The new issue of the American Association for the Advancement of
Science’s journal *Science* (Vol. 324. no. 5926) includes an article:
“Neuroscience: A Quest for Compassion – Guided by a passionate leader, a
new research institute hopes to draw lessons from Buddhism to study
altruism and make the world a better place” by Greg Miller.
Here are some excerpts:
Back in 2000, James Doty was living the high life.
At 45, he was planning to retire, donate a large chunk of his fortune to
charity, and divide his time between his three idyllic homes while doing
medical volunteer work in developing countries.
Last month, Doty was standing behind a lectern at Stanford University in
Palo Alto, California, explaining how he’d lost it all in the dot-com bust.
“Within 6 weeks, I was $3 million in the hole,” he said.
But he decided, against the advice of friends and family, to follow
through with stock donations that he’d promised before the crash to a
handful of universities and health charities.
(By holding on to the stock until the market recovered, the recipients
ultimately received nearly $30 million.)
Doty says that losing his material wealth made him more reflective.
“Becoming completely detached from something you think you need is an
interesting exercise,” he said, his voice catching with emotion.
“What you realize is … it doesn’t define you as a person.”
His face flushed, he seemed unable to continue.
It was an unusually personal speech for an academic conference, but it
was also an unusual conference.
The audience included psychologists, philosophers, economists,
neuroscientists, and theologians who’d gathered for 2 days to inaugurate
a new center at Stanford for the scientific study of compassion.
Doty is the co-founder and director, and he provided $150,000 to get it
The program has also received $1 million each from two Silicon Valley
investors and $150,000 from the Dalai Lama, the most he has ever
contributed to a research project.
The new Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education
(CCARE) will study the biological roots of benevolent behavior and
investigate whether mental exercises derived from the centuries-old
tradition of Buddhist compassion meditation–but stripped of religious
trappings–can foster compassion in nonbelievers.
Doty says he is not a Buddhist and does not meditate, but he thinks such
exercises could find many uses.
Earlier this year, for example, he flew to Washington, D.C., to talk
with military leaders about treating frontline medics and chaplains
suffering from “compassion fatigue”–a form of traumatic stress brought
on by caring for traumatized soldiers.
Doing good science in this area is tricky business, cautions CCARE co-
founder William Mobley, a neurologist and soon-to-be head of the
neurosciences department at the University of California, San Diego.
On one hand, Mobley says, there’s the risk of researchers’ personal
beliefs interfering with their objectivity.
“Scientists are supposed to be professional skeptics, but there are
people in the field … whose only interest is seeing God’s face.” And
then there are experimental limitations, such as having to rely on first-
person accounts of what’s going through someone’s mind during
meditation. Even so, Mobley says, scientists who dismiss such work out
of hand–and he has heard from plenty of them–are misguided.
“Nothing is off-limits to science and critical thinking,” he says. “We
don’t have great tools, but they’re good enough to get started.”
Psychologist Paul Ekman, a professor emeritus at the University of
California, San Francisco, whose pioneering work on facial expressions
and body language was the inspiration for the new TV series Lie to Me,
spoke of the “amazing coincidence” between Charles Darwin’s views on
compassion and morality and those of Buddhism.
Ekman noted that in The Descent of Man, Darwin wrote that one of
humankind’s noblest virtues “seems to arise incidentally from our
sympathies becoming more tender and more widely diffused, until they are
extended to all sentient beings.”
Ekman recounted reading the passage to the Dalai Lama (with whom he co-
authored a book last year on emotion and compassion).
When he was sure he had understood correctly, His Holiness declared: “I
am a Darwinian,” Ekman recalled.
Ekman also noted that Darwin’s observation that the sight of suffering
causes pain in those who observe it meshes well with the Buddhist notion
that compassion involves feeling the suffering of others as unbearable.
The idea also has a parallel in the research of cognitive neuroscientist
Tania Singer of the University of Zurich in Switzerland, who reviewed
her studies showing that brain areas involved in pain perception also
respond when people observe another person wince from an electric shock
(Science, 20 February 2004, p. 1121).
Singer described newer evidence that one particular area, the anterior
insula, has a key role in empathy. But, she added, such work points to a
neural mechanism for just one facet of compassion, which, by most
definitions, requires not just recognizing suffering in others but
feeling compelled to do something about it.
The latter motivation appears to be innate, said Felix Warneken of the
Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany.
He showed videos of experiments in which children as young as 18 months
spontaneously came to his aid as he pretended to struggle with various
tasks–reaching for a marker he’d dropped on the floor, for instance.
Even chimpanzees sometimes give unsolicited help, Warneken and
colleagues have found (Science, 3 March 2006, p. 1301), suggesting that
spontaneous altruism is not uniquely human.
Philosopher Owen Flanagan of Duke University in Durham, North Carolina,
prompted a lively discussion by asking whether compassion might be overrated.
Contemporary moral philosophers and psychologists have suggested that
morality comprises different modules (Science, 18 May 2007, p. 998), and
Flanagan argued that putting too much emphasis on any single module,
such as compassion, at the expense of others, such as a sense of
fairness and justice, may not be in a society’s best interest.
Several pilot studies funded by the project are getting under way,
including a brain-imaging study with novice and expert meditators and a
collaborative study between neuroscientists and economists that will be
among the first to investigate the effects of charitable giving on its
recipients–in this case undergraduate students who receive financial aid.
Stanford psychologist Jeanne Tsai recently completed a CCARE-funded
study on a compassion-training protocol developed by Jinpa, who is
currently a visiting scholar at the school. Undergraduate students
without extensive experience with meditation or Buddhism took a weekly,
2-hour course in which they first learned meditation basics such as
posture and breathing techniques. Next, over the course of 6 to 8 weeks,
a trainer instructed them to picture a loved one as vividly as possible
and concentrate on the sense of concern they feel for this person’s well-
being. In later sessions, they envisioned people they knew less well or
even disliked and gradually expanded this concern to them.
Tsai randomly assigned 100 willing undergraduate students to receive the
compassion training, training in mindfulness mediation, or classes in
improvisational theater–to control for the possibility that simply
learning a new skill or engaging in a new social activity is enough to
elicit acts of kindness. (Volunteers were told they’d be participating
in a study to evaluate several classes thought to improve physical and
mental health.) Online questionnaires probed for changes in things such
as empathic concern and the tendency to take another person’s
perspective. Participants also kept a daily diary of “positive and
negative events,” which the researchers are now combing for evidence of
an uptick in compassionate acts. At the end of the experiment,
participants read a letter written by a prisoner seeking correspondents
and were given an opportunity to write back and/or donate money to a
program aimed at stopping abuse inside prisons. Tsai says her group is
now analyzing the data to see whether people who got compassion training
wrote or donated more than those who didn’t.
A similar study is getting under way to investigate whether compassion
training for medical students might improve their bed-side manner.
If it works, it would illustrate Doty’s greatest hope for CCARE: to take
a centuries-old religious practice and extract from it a set of mental
exercises with no religious overtones that can be scientifically proven
to change the way people treat each other. It’s a tall order, but
without passion like Doty’s, it wouldn’t stand a chance.
The article is online — but requires a subscription — at:
courtesy of Ken Pope