The science and practise of compassion: Why we don’t need to invoke spirituality to understand and benefit from compassionate action…

Last week I wrote about how to incorporate the basics of mindfulness into your life. I also promised a follow-up on compassion, but rather than to another ‘Dummies guide’, I thought I’d take a stab at both the science behind compassion and some of the things we can do in our everyday lives to cultivate it.

Baby Elephant

I’d also like to challenge the often entrenched notion that compassion is the domain of religion and spirituality…

But let’s start with a clear definition. Although I’ve said this before, compassion is simply being able to see the world, consistently, from another’s point of view, and to understand that he or she is equally deserving of love, kindness and respect. Compassion is understanding that as humans, we’re a lot more alike than we are different, and that we have the same fundamental needs. Being compassionate lets us let go of potentially destructive emotions, like anger, and to forgive others, not for their actions, but as people. This viewpoint might be encouraged (emphasis on the might) in some religious and spiritual practices, but is definitely not the product of religion. More on this idea in a bit.

I’ve already talked a fair bit about the political (here) and sociological benefits of compassion (here and here) so, instead, let’s look at some of the individual benefits. Over the last 15 years or so, psychologists and neuroscientists (like Paul Gilbert) have focused their attention on understanding compassion by examining neurological activity during compassionate thought and meditation. Encouraged (interestingly) by the Dalai Lama, some particularly compelling observations have been made. Unlike other, simpler emotions (like fear, anxiety and anger) that originate in the limbic system (mid-brain) and evolved as ‘warning systems’ to assist survival when faced with danger, compassion stems from the left prefrontal cortex, one of the more recently evolved areas of the brain. Among other things, the prefrontal cortex is responsible for many executive functions, including logical reasoning, mood regulation and inhibition, and (possibly) aspects of the sense of self. Although we’ve got a lot to learn about brain function, at this stage it also appears that the left prefrontal cortex is activated when we experience ‘positive’ emotions and the right when we feel more ‘negative’ emotions. This corresponds with a downregulation of left prefrontal cortical activity during episodes of clinical depression. Interestingly, as an opponent-process system, activation of the left prefrontal cortex appears to inhibit limbic system activation (and vice versa), meaning that when we’re feeling compassionate it’s hard to feel angry or frightened, and when we’re feeling angry or frightened it’s very hard to experience compassion. This finding is particularly important, and explains why, when people act violently, they are often incapable of experiencing any understanding for their victims or remorse for their actions.

In other words compassion is different to our base emotions, and doesn’t appear to have evolved as a direct survival mechanism. It might have evolved as a mechanism for enhancing interconnectedness among individuals and groups, acting a secondary survival mechanism, albeit via a much more complex set of behaviours (certainly a lot more complex than thumping something or running away from them – the intended result of the primary mid-brain emotions). In fact, it appears that we’ve evolved some remarkable neurites known as mirror neurons that activate when we see others suffering. These neurons allow us to actually feel another’s pain or distress, and motivate our desire to help them (otherwise known as empathy). This sort of system is particularly useful for encouraging collaboration between individuals because we become uncomfortable when we see people suffering and are motivated to reduce suffering and (potentially) to enhance happiness in others. Unlike compassion, empathy is often limited to one-on-one interactions. We feel empathic to those we care about (usually those within our ‘tribe’). Compassion, on the other hand, is more widespread and allows us to feel understanding and empathy toward those that we don’t know, something that takes a lot more effort for most people.

From a wellbeing perspective, those who report regular feelings of compassion towards themselves and others also report substantially greater feelings of meaning and satisfaction, and greater overall happiness and wellbeing. Likewise, they are substantially less likely to experience ‘mental illnesses’, including depression and anxiety. Further (as I mentioned above), in those who practise compassion regularly, there is reduced limbic system activation under stress, meaning that they are less likely to experience anger, fear or anxiety in situations that would normally invoke these feelings. Put together, the practise of compassion tends to result in a more stable, robust system, and a happier more fulfilling life.

I mentioned above that, typically, compassion has been the domain of religion and spiritualism. By itself, this isn’t a problem, especially if people who practice within these belief systems are encouraged to act compassionately to others. Unfortunately, however, this division has resulted in three regrettable outcomes. The first is a level of mysticism surrounding compassion: while the average person is capable of deep compassion, the hijacking of compassion by religion means that there is little or no instruction in everyday society for its development or practise. Second, many of the religious practices that preach compassion do so with caveats – compassion is reserved for believers, with condemnation for those who act outside of their belief system. This pseudo-compassion is evidenced, for example, in ‘right for life’ campaigners who routinely condemn others for their actions and who (in extreme cases) can justify taking a life to further their beliefs. Last, the spiritual hold on compassion has resulted in a raft of pseudoscientific bunkum in which inaccurate or outrageous claims are made in order to push a particular agenda. Often well-meaning individuals unwittingly further these agendas by pushing these ideas without any critique, and so we get the perpetuation of homeopathy, reiki, faith healing, and other fictions. When mixed up with talk about compassion, it loses mainstream credibility by becoming yet another ‘new-age’ hoax.

Compassionate action really doesn’t need these attachments. Any and all of us can act compassionately with some very simple knowledge and actions. First, we need to understand that compassion evaporates easily when we experience anger, hatred and violence, and alongside fear and anxiety. As such, when we’re angry or frustrated, it’s very hard to see things from another’s perspective. So we can start by recognising when we’re feeling ‘negative’ emotions and, instead of acting on them (even though the urge to act is strong), taking a step back, breathing, and attempting to view the situation from another viewpoint. Putting ourselves in someone else’s shoes, when we’re feeling hurt or hard done by, can help us realise that we’re not the centre of the universe and that our feelings aren’t necessarily justified. This is a great step toward understanding and compassion. Second, learning to view those around us with increased tolerance will go a long way. Next time you’re on a crowded train, or driving on a busy road, remember that the other people around you aren’t there for the sole purpose of annoying and obstructing you. They’re all people, just like yourself, trying to get to or from work or home, each with his or her own dreams, hopes and disappointments. All of them have experienced love, loss, pain, joy, elation, despair and boredom, just like you. And if they act stupidly or thoughtlessly, they, like you, are probably seeing the world as a series of obstacles. Ignore their actions and focus on the people underneath. By taking a compassionate viewpoint and letting this influence your actions, you’re demonstrating (to yourself if no-one else) that we’re all in this together.

So, instead of surrounding compassion and compassionate acts with pseudoscience and religio-spiritual hooha, let’s encourage the scientific understanding of compassion and use this knowledge to encourage more widespread practise. A compassionate world is a world in which violence, intolerance and hatred are replaced with understanding and forgiveness. That sounds pretty damn good to me…

5 Replies to “The science and practise of compassion: Why we don’t need to invoke spirituality to understand and benefit from compassionate action…”

  1. I love the final paragraph of this wholly delightful piece. In two sentences it seems you have encapsulated the teachings of a bloke named Jesus, who would have no truck with the priests and the associated hoo-ha of the day, and whose philosophies of compassion in their raw form have survived a couple of millennia already.

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