Science of Compassion

Science of Compassion

Compassion and empathy are important aspects of human social behavior that enable us to connect with others, show kindness and care, and provide support and comfort. The science of compassion and empathy aims to understand the psychological, neurological, and social factors that underlie these behaviors, and to identify their potential benefits and challenges.

What is Compassion?

Compassion can be defined as the ability to understand and empathize with others, while also having the desire to alleviate their suffering. Studying compassion is important because it has been shown to have numerous psychological, physiological, and social benefits. The science of compassion seeks to explore the mechanisms by which compassion operates and its impact on various aspects of human life. Compassion has been found to play a crucial role in enhancing human connections, promoting prosocial behavior, and improving individual and societal well-being. The study of compassion is a rapidly growing field that seeks to understand how compassion operates at various levels, from the individual to the societal.

What is Empathy?

Empathy is our ability to understand and share the feelings of others. It involves both cognitive and affective components, allowing individuals to take the perspective of others and experience their emotions.

“Empathy is the opposite of Utopia. [...] Empathy is grounded in the acknowledgement of death and the celebration of life and rooting for each other to flourish and be. It’s based on our frailty and imperfections. So when we are talking about building an empathetic civilization we are not talking about utopia, we are talking about the ability of humanity to show solidarity not only with each other but with our fellow creatures who have a one and only life on this planet. We are homo-empathicus.”

The Biology of Compassion: Mirror Neurons

Did you know humans are biologically wired for compassion? Neuroscience research has identified several brain regions and neural systems that are involved in the process of compassion and empathy. The mirror neuron system, which includes regions of the brain that are active both when an individual performs an action and when they observe that action in others, has been implicated in the process of empathy.

Imagine you and your friend just finished a marathon race and you are both very thirsty. Your friend finds a bottle of water. You watch as they open the cap on the water and then put it up to their mouth to take a sip. What are you feeling? What are you thinking at that moment? Think about it. If you were imagining that you were feeling your friends sense of relief from quenching their thirst THEN you are using your mirror neurons.

When you know the intention behind an action that involves the mirror neurons in the brain. When you follow a sequence of actions and you can - in your mind - predict that sequence you can determine what the implication of that sequence is.

The ability to understand the sensory implications of the motor actions you are perceiving allows you to visualize the intention of your friend. Beyond witnessing behavior, we see the intention beneath the behavior.

We are hard wired to perceive the mind of another being. - Dr. Dan Siegel

Good Vibes are Contagious

One of my favorite threads of research shows just how interconnected we humans are. Studies reveal that if you bear witness to someone else experiencing pain—whether it’s a friend stubbing their toe, a person experiencing homelessness on a damp street corner, or a somber face in the waiting room of a hospital—you’re likely to experience some degree of pain yourself. The Association for Psychological Science (APS) dubs this the “I feel your pain” effect, and most everyone experiences it from time to time.

💙“When we witness what happens to others, we don’t just activate the visual cortex like we thought decades ago. We also activate our own actions as if we’d be acting in similar ways. We activate our own emotions and sensations as if we felt the same.” - Dutch neuroscientist Christian Keysers told the APS.

Pain isn’t the only contagious emotion. Researchers from Yale University closely monitored just under 5,000 people living in the small town of Framingham, Massachusetts, for more than three decades. They found that when someone became happy or sad, that emotion rippled throughout the entire town.

Another study, published in the journal Motivation and Emotion, showed that even below-the-surface emotions, such as motivation, are contagious. If someone is working in the same room with people who are internally driven, their attitude also improves. If, however, someone is working in the same room with those who aren’t too excited about their work, then their motivation decreases.

A 2017 study out of Northwestern University found that sitting within 25 feet of a high performer at work improved an employee’s performance by 15 percent. But sitting within 25 feet of a low performer hurt their performance by 30 percent. That’s an enormous effect!

Emotions even spread virtually. Another study, aptly titled “I’m Sad, You’re Sad,” found that if you are in a negative mood when you text your partner, they are likely to pick up on it and experience a lower mood state themselves. The same is true of Facebook posts, according to research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Emotions like happiness, sadness, and anger spread like wildfire on the platform. (Not that you needed a study to prove this.)

Instead of meeting sadness with sadness, you can meet it with compassion and support.

This science all points toward the same basic truth: we are mirrors reflecting onto each other. The people we surround ourselves with shape us, and we shape those around us, too. The implications of this truth are important and actionable.

