote.
The compassion system can clash with our natural tendency to be egocentric. That's why the brain has an area, the right supramarginal gyrus, that seemingly does for caring what the autocorrect function on your smartphone does for your spelling. That brain structure recognizes when you're feeling selfish or apathetic, and tries to adjust your attitude. In a 2013 study published in Journal of Neuroscience, researchers reported that when the supramarginal gyrus doesn't function properly, or when subjects had to make quick decisions, the capacity to feel empathy was dramatically reduced.
The Evolutionary History of Compassion
You might think of the impulse to care for others as something we learn from our parents, teachers or at church. But research suggests that humans actually have an innate capacity for compassion. Dr. Karen Wynn, head of the Yale University Infant Cognition Center, has found in experiments that after infants as young as four months are shown a puppet show featuring a kind, helpful bear in a green shirt and a mean bear in a blue shirt, they invariably reach for the compassionate bear afterward.
Indeed, the author of the theory of evolution, Charles Darwin, viewed sympathy as the strongest of humans' evolved instincts. In his classic 1871 thesis The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex, he argued that "sympathy will have been increased through natural selection; for those communities, which included the greatest number of the most sympathetic members, would flourish best, and rear the greatest number of offspring." Compassion was a critical adaptation, because humans' offspring takes longer to mature and become self-sufficient than other species, which required early human communities to protect and nurture them. Darwin believed that our responses to certain cues, such as feeling concern when we hear cries of distress, became prevalent as a result.
Additionally, scientists theorize that primitive female humans developed a tendency to select males who were kind and caring, because those traits made them more likely to remain with the family unit and work to provide the resources for its survival. And despite the modern meme that we're attracted to "bad" boys or girls because they seem more exciting, studies of speed dating participants show that they tend to rate a warm personality above other more glamorous traits, and pursue relationships with those potential partners.
Humans' evolutionary imperative to spread their clan's genes made a broader sense of compassion useful as well. Studies show that we tend to feel more compassion toward people who have an appearance similar to our own. "Our ancestors assumed similar-looking people were more likely to be relatives, and thus more worthy of being helped because it furthered our genetic code," Wynn explains.
Thus, over time, humans also developed the tendency to feel compassionate in response to what the classical Greek philosopher Aristotle called eleos—the suffering of others, whether it was from hunger, the frailty of old age, illness, or the effects of being mistreated or assaulted. According to a survey of studies on compassion published in the journal Psychological Bulletin in 2011, when researchers have interviewed subjects and asked them to recall incidents in which they've felt compassion, they often mention encountering others who've suffered from physical disabilities or who have been victims of disasters or other misfortunes.
The Opposite of Caring
When you see someone in distress, your caring feelings are aroused—that is, if you're normal. But not everyone will react that way. Scans show that in some individuals, known as psychopaths, the brain structures normally involved in compassion don't light up to the same degree as they do inside your head. Psychopaths have a total absence of compassion. Envision Patrick Bateman, the undercover serial killer in the novel and movie American Psycho, and you'll get the general idea.
But even those us who aren't psychopaths have the capacity to be insensitive or even cruel.
Researchers have found that our degree of compassion is influenced by our beliefs and appraisal of the person who is suffering. One major factor is the extent to which we believe the person might be able to control his or her plight. In one 1988 study, subjects were sympathetic to people who suffered from problems as paralysis, blindness, cancer, Alzheimer's disease and heart disease, which they perceived as not being controllable, but tended to be angry at people struggling with problems such as obesity and drug abuse. Other studies found that subjects perceived certain types of individuals—the elderly and physically and mentally disabled—as being friendly, trustworthy, and less able to compete, and thus deserving of compassion. But other types—such as homeless people and welfare recipients—were deemed less likable, and elicited contempt.
It's also possible to suppress the compassion response in people by encouraging them to identify with their own group and not with other people. UC Berkeley psychologist Keltner has found, for example, that when he showed research subjects a picture that would inspire pride—such as images of the college's mascot or the Sather Gate, a campus landmark—it weakened their vagus nerve response.
