I've never considered myself a compassionate person. Helpful, yes. Reliable and fair, certainly. But I can also hold a grudge. I sometimes snap at my children. I've been known to get angry at drivers on the highway and argue with my husband when I should listen instead. I was surprised, then, when I recently learned that the human brain has evolved for compassion, and that compassion affects individuals on a physiological level. Like warmth from a loved one's touch, compassion changes the heart rate and brain activity. It fosters a sense of security while putting us in a position to serve others. But what, exactly, is it? And is compassion something we can cultivate?
Compassion is broadly construed as an emotion that occurs when witnessing another person's suffering and that generates a desire to relieve that suffering. Compassion, I've learned, is not a sentimental response to the outside world. For it is fostered by self-efficacy, a belief in one's own ability to cope with a given situation. This has implications for public health, which addresses large, seemingly intractable problems. SPH Senior Associate Dean Sharon Kardia explains that public health training helps us "to see new needs, opportunities, ways to be of service." It offers real-life opportunities to make a difference and relieve suffering caused by natural disasters, poverty, and disease. Critically, compassion also has an inner dimension. It is more likely to be found in individuals who cultivate internal stability—who direct feelings of compassion and kindness towards themselves—and are then more likely to feel compassion toward others. Perhaps cultivating compassion in one's day-to-day life trains us for big-picture ideas and ideals.
Contemporary compassion research is multidisciplinary, drawing from neurology, physiology, and contemplative traditions. Buddhism, in particular, has a long history of training the mind for compassion, so it provides a useful starting point. In Buddhist teaching, compassion refers to the wish for all beings to be free from suffering. Suffering is understood to be universal: It does not involve pity. Instead, to cultivate compassion, practitioners are first taught to contemplate the nature of their own suffering and to develop emotional stability within themselves. Kardia believes such self-awareness and inner stability are central to public health, which has roots in a basic exchange of understanding: "I know pain; I can see you're in pain. I know illness; I hear that you're ill."
Some meditation practices attempt to cultivate compassion through loving-kindness exercises in which a person begins by directing feelings of compassion towards the self, then gradually extends those feelings outward to loved ones, adversaries and all beings. Though such practices draw on Buddhist tradition, they represent just a small portion of Buddhist teaching, and one need not be a Buddhist to benefit from them. I had been meditating sporadically for two years when this particular exercise was introduced to me. I tried it with the help of a CD, a man's voice guiding me: "May I be happy, may I be peaceful, may I be liberated." I extended these wishes to myself and others until the guide took a difficult turn: "May my enemies be happy, may they be well, may they be peaceful." My chest muscles tightened. As visions of "enemies" past and present entered my mind, I felt the presence of negative emotion: agitation, anger, fear. Obviously, this wasn't compassion.
I decided to back off and extend loving-kindness to myself first. Even this felt awkward. This compassionate stance served as a departure from the harshness of my usual inner dialogue, which typically began each morning when I woke to chronic foot and hip pain. I'm too young for this, I'd think. When one of my kids was having a bad morning—say my six-year-old was falling apart over the knots in her hair—I would experience a flash of self-pity, often accompanied by a vision of my husband working productively in his office. During the day, I'd offer myself "constructive" criticism: Perhaps my college writing students would liven up if I told more jokes. My e-mails should be more concise. The hole in my boots needed repair.
Individually, there was nothing remarkable in these thoughts, but cumulatively, they made personal experience an arena of judgment and resistance. Loving-kindness helped to shift my orientation. For example, when I felt foot pain, the practice of loving-kindness called up images of my mother taking care of me when I was sick as a child and replaced the image of my mother with an image of myself. The acknowledgement of pain and that some things are hard for me was soothing. It was also adaptive: I could identify my emotional needs and take steps to respond to them, almost as if I were parenting myself. One morning, when my daughter's frustration brought her to tears, I experienced empathy and a greater sense of patience. I know pain; I can see you're in pain.
