The Science of Empathy, the Spirit of Compassion

We are not mere individuals, but we are all part of a deeply interconnected, social mind, with huge potential significance for our future.

The emerging science of empathy is demonstrating that we are actually wired for empathy and compassion, that empathy exists at a neuro-physiological level and that we are not just the outcome of a selfish gene. This gives us a totally different understanding of human nature.

More than 200 scientists, healthcare professionals and other interested persons from across the world had gathered at the University of Winchester from 26th to 28th August 2011 to explore this reality, at a conference entitled The Science of Empathy and the Spirit of Compassion. Organized by the The Scientific and Medical Network, (SMN) it was the ninth conference in the Network’s Beyond the Brain series, (held biannually since 1995). And it proved to be a rich exchange of ideas facilitated by a distinguished panel of speakers.

The SMN Program Director David Lorimer opened the conference with a short Introductory talk on the first evening, on Empathetic Resonance and the Ethic of Interconnectedness, described in his 1990 book Whole in One.

Empathy, he reminded us, is broadly the capacity to experience what it is like to be someone else.

Scientifically it should not be possible, but it is! It is different from and goes way beyond sympathy or pity, and requires well-developed imagination, “the great instrument of moral good.” (Percy Bysshe Shelley, A Defence of Poetry). (David is a walking dictionary of pertinent quotes for every occasion!) David spoke of the evidence, from phenomena such as Psychometry, Near Death Experiences (NDEs), Psychic Imprints, Intuitive Medical Diagnoses, and Telesomatic experiences, that there are links between us at some deep level in our consciousness, otherwise these phenomena would not be possible. He went on to talk of the implications of such evidence, the ethics of interconnectedness or oneness of mind, the fact that we are one another. Of course we see such interconnectedness in many areas of science: symbiosis in biology, collective unconscious in psychology, and so on. An exciting conference was promised!

The Charter for Compassion is an idea whose time has come. This was the theme of our first guest speaker and co-founder of the Charter, Karen Armstrong, “Wishing for a Better World,” as she urged us all to get active! Launched in 2009, The Charter developed out of Karen’s frustration that, in her view, not enough was being done by the world’s religions to promote compassionate action. Confucius probably founded the Golden Rule, in a period of the world’s history similar to our own, when societies were being torn apart: “Do not do to others what you do not want done to yourself.”

500 years later Jesus taught that we should love our neighbors as ourselves. And all the great religions share the same rule, expressed variously but always meaning much the same thing. We are now profoundly connected as humans across the world, she said, and action is urgent. But we are guilty of group egotism, tending to love only our own kind, and we are addicted to our own pet hates. But each individual is a unique spiritual mystery, and we must be prepared to not only make dialogue with the “Other” but also be prepared to then change at a profound level.

To see each other as divine is, she warned, the only way forward.

 The Charter already has many positive projects on the go. She singled out the enormous success story in Pakistan, leading the Charter in its work, with modules of compassion introduced in education, including at primary school level and in the independent universities there, where it is mandatory to take a compassion course. Because education is key to the success of the project in many ways, and that must include the mainstream media, who are too often guilty of bias against religions. She described us as the “silent majority” who must lead the way, demand a less biased media, tap into the power of social networks, find new methods of discourse, and live out the ethos of the Charter in our own lives if we are to see meaningful progress towards a better world.

Erasmus or Machiavelli: Empathy and the Brain was the title for Iain McGilchrist’s fascinating talk, using his latest tour de force of a book The Master and His Emissary as a springboard, within the context of the present focus on empathy. It is impossible to begin to do justice to the depth of Iain’s talk and the work behind his book in this short summary. The popular idea that reason is in the left hemisphere of the human brain and that qualities such as creativity and emotion are in the right hemisphere is an unhelpful misconception, he told us. Both hemispheres carry out every single brain function. Reason and emotion and imagination depend on the coming together of what both hemispheres contribute; they are in symbiosis. Nevertheless there is an obvious dichotomy, and since it would seem that the two hemispheres have been kept apart for evolutionary reasons, there has to be a reason for the structure as we find it today.

Iain’s idea is that the brain yields two different visions or versions of the world, the nature of which, in any period of Western history at least, seems dependent upon the balance between the modes of attention we bring to bear on it, our left or right hemisphere vision. The problem in the Western world today seems to be that the reductionist way of thinking and being of the left hemisphere is taking the upper hand, with its dangerously unwarranted optimism, that undercuts the sense of awe and wonder of the right hemisphere; he observes reasonableness replaced by rationality, music reduced to little more than rhythm, the lost sense of the spiritual in our lives.

