The Science of Compassion

Science and technology have the potential to profoundly impact the human landscape, taking us either to the deepest, darkest valleys of human suffering or to the highest peaks of human potential. What will stop us from choosing the former is the cultivation of compassion.
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It is indeed a paradox that so many from what are considered developing countries wish to come to the West, where we have an epidemic of depression, isolation, and loneliness, while the U.S. alone consumes 25 percent of the world's resources. However, it is often these "third-world" cultures that offer some of the most profound wisdom and insights that have been garnered over thousands of years, while our own history spans a few hundred years.

We have been blessed in the West with the persistence of a number of individuals who brought the teachings of mindfulness from the East and a number of scientists who, over the last 30 years, have empirically studied its effects. Many have experienced the profound effects of nonjudgmental reflection and the ability to more fully live in the present moment. By doing so, they have decreased their stress, become more efficient, and hopefully gained insight into attachment and delusion.

Mindfulness can have many benefits -- especially in our modern society, where we are constantly deluged by information and distractions and are living at a pace far beyond what our evolution designed us for. While the mindful path has the amazing ability to result in transformation, this journey is one that is taken alone. It is also one that can be perilous, because without insight and wisdom, it can be in and of itself an isolating, self-absorbing, and narcissistic exercise.

While mindfulness can do many positive things, it alone cannot offer what, at our deepest core, we seek, for that is not an inward journey but an outward journey of transcendence. We seek to be connected to what is outside ourselves and connects us with every other. It is through compassion that this transcendence is possible: the recognition of another's suffering and the desire to alleviate such suffering.

Suffering remains a part of the human experience. Everyone, either in the past, present, or future, has or is going to suffer. Yet many of us, instead of sharing our suffering and being vulnerable, try to present a mask to the outside world and pretend that we have our act together, and that we don't have fears and anxieties. Often this is hidden by false bravado (e.g., displaying one's financial or academic success), by criticizing others, or by the accumulation of objects. These actions do nothing to end our suffering. We feed ourselves with that which offers no sustenance.

When scientists first started studying meditation and compassion, it was with Tibetan monks, using electroencephalography (EEG). The instrument of measurement was an EEG electrode cap worn on the head. The monks laughed when they saw the caps. The scientist at first thought the monks were laughing at the cap because it looked funny, but that was not the case. A monk explained, "Everyone knows that compassion isn't in the head. It's in the heart." Indeed, it is through the heart that we are connected with others.

The work of my collaborators at Stanford University and that of many scientists around the world has now demonstrated that, in great part, the monk was correct. As an example, we now know that one of the greatest causes of sudden cardiac death is due to chronic decreased vagal tone leading to an increase in heart-rate variability. Other research has shown that the secondary effect is elevated levels of the stress hormone cortisol, a decrease in immune function, and inflammation.

The vagus nerve arises in the brainstem and innervates many organs in the body, being especially represented in the heart. Through a compassion practice, one can increase one's vagal tone and down-regulate such arousal. By doing so, one becomes calmer, decreasing one's heart rate and increasing one's empathy and social connectedness. Even as little as two weeks of a compassion practice can positively improve biological markers of stress and immune function.

Amazingly, when one studies the effects of compassion on the brain, one sees that those areas of the brain associated with reward (for food, for money, and for sex) dramatically increase in metabolism. An example is a study done by my collaborators William T. Harbaugh, Ulrich Mayr, and Daniel R. Burghart, who demonstrated such an increase in metabolism. Both when receiving money and giving money to charity, the pleasure centers in their brain were activated. The same effect occurred when they had no choice in the gift. Another interesting study by David Buss showed that, in looking for mates, though men value physical attractiveness and women value a stable provider, far beyond any other trait, both sexes value kindness and compassion in a partner. More germane in discussing our modern age is a recently published study demonstrating that when girls are presented with a stressor, they have a significantly stronger release of oxytocin (known as the "cuddle" or "love" hormone because of its association with bonding behavior) when speaking in person or over the phone to their mother rather than when texting her. There is ever-increasing data that show that when we care for others and feel close to them, we improve our own health and even our longevity. We are designed to care and to connect. By helping others we help ourselves.

I submit to you that the suffering or pain that each of us experiences is a manifestation of wounds of the heart. It is our lot that each of us will suffer wounds of the heart. Most of these wounds are superficial and heal quickly, but there are some that are deep and never heal and continue to cause pain throughout our existence on this Earth. It is not that we will not have wounds, as it is our lot, and it is what makes us human. What is important, and what defines our humanity, is what we do when we feel the pain of these wounds. Ultimately, these reactions will determine the fate of our collective humanity.

The chain of causation resulting in war, poverty, global warming, ecological catastrophe, and the myriad afflictions of our species is not an external problem but a problem of the human heart. While science and technology offer immense hope for a variety of conditions, until we focus these extraordinary tools on the afflictions of the heart, our species is doomed.

Many quote Darwin, implying that survival of the fittest means the survival of the strongest and most ruthless. Yet in fact what he really meant, as Robert Sapolsky at Stanford, Dacher Keltner at UC Berkeley, and others have discussed (and there is now every bit of scientific evidence to support it), is that it is survival of the kindest and most cooperative that ensures the survival of a species in the long term -- in particular, the human species.

Unfortunately, technology has evolved far faster than the evolution of our species. Many of us are isolated and feel alone. We know that each of us is suffering, but let me ask you: Have you worked next to someone and knew nothing about them? How many times have you been in pain and felt alone and isolated? That is the failure of science, technology, and our modern society. Science and technology have the potential to profoundly impact the human landscape, taking us either to the deepest, darkest valleys of human suffering or to the highest peaks of human potential. What will stop us from choosing the former is the cultivation of compassion. It is the recognition that our family and our tribe is not just our mother, father, aunt, uncle, sister or brother, and that our home is not just what we can see immediately around us, but that every human is part of one family, and that every part of earth is our home. That is what will result in our transcendence and take us to that far shore, where each of us recognizes that the other is his brother and that, in fact, the world is our home, where there are no barriers that separate us but powerful forces that bind us.

I believe that we are now at a tipping point where the recognition that love and compassion, as His Holiness the Dalai Lama says, "are no longer luxuries if our species is to survive, but necessities."

For more by James R. Doty, M.D., click here.

For more on mindful living, click here.

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