Brooklynites, Bike Accidents and the Science of Compassion

What's critical to compassion is that it unites this understanding of others' distress with the motivation to alleviate that distress. Helping behavior further requires the cognitive and behavioral resources to act on that motivation.
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Written by Cade McCall, Ph.D.

About 11 years ago I was hit by a car while bicycling through Brooklyn, N.Y. When I returned to consciousness I was lying in an intersection, blood streaming from a damaged hand, head, and knee. A small group of people had materialized out of the seemingly-empty street. They must have been walking past or eating in the nearby diner. Whatever the case, each was focused on a separate task. One woman was calling an ambulance, one guy was diverting oncoming traffic, still another person was talking the driver down, and one guy was kneeling beside me. My first thought was that I should take a nap. In my delirium it seemed like the best option. I was closing my eyes and fading off when I heard the kneeling guy shouting at me, "Hey, hey, hey, buddy. Talk to me for a second. Been watching the World Series?"

"Yeah, kind of," I said. As much as I wanted to sleep, it seemed unwise to ignore this big, burly and somewhat threatening Brooklynite.

"You like the Yankees?" It was a loaded question in the fall of 2001.

"Yeah," I said, "I went to high school with Jeter." (Note that I can drop names even while going into shock.)

"Well, well, well! We got a VIP. This guy knows all the players."

"Too bad he don't know how to wear a helmet," interjected the woman with the phone. And on they went with a series of jibes that, while pissing me off, stopped from drifting off. They were giving me shit to keep me alive. When the ambulance arrived, the banter continued: "What happened here?" "What the hell does it look like happened here?" And so on.

I guess it's always nice to see strangers help each other, but being the recipient of that help can be profound. That particular incident dealt a critical blow to my youthful cynicism about human nature. I wasn't surprised that people were attracted to the accident (we all love a spectacle) and or even that they were sympathetic (most of us cringe at a gruesome injury). Instead what amazed me and what still moves me when I tell the story is how quickly and strategically that group of people took action. They were coordinated, aggressive, slightly obnoxious, and totally on top of the situation.

Nowadays I'm a researcher in a social neuroscience department where we study the neural and psychological underpinnings of social thought, feelings, and behavior. One of the things we want to know is how the mind and brain creates compassion and how compassion, in turn, leads to helping. As others have long argued, compassion relies upon multiple abilities. On one level, you need an understanding of what others are thinking or feeling. You can't help me if you don't know that I need help. Along those lines, psychologists and social neuroscientists have made major strides in showing how we infer others' thoughts and feelings. Those mechanisms allow us to feel empathic or sympathetic for someone in pain. But as psychologists such as Daniel Batson or Nancy Eisenberg have long argued, empathy and sympathy are not an automatic route to helping. You might feel the pain of a bicyclist splayed out on the road, but you're not necessarily going to approach that person. Instead, you might run away from all the blood and the gore or simply freeze and do nothing. Empathy, after all, can be painful in its own right. So what's critical to compassion is that it unites this understanding of others' distress with the motivation to alleviate that distress. Helping behavior further requires the cognitive and behavioral resources to act on that motivation.

If we reconsider my bike accident in terms of this machinery, those passersby had to perceive my distress, overcome their possible revulsion to it, be motivated to help me, and act strategically to make a meaningful difference in the situation. Each of those steps relied on a set of psychological, physiological and neural processes. One goal of the science of compassion is to better understand those processes. A further goal is to find ways to train ourselves to be more compassionate. Labs around the world are taking up that charge with research that develops and tests different training programs, programs that are heavily inspired by the long-existing work of Eastern and Western contemplatives, clinicians, and philosophers. In time we should have an idea of how much we can increase compassion, how best we can do so, and what those changes look like in the mind, brain, and body. The first round of evidence is encouraging, but we've got a long way to go.

Fortunately, the science of compassion is growing fast. Last month, Stanford University's Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education put on a conference that brought together researchers from a broad array of backgrounds including economics, health care, evolutionary theory, biology, psychology and neuroscience. Although the picture of compassion that emerged was complex, some things are clear. Compassion is good for our health, our happiness, our society and our species. More broadly, human survival is not just about the fittest individuals fending for themselves, but about our interdependence on each other. So the good news is that despite what one might glean from watching reality television or the news coverage of the U.S. elections, kindness is just as much a part of our nature as lust, violence, or greed.

Further reading:

Batson, C. D. (2009). These things called empathy: eight related but distinct phenomena. In: Decety, J. & Ickes, W. (eds.) The Social Neuroscience of Empathy. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Benhardt, B., & Singer, T. (2012). The neural basis of empathy. Annual Reviews of Neuroscience, 35: 1-23.

Eisenberg, N. (2000). Emotion, regulation, and moral development. Annual Reviews of Psychology, 51: 665-697.

Klimecki, O. M., Leiberg, S., Lamm, C., & Singer, T. (2012). Functional neural plasticity and associated changes in positive affect after compassion training. Cerebral Cortex.
Klimecki, O., & Singer, T. (2012). Empathic distress fatigue rather than compassion fatigue? Integrating findings from empathy research in psychology and social neuroscience. In B. Oakley, A. Knafo, G. Madhavan, & D. S. Wilson (Eds.), Pathological altruism (pp. 368-383). New York: Oxford University Press.


Cade McCall, Ph.D., is a research scientist at the Max Plank Institute's Department of Social Neuroscience. He studies the psychology and neuroscience of social embodiment, focusing on the nonverbal expression of affect and affiliation during social interaction. McCall specializes in the use of virtual environments and digital body tracking for studying social cognition and behavior.

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