The left hemisphere has its own agenda, to manipulate and use the world, in a mechanistic way, as compared with the broader outlook of the right. And the left hemisphere even seems better able to inhibit the right than the other way around in the reciprocal inhibitory arrangement across the corpus callosum dividing the two hemispheres. It has found its power seductive, it doesn’t know what it doesn’t know, ignores the wisdom and knowledge of the right hemisphere, and imperils our world. Borrowing a metaphor from a story by Nietzsche, the right hemisphere Master has been betrayed by his left hemisphere un-empathic emissary, which has grabbed more than its fair share of power.

So what can we do? We urgently need to change the way we think.

We must understand and be aware of our dark side and cultivate empathic imagination. We are not prisoners of our genes, we have choice and freewill, and the natural human condition is to be kind, shown for example in David Hay and Rebecca Nye research, that empathy and spirituality is natural in young children, and is too often beaten out rather than fostered by our education system. Iain quoted Proust: “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes.” He is not overly optimistic that we can make the shift to a holistic world on the basis of his scholarly study of our past history, and time is short. But there is hope in the raising of awareness, in focusing our minds on what many of us intuitively knew anyway, the need for spirit to balance matter in our lives. And we must be careful not to be shackled by certainty and preconceived models. We need flexibility and the humility to realize that we don’t know what we don’t know!

And he said we need mindfulness meditation to re-engage with the right hemisphere and restore a balance between the Eastern and the Western ways of looking at the world. It was therefore wholly appropriate that we should next hear from Geshe Tashi Tsering, resident Geshe at the Jamyang Buddhist Centre in London, who gave us the benefit of his wisdom in a wonderfully inspiring talk on The Spirit of Compassion in Tibetan Buddhism.

Compassion is important throughout our lives, from birth to death.

It is not easy to define, but we all have the natural potential for showing empathy or concern to others, as a seed within us that can be nurtured and enhanced on the path to a fully awakened mind. Tashi concentrated on the first two of the 4 Noble Truths of Buddhism. We all experience suffering, or Dukkha, that may take many forms such as pain, discontent, sorrow, frustration, etc. as it is part of our human condition to suffer. But this suffering arises from our attachment to desires, which we can learn to let go of or abandon. If we fully understand these two noble truths at our heart level in relation to our own lives we can cultivate and enhance compassion.

Teshi described the three groups of people in our lives; those very close to us whom we love, those acquaintances whom we dislike, and the remaining large group whom we ignore or to whom we are indifferent. We need to break down those divisions by thoughtful analysis and by abandoning any self -interest in our relationships and actions. We must also cultivate equanimity, because even though our personal circumstances, cultures, upbringings may be different, we fundamentally all have the same yearnings, rights, desire to be happy and not suffer. And we must feel these things at heart level. Only then can we cultivate compassion towards others, and meditation is vital to this process.

Relief from the formal lecture program was offered in two concurrent workshops. Geshe Tashi Tsering, took us through meditation exercises to show how we can practically enhance our compassion towards others, whilst Professor Paul Gilbert provided Practical Compassionate Mind Exercises, described in his book, The Compassionate Mind. On the Saturday evening we were then treated to a moving recital by Jenna Monroe, accompanied by James D’Angelo, singing a potpourri of arrangements of songs on the theme of compassion.

We need compassion because our lives are short, hard and a genetic lottery, Paul Gilbert told us, opening Sunday’s proceedings. OBE, Professor of Clinical Psychology at the University of Derby, consultant Psychologist at Derbyshire Mental Health Services NHS Trust, and author of many books and papers, Paul gave us an energetic and often humorous talk on Benefits and Fears of Compassion: Future Directions in Compassion Research. He described compassion as an act of love from the heart and saw empathy as different, linked to cognitive ability, and affected by motive. Compassion can start in anger, with the resulting energy and outrage leading to a deeper level of understanding for the other’s plight. It is at the heart of humanity, “earthy” spirituality in action. Like Tashi before him he spoke of seeds of compassion within us and whilst we are affected by the culture into which we are born we can choose what we cultivate. We are, he said, one version of what we can be!

