The Science of Compassion: Kindness Is a Fundamental Human Trait

When we talk about the science of compassion
it’s also tied down with science of empathy. Empathy is compassion, altruism, kindness.
They are all very interrelated and much of the current scientific studies really fall
into two main categories. One is the study of altruistic behavior, particularly in animals
and very young children. And the thinking is that if we can see altruistic behavior
in animals and very, very young children that it must have very deep biological roots. So
that’s the kind of logic behind why they are focusing more on animal studies and children.
The other important area that overlaps the science of compassion is the study of empathy.
And again here a lot of the work has been done on nonhuman primate studies and there
is an American professor at Emory by the name of Frans de Waal and he was one of the pioneers.
Many people might have seen the video of apes, you know, there were two juvenile apes fighting
and one of them loses and another ape who’s not a blood relation comes over and hugs him
and consoles him. So it clearly is an indication that empathy can be found in nonhuman primates
as well. And then there are some interesting studies
coming from the studies of meditators who meditate many hours on compassion and then
looking at their brain. You can actually see the brain’s expression in action. So this
is called functioning in an MRI which has the ability to look at a brain in action as
it were. At least the claim is that the meditators are unlike novices like us have some ability
to consciously direct their attention and thoughts so in the scanner, the brain imaging
scanner, you can ask the meditator can you do this? Can you do that? Can you just stay
at the level of empathy and feel the pain? Now can you move onto compassion wishing the
other person to be free of something or wanting to do something about it. And try to tease
out what brain signature, brain regions get activated when you are just in empathy feeling
and when you are moving onto compassion when you are wishing to see the relief. In this
way the whole mapping of the brain regions that are involved in something like compassion
is beginning to be done.


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