Compassion, empathy, feelings, emotion

The notion that we all operate in an empathy field was raised by BilB on another thread in a political context. Ootz subsequently raised Daniel Goleman’s ground-breaking work on ’emotional intelligence’.

Richard Davidson, whose book with science writer Sharon Begley The Emotional Life of Your Brain: how to change the way you think, feel and live I outlined in the post Emotional style: the concept did his doctorate at Harvard when Goleman was there, they mixed in the same set and taught classes together.

Davidson went on to lead his own research team at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. He is good mates with the Dalai Lama and his work on monks who engage in compassion meditation turns out to be counter-intuitive and, I think, important.

Davidson, after doing a few decades of research on how emotions operate in the brain (really, generated by the brain, with a bit of help from the rest of the body) hatched a plan to go to India to analyse the brains of meditating monks. He got a list of likely subjects from the Dalai Lama and arranged to go there. However, lugging expensive gear up mountains was not fun and often when you got there, a small matter of electricity was a problem. Also, the monks, while hospitable, didn’t understand the project, and probably thought he was a bit mad. It was a complete failure.

For a considerable time he successfully worked with individual monks who travelled to or lived in the West, but it was bits and pieces. Eventually he rounded up a group of eight monks with meditation experience ranging from 10,000 hours to 50,000 hours of Tibetan Nyingmapa and Kagyupa meditation to study ‘compassion meditation’.

The first thing he found in their fMRI machines was that he had gamma activity greater than ever recorded in the scientific literature. He says that the size the gamma wave is related to the number of neurons firing in synch. Such neural synchrony underlies the ability to learn and perceive. What they get is “moment-to-moment awareness, bringing with it a vast panorama of perpetual clarity.”

These monks had brains like high-powered motors in cruise mode.

They (Davidson and Begley) adopt a narrative style of explanation which I can’t replicate here. In summary, compassion meditation not only led to greater perception about what was happening to others from their perspective (empathy) but enhanced executive action to do something about it. All the brain activity patterns associated with empathy and the capacity to act lit up on the scans, way more than the control group.

Compassion meditation, it seemed, reset the brain so that it was always prepared to respond to another’s suffering.

Davidson says this was interesting, but scientifically meaningless. There was no way of telling, for example, whether people with particular types of brain choose to indulge in meditation. Also, he doesn’t say this, but the monks were not working in the real world, for example as first responders in emergency services.

So in 2007, he hatched a plan to recruit 41 volunteers, who were told that they would participate in an exercise to enhance well-being. Everyone was randomly assigned to either the meditation group, or a group that would learn something called ‘cognitive reappraisal’. The latter is a well-validated treatment for depression and anxiety.

It’s probably unfair to describe ‘cognitive reappraisal’ in brief, but it works on reappraising perceptions to distinguish between internal and external causes of stress. Davidson seems to want to give his control groups something of value, or perhaps it was a necessary ruse in his grant application.

Moreover he had long found that when he wanted to research meditation he had to disguise his research grant applications in order to be successful.

The compassion meditation group were given an introduction and practiced meditation for thirty minutes each day with the help of an online program, perhaps this one, for just two weeks. Both groups had before and after MRIs. He doesn’t say, but he probably played sounds, as they did with the monks, that were neutral (a restaurant), pleasant (a bay cooing) or distressing (a woman screaming), as well as in resting mode. (One of the results of the study of monks was how well their brains performed when just resting.)

There were distinct changes in the brain in seven or eight areas (I won’t detail all the technical terms here). In particular the compassion group showed lower activity in the amygdala, which is activated by suffering. Actually feeling the distress of the person who is suffering interferes with the capacity to help. In Buddhist compassion the aim is to take satisfaction from others gaining relief, requiring an act of empathy in itself. So the reward areas of the brain were also activated.

In addition, there was enhanced activity in the prefrontal cortex, the site for higher order cognitive functions.

All participants then played a game where there was a dictator, a victim called Jo, and the volunteer. The dictator and the volunteer are given a sum of money, but Jo gets nothing. Without describing the game it ends with the volunteer giving Jo some dosh. The compassion meditation group coughed up 38% more dosh than the cognitive reappraisal group.

Davidson and colleagues concluded, first, that the meditation exercise reduced stress, with decreased activity in the amygdala.

Secondly, it increased activity in the regions of the brain associated with goal-directed behaviour, particularly the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex.


    Third, it increases the connectivity between the prefrontal cortex, the insula (where representations of the body occur), and the nuclus accumbens (where motivation and reward are processed). Rather than becoming depressed by suffering, people who are trained in compassion meditation develop a strong disposition to alleviate suffering and to wish others to be happy.

I would think this research should be of interest to anyone managing first responders to emergencies and in the helping professions generally. However, like Davidson and his problems with research applications, the mention of ‘compassion meditation’ is likely to be seen by the finance controllers and others in executive positions as mumbo jumbo.

A finding of Davidson’s research generally is that changes in brain chemical/electrical activity tend to persist. We can become a more compassionate, empathetic people, but generally people prefer to stay as they are and are supported by social networks to do so.

4 thoughts on “Compassion, empathy, feelings, emotion”

  1. First responders need to stay cool, make hard decisions re who to treat first (which may mean allowing some people to die who may have survived if treated first.) They also need to be able to live with the decisions they make and the horrors they see.
    I couldn’t understand all that was said in the first read but it seems to go well beyond the common understanding of empathy.
    “Tough love” might be used to describe the most productive forms of empathy. “Neurotic love” the more damaging forms.

  2. John, my Oxford Australian Dictionary defines empathy as ‘the power of identifying oneself mentally with (and so fully comprehending ) a person or object of contemplation’.

    I think the word mentally is important, as it can include feeling as well as cognition. But empathy, so defined, does not imply that you do anything to help.

    Compassion is a different concept which includes empathy, and as defined here, includes the desire to help.

    How it works out in practice depends on the circumstances, a point made by Davidson. The binary of “tough” and “neurotic” love is perhaps simplistic and incomplete.

    What occurs to me is that the Buddhist concept of compassion seems to go towards overcoming the issue, well-known amongst emergency first responders, of personal trauma suffered by the responder.

    It also seems that the necessary psychological skills, both cognitive and emotional, required in those situations can be taught and learnt.

  3. Brian: Misinformed compassion may actually damage the person someone is trying to help.
    Empathy may help someone manipulate people. (Empathy does not automatically have a moral dimension.)

  4. John, yes, with human beings there is always a possible nether side. Manipulation and exploitation of others, interfering in lives, imposing cultural values in the name of helping are all possible.

    I’d say, though, that Davidson’s focus is on the potential we all have for personal growth and improvement in a way that is prosocial, and respects the rights of others.

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