For starters, you’d be wise to associate with people you admire and aspire to be like. It’s not so much rote skill that is contagious as it is the motivation and emotions that lead to skill development. In other words, it is much better to work with the scrappy but less-talented performer than the all-star who phones it in. This is every bit as true on the playing field as it is in the office.

What’s more, just being aware of how easily emotions spread allows you to change yourself and, in turn, change those around you. For example, if you receive a text message that suddenly makes you sad, or if you read a social-media post that makes you angry, rather than immediately reacting, you can pause for a moment and then respond thoughtfully. Instead of meeting sadness with sadness, you can meet it with compassion and support. Instead of meeting anger with anger, you can try to meet it with understanding (or just ignore it altogether). The flip side is also true. When you are feeling good you’re liable to spread it—though my hunch is that this happens naturally, without trying.

None of this is new, of course. Over a decade ago in the foothills of the Himalayas, before much of the above science unfolded, I asked a Nepali Sherpa named Indra about the prayer flags that were all over.

“It’s simple,” he told me. “When you are feeling a strong emotion, you plant a flag. Since the beginning of time, my culture believes the wind will spread that energy and the universe will receive it.”

by Brad Stulberg

What is Self-Compassion?

Self-compassion refers to treating ourselves with kindness, understanding, and acceptance when we experience difficulties, setbacks, or failures. It involves recognizing that we are not perfect, and that it is normal and natural to experience difficulties and challenges in life.Self-compassion involves three key components: self-kindness, common humanity, and mindfulness.

Why do we need compassion?

Humans need compassion for several reasons. First, compassion helps us connect with others and build relationships. When we show kindness and care for others, we are more likely to receive similar treatment in return, which can create a sense of trust and mutual support. Second, compassion can promote a sense of purpose and meaning in life. When we feel that we are making a positive difference in the lives of others, we may experience greater satisfaction and fulfillment. Third, compassion can have positive effects on physical and mental health. Research has shown that engaging in prosocial behaviors, such as volunteering and donating to charity, can improve cardiovascular health, reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety, and increase overall well-being. Finally, compassion can help us navigate difficult situations and conflicts. When we approach others with empathy and understanding, we may be more likely to find mutually beneficial solutions to problems and maintain positive relationships. Overall, compassion is an important aspect of human social behavior that can promote personal and societal well-being.

Compassion as an Essential Principle of Torah

Compassion, or "rachamim" in Hebrew, is an essential value in Torah, which is the central text of Jewish tradition. Compassion is closely linked to the Jewish practice of loving-kindness, or "chesed," which is a fundamental aspect of Jewish ethics and morality.

In the Torah, there are numerous examples of compassion being demonstrated by God and human beings. For example, God is described as a compassionate and merciful God who cares for his people and is concerned for their welfare. The Torah also emphasizes the importance of showing compassion towards those who are vulnerable, such as widows, orphans, and strangers.

Compassion is seen as an important spiritual practice in Judaism because it involves cultivating empathy and concern for others, and seeking to alleviate their suffering. It is also seen as a way of emulating God's compassionate nature, and of fulfilling the commandment to "love your neighbor as yourself."

In addition to its spiritual benefits, compassion is also seen as an important ethical principle in Torah. The Jewish tradition teaches that people should strive to be compassionate and caring towards others, particularly those who are in need or suffering. This involves acts of kindness, charity, and social justice, and is seen as an essential aspect of living a morally upright life.

Overall, compassion is an important concept in Torah because it reflects the values of empathy, care, and concern for others that are at the heart of Jewish ethics and morality. It is seen as a way of emulating God's compassionate nature, and of living a life of kindness, generosity, and social responsibility.

In Judaism, compassion is seen as an essential characteristic of God, who is described as a merciful and compassionate God in the Hebrew Bible. The idea of God's compassion is reflected in many Jewish prayers and rituals, and is seen as a source of comfort and hope for those who are struggling.

Jewish tradition also teaches that people are called upon to show compassion towards others, particularly those who are in need or suffering. This is reflected in the concept of "tikkun olam," which means "repairing the world." Jews are called upon to work towards making the world a better place through acts of kindness, charity, and social justice.

Compassion is also an important aspect of Jewish ethics and morality. The Talmud, a collection of Jewish teachings and traditions, teaches that "he who is merciful to others, mercy will be shown to him from heaven." This emphasizes the importance of showing compassion towards others, not only as a moral obligation, but also as a means of receiving divine grace and blessing.

In summary, compassion is an important value in Judaism because it reflects the nature of God, promotes social justice and charity, and is seen as an essential aspect of ethical and moral behavior.

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