The Neuroscience of Fierce Compassion

Oxford’s Fierce Compassion – Series of Oxford University Student Insights to the Skoll World Forum 2016.

Ellen K gives her perspective on the Skoll World Forum seminar session ‘The Neuroscience of Fierce Compassion’.

Some suggest that compassion is the thing that makes us human and thrive as a species.   Melina Uncapher Assistant Professor of Neurology, cialis University of California at San Francisco; CEO and Co-Founder, Institute for Applied Neuroscience, served as our travel guide in a trip through the compassion in the brain.   We actually looked inside Physician Dr. Larry Brilliant’s amazing brain via fMRI technology and visualization.  In fact, through this spectacular technology, those being studied are able to look into their own minds as well!   We talked about various systems and circuits and networks that support our human ability to express compassion and empathy.

We then met two additional researchers:  Jamil Zaki Assistant Professor of Psychology, Stanford University, who provided his definitions of empathy in terms of experience sharing, perspective taking, and motivation. He discussed “feeling” someone else’s pain and seeing activation in various parts of the brain.   He also talked about how people with autism also show emotional empathy.  He walked us through the way that researchers use fMRI technology to study how emotional empathy is studied. He asked the question: How do we allocate or take control of our empathy?  In his research he found that people who believe they can grow their empathy, are more willing to learn how to empathize better and he questioned whether limits on empathy have to be there.

We also were introduced to Dr. Adam Waytz Associate Professor of Management and Organizations, Kellogg School of Management spoke on the limits on empathy and perspective taking.   He believes that compassion is the answer, but he suggests our capacity for cognitive empathy or perspective taking may be limited by our ability to put ourselves in another person’s shoes and our ability to remember.  He says that the more empathy that we spend on one person, the less that we can spend on another.   We can also have limits of empathy or what amounts to compassion fatigue.  In other words, social entrepreneurs, care givers, etc. can be fatigued after a day of attending to the needs of others, and can be physically fatigued or feel emotional depletion.  In the question and answer section, he also talked about the importance of hearing the human voice in activating our emotions and that sometimes technology communications without the voice can strip this out.   And, he talked about the difficulty of getting into the mind of another person and the difficulty of being able to perceive things as another person does as a challenge that we often face.

Taddy Blecher CEO, Community and Individual Development Association, is a social entrepreneur who is working with youth in South Africa to take children out of poverty and to help children build their self-esteem, self-development, and to show them that they are loved.  He demonstrates through the educational programmes that he provides to children — that compassion, love, caring, and feelings and the self are so vital to the education system.  And, he underlined that we must develop our brain not just along one line, but to develop our thinking about the whole person.  He also believes that compassion, caring, love and feelings are central to bringing forth the potential in every human being.

This interview series was spectacular! Truly we learned from a new wave of researchers and social entrepreneurs using the methods of social psychology and cognitive neuroscience to challenge our views on empathy and compassion.