How to Develop Compassion
Psychologist Keltner has found that individuals who have a stronger vagus nerve response—"vagal superstars," he calls them—tend to be more compassionate and take action to help others. "Fifth graders who have a stronger vagal profile are the kids who intervene when a kid is being bullied," he wrote in his essay. "They're more likely to cooperate, and will donate recess time to tutor a kid who needs help on homework."
Studies have shown that simply looking at iconography associated with caring—pictures of angels, for example—can actually boost your level of compassion, by priming the neural circuits that are involved in altruistic behavior.
In another experiment, subjects who saw babies in a waiting room were more likely to give up their seats to a man on crutches, which indicates that once oxytocin is released as a result of one stimulus, you tend to feel a more generalized empathy as well. The practical application: If you make a point of smiling and opening a door for a stranger, you're likely to feel warmer towards people in general—and you may even stimulate others to feel the same way.
It's also possible to train yourself to be more compassionate through compassion meditation, an ancient technique developed by practitioners of Buddhism. In a study by University of Wisconsin-Madison researchers, subjects were asked to envision a time when another person had suffered and to practice wishing that the person's suffering was relieved. They also practiced repeating phrases such as "May you be free from suffering, may you live with ease." Over time, they also practiced feeling compassion for various types of people, starting with friends and family members, and then expanding to contemplate caring about strangers. Ultimately, they graduated to meditating about compassion for people with whom they'd had a conflict, such as a troublesome coworker. Scans showed that after the following meditation regimen, subjects had increased activity in parts of their brains involved in emotion regulation and positive feelings. In an economic game played over the Internet with anonymous players, the subjects also were more likely to spend their money to help others whom they perceived as being treated unfairly.
"It's kind of like weight training," the study's lead author, Helen Weng, explained in a media release. "Using this systematic approach, we found that people can actually build up their compassion 'muscle' and respond to others' suffering with care and a desire to help."
- Answer: 26%
- To Give
- To Prosper
- To Sympathize
- To Help
- Answer: To Sympathize
- High-protein diet
- 3 hours of Jogging / Week
- Compassion Meditation
- Answer: Compassion Meditation
4 Steps To Building Your Compassion
How to become a more compassionate person.
In the main article above titled "We We Care," we discussed discoveries about the process by which our brains create the feeling of concern for other people. The researchers have also looked at how we might be able to tinker with that internal system and boost our ability to care about others. For insights, scientists have turned to Tibetan Buddhist monks, who for centuries have been practicing meditation regimen specifically designed to make them more compassionate. If you want to give it a try, here are some simple tips, gleaned from meditation manuals.
1. Sit. Find a comfortable place where you can sit without distractions. Initially allot yourself 10 to 20 minutes, with the goal of eventually increasing the amount of time.
2. Breath. Use deep breathing to relax any tension that you feel in your muscles. Concentrate upon relaxing your abdominal muscles and shoulders.
3. Reflect. Once you begin to feel calm, reflect upon your own desire for happiness and freedom from suffering, and your desire to care about all beings.
4. Have a mantra. Slowly begin to repeat simple phrases that state your wishes, such as “May I respond with mercy and empathy to pain,” or “May I be filled with compassion.
Over time, you also should contemplate different levels of compassion. On the most basic level, you should think about problems and misfortunes that people experience, such as illness, hunger, and lack of shelter. Concentrate upon separating compassion—caring for others—from pity, which meditation expert Dusana Dorjee explains is a self-centered emotion that results from shame and the desire to be seen as an altruistic person. Over time, you also should try to explore the second gradient of compassion, which involves concern for how other people suffer because of confusion and negative emotions. Finally, you may strive for the highest, “non-referential” form of compassion, which simply is an unconditional compassion for all beings, akin to the love that a mother feels for her child.