Our inherited tribalism tendencies from our earliest ancestors are, he said, the curse of humanity. When they interact with our modern brain’s ability to imagine, fantasize, plan, ruminate etc then humanity has a problem. I was certainly startled to be told for example that one third of the world’s resources are spent on weapon research.

We were getting used to hearing that specific areas of our brains are in fact hard wired to respond to kindness and compassion. But we need affection from birth.

We were shown some moving film clips of mother/child interaction to demonstrate what he meant, and it is clear that the development of our mind depends on such communication. There is even a correlation between the size of a child’s brain and the attention or neglect he experiences. Children who have not received sufficient care and compassion can feel unlovable, and can be high in self-criticism. In other words our social and developmental psychology is affected by the way we are brought up. This of course has enormous significance for our societies and our world.

Paul has developed an eight-fold multi-model approach in his Compassionate Mind Training and told us how often this can transform the lives of patients, a common response being that it has “awakened part of the brain that I was not aware existed.” And it is most certainly not self- indulgent or a weakness to undergo such therapy. He has also founded the Compassionate Mind Foundation to help advance compassionate approaches to psychological and other human problems.

The discovery in the 1990’s of so-called “mirror neurons” in the brain has generated enormous excitement in neuroscience. Our speaker for the final talk of the conference was Dr. Valeria Gazzola, an Italian biologist, now a senior scientist at the Netherlands Institute for Neuroscience in Amsterdam. With colleagues she has been investigating Mirror Neurons: the Role of the Motor and Somatosensory system in Social Perception, and she gave us an enthusiastic report on the results of her considerable research in this field with colleagues.

There are brain neurons in part of the brain of the macaque monkey that display activity both when the animal performs a specific action and when it hears or sees the same action performed by another individual. These ‘audiovisual mirror neurons’ represent actions independently of whether they are performed, heard or seen. These neurons appear to translate what the monkey observes into the way in which it would perform a similar act. The exciting part is that a similar system seems to exist in humans and experiments were also conducted using robots with similar results, perhaps suggesting why Star Wars is so engaging to many (not, alas to me!). Valeria went on to show us that this overlap in the area of brain activity between the observer and the observed also happens with emotions when disgusting smells were used, or in observing someone else’s pleasure.

Research is also being conducted into the amount of empathy found within criminal patients diagnosed with autism or psychopathy. This would bring fundamentally new insights into the mental disorder of these patients and could have significance in mind training for rehabilitation for example. Valeria also distinguished between spontaneous empathy, and the deliberate empathy that can lead to conscious actions. Summaries of the many research projects she cited are included in a comprehensive list of her own papers and other related papers from the Social Brain Lab of the BCN Neuroimaging centre in Groningen, on the theme of the Neurobiology of Empathy.

Valeria left us in no doubt as to the power and social significance of neuroscience in understanding how the brain works and how it may be trained. These exciting findings on “mirror neurons” change our understanding of human nature, and reinforced the underlying conference theme that is worth repeating:

We are not mere individuals, but we are all part of a deeply interconnected, social mind, with huge potential significance for our future.

The scheduled talks were complemented by valuable discussion sessions throughout the weekend. One SMN commitment that arose out of these sessions is to form a core group to ensure further action. I shall be a part of this, as compassion and empathy, behavioral change and practical action are dear to my own heart. It was such a stimulating, thought provoking and sometimes challenging conference. I just cannot do justice to it all here, but an audio recording of the full conference proceedings will be available in the “members only” section of the SMN’s excellent website in due course.

Each day at any SMN conference begins with meditation (voluntary!) and the lighting of a candle. Geshe Tashi Tsering and Sue Bayliss led these pre-breakfast sessions using the techniques of Buddhist meditation and Heart Map meditation respectively, and at the end of the proceedings on Sunday the candle was symbolically extinguished until the next time we meet.

So what is the difference between empathy and compassion? Perhaps, someone suggested, the clue is in the title of the weekend: The Science of Empathy, the Spirit of Compassion. And we need both!

The Scientific and Medical Network was founded in 1973 and continues to flourish. Its members are called to encourage a respect for Earth and Community, emphasizing a holistic and spiritual approach, whilst promoting “critical and open minded discussion of ideas that go beyond reductionist science.” In addition to its excellent members’ journal Network Review the SMN organizes regular conferences of the highest standard open to members and non-members alike.

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