The Compassion Instinct
From the page: “When you say the word ‘Darwinism,’ Keltner explains, people immediately see an image of ‘red in tooth and claw’ and ‘survival of the fittest.’ But in The Descent of Man, Darwin writes, ‘Sympathy is our strongest instinct.’ With human offspring among the most vulnerable in the mammalian world, Keltner argues, evolving the caregiving part of our psyches was critical for the survival of our genes. And in small groups of hunter-gatherers, from whom we evolved, social skills-particularly compassion-can prove to be matters of life and death. For Keltner, these aspects of our collective heritage should be emphasized in schools and other public institutions.
Scanning technology gives us a rough idea of which parts of the brain are implicated in compassion, although researchers point out that the brain uses the same regions for multiple functions. Experiments have implicated the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC)-an area associated with empathy and reward-based decision-making-in the compassionate response. When the ACC is compromised, patients manifest symptoms like increased aggressiveness, emotional blunting and impaired mother-infant interactions, all of which occupy the opposite end of the emotional spectrum from compassion. The other chunk of the limbic brain that is most frequently linked to compassion is the insular cortex, or insula, a region that helps both in emotional processing and in balancing the body’s functions.
Further down the brainstem, and back down the evolutionary time scale, researchers at Stanford have found interesting activity in the periaqueductal gray (PAG), a region responsible for muting the pain of severe injury that presumably evolved to help us escape whatever caused the injury. When shown disturbing images of suffering, the PAGs of test subjects light up. Emiliana Simon-Thomas, associate director of Stanford’s CCARE, theorizes that this is part of the neural machinery of compassion: an empathic response that prepares the way for a compassionate response, enabling us to move beyond the pain of others to do something about it.
To get from compassion to health, though, we must first take a detour through stress. Our stress responses evolved for do-or-die situations, for that proverbial encounter with the saber-toothed tiger. Today, though, real tigers have been replaced by paper tigers that never go away, so our fight-or-flight mechanisms stay activated for too long. This 24/7 alarm takes a major toll on circulation, digestion, immune and brain function and aging, for starters. Learning the effects of stress on the body is frightening enough to give you an anxiety attack-if you weren’t having one already.
Yet, oddly enough, developing the ability to feel the pain of others via compassion can lower stress levels. How could this be?
One possible answer comes from a University of Maine experiment in which a group of women was assigned the task of delivering an address to a roomful of professionals, a notoriously stressful experience. Some of the women were given emotionally positive coaching before the speech; others were guided in a way that was emotionally neutral. Subjects were tested before and after for three different measures: blood pressure, the presence of the stress hormone cortisol in their saliva and high-frequency heart rate variability, a measure of the body’s ability to down-regulate the heart’s runaway tendencies.
The women’s stress responses had little or nothing to do with the kind of coaching they received. But the researchers found that those who self-identified as being on the high side of the compassion scale showed a measurable drop in their stress responses when they were offered emotionally positive coaching. The compassionate ones were able to utilize the support of others to mitigate the damaging effects of stress. Lead author Brandon Cosley theorizes that this ability might come down to practice. ‘It could be that people who are more concerned with others put themselves in situations like this, where there are these supportive interactions, and this emotional fluency helps them turn down their own responses when they are on the receiving end.’
Another path from compassion to health passes through social neuroscience, an emerging field in which researchers seek to understand how social interactions affect the wiring and firing of our nervous systems. A number of studies have shown that people with strong, positive social connections have lower inflammatory responses-a stress reaction linked to cancer, depression and arthritis-than people who are socially isolated or in conflict.
It turns out that some forms of compassion meditation-in which the practitioner consciously, intentionally dwells in caring regard for widening circles…”