With persistent practice, this way of responding becomes easier, almost habitual. It occurs even with my adversaries. When our neighbor recently transplanted trees along the chain-link fence that divides our backyards, blocking sunlight for the vegetable garden we've had for years, I felt the old tightness in my chest. I ruminated the whole day, but later, out on a walk, I recalled hearing that she had been ill. May she be free from bodily strife. I passed her front yard, well-maintained, with a fairy door—surprisingly whimsical—just beside the human-sized front door. May she be happy. May she be liberated.
This change in my experience likely has physiological underpinnings. Loving-kindness meditations have been found to shift resting brain activity to the left frontal lobes, increasing one's sense of well-being and social connection. A recent study headed by researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Germany asked participants to view short video sequences depicting others in distress. Some of the study participants had attended a compassion training group. The training included a six-hour course in which participants learned about and practiced loving-kindness meditation. Compared to controls, the individuals who received this compassion training reported more positive experiences and exhibited stronger activations in brain regions associated with love and affiliation.
Loving affiliation is a central factor in another key element of compassion—the sense of safety. The implications for public health are significant, particularly given that practitioners are expected to work for the benefit of all, for individuals who are relative strangers, and in situations that can cause emotional distress. Kardia adds that "a sense of security doesn't merely put us into the position to serve others, it motivates us to serve others. It opens the way." One place to begin studying the neurology of compassion is cranial nerve X, also called the vagus nerve. Vagus comes from the Latin for "wandering."
This nerve runs from the brain stem all the way to the intestines. Along the way, it branches to the lung, heart, stomach, liver, spleen, and pancreas. Its main function is to exert a parasympathetic, or "rest and digest," influence on our bodies. When our parasympathetic activity is high, the heart rate slows and digestive activity increases. This is accompanied by feelings of calm and safety, rather than fear and vigilance. Researchers suggest that a sense of safety supports compassionate behavior.
The goal, however, is not to blunt negative emotions or create a false sense of security. Rather, "vagal flexibility" enables us to respond appropriately in a variety of contexts. In certain situations, for example, the vagus nerve can withdraw its activity—allowing us to experience bursts of fear, anger, or distress—before reactivating its parasympathetic influence and restoring a sense of calm. Negative emotions such as fear can serve a useful purpose by alerting us to danger—though it's important that we not hold onto that fear even after the danger has passed. Researchers hypothesize that practicing compassion can help us reactivate the parasympathetic response and access feelings of security. With regard to my neighbor's trees and my vegetable garden, I wondered if vagal flexibility was at play. Was I overusing my threat-oriented system before parasympathetic influence returned?
In an often-cited paper on the evolutionary roots of compassion, researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, cite evidence that "feeling able to cope effectively with the situation at hand is central to the elicitation of compassion. If one does not feel able to cope—psychologically or physically—then one is more likely to feel distress and anxiety." This rings true to my own experience. When my son was an infant, he experienced an intussusception, a condition in which part of the intestine suddenly slips—or "telescopes"—into an adjacent part of the intestine. After his life-saving surgery, my husband and I worked to soothe and calm him. This was not a happy time, but we felt connected and capable. Compassionate. This is perhaps not surprising given that the researchers from Berkeley cite multiple authors who argue for the "vulnerable offspring argument," which posits that human compassion evolved "to help raise vulnerable offspring to the age of viability (thus ensuring that genes are more likely to be replicated)."
Compassion has survival value. It motivates us to nurture our children, as well as ourselves and others. Kardia adds, "It's in the reflective mechanism or the reflective arc, really, between the inner 'I know pain' and the outer 'I will work to reduce pain and suffering' that our life purpose grows wings to become public health researchers, professionals, practitioners, and that changes careers into vocations." If it's true that feeling able to cope and act meaningfully fosters compassion, then public health may help foster a more compassionate global community.
Sara Talpos is a writer based in Ann Arbor. She holds an MFA in creative writing from U